The D&D themed short film Morning is Broken has a power that long outlasts its 12 minute runtime. It comes from what the painting world refers to as “negative space,” the canvas around the painting, or in this case the many things left unsaid by Morning is Broken. The paths not taken, the stories not told, and the possibilities never explored.
In the film, Izzy’s breakup unwinds her roleplay group, leaving the viewer to watch her pick up the pieces of her real and fantastical life. On Earth, she is adrift in a cluttered apartment, her friend group broken and her resolve untested. In the RPG game that she and her ex abandoned, her hero Morwenna Morningstar sits idle as the kingdom she was meant to save crumbles around her. Her party is dead without her, a necromancer running ragged over the land, and detritus collects on her dormant body. When I said recently that I wanted RPG content to escape the shadow of raucous comedy, Morning is Broken is the kind of story I was looking for.
The thesis of this film, and the thoughts it engenders in the viewer, owe their staying power to the emotional investment that we place in RPGs. Anyone who has gotten past the lazy Monty Python references stage of D&D understands that there is a kind of genuine vulnerability and emotional investment that comes with longterm roleplay. You learn things about yourself through the characters you play. As any actor understands, you can only portray an emotion accurately if you allow yourself to really feel it and, even if just a little bit, make it real. Morning is Broken is a short film composed of genuine pain, introspection, and beauty that I hope more of you will be able to experience soon.
I talked with Chloe Baldwin, the executive producer, and D. Mathew Beyer, the film’s writer and co-director, and found that they had just as much to uncover as their explorative short implied. Chloe is no stranger to the glorious if neglected zero budget gutter that I have learned to call home. Her pandemic short Human Resource is an all too present look at the costs of corporatized philosophy. I never saw her puppet-casted version of the Tempest, a fact I’m never quite going to get over, but it’s mostly made up for by the cult-themed thriller The Long Con that she had a minor but crucial role in. Her Shakespeare-inspired web-series Like What You Like is the kind of reinterpretation of the bard that is infused with all the comprehension and none of the pretense that “modernized” retellings of As You Like It always seem to bypass, intentionally or not.
Drew is a writer who has experience in most roles on a film set, most recently as assistant editor on documentaries The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show, now on Peacock, and Turn Every Page, recently released on Amazon Prime. He came into this film cognizant of the fact that RPGs are much more than just games. Rather, a campaign can be a transformative human experience that has a lot to teach us if we are willing. Real life in the United States feels more often like an exercise in disempowerment, and there is something truly worthy in the search for actualization that roleplay can offer. These roles can be healing or serious, and players often take them very seriously, even when they did not initially intend to.
Morning is Broken was written in 2018, but time and other duties left the crew discouraged from trying to complete it. Having known one another in college, the two lived in Chicago until April of 2021 when Chloe announced she was moving at the end of May and wanted to make a capstone project to memorialize her time in the city. Flying into action, they shot the film in a nearby preserve, her apartment, and Rewired, a local coffee shop.
A turnaround like that is pretty much unheard of in filmmaking, and wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of their crew. The forest action scenes only have sound because of Rosebud Harrison, the PA, boom operator, and sound recordist. John Miller mixed their sound and contributed music from his project The Holy Dark. Paul Stafford was the co-director, director of photography, and provided original music. Post-production took a while to complete, but Morning is Broken premiered in Seattle in January of 2023 and has been making festival rounds since then.
I can’t get past the feelings that this movie evokes in me. The yearslong friendships that ended when a campaign stops. The adventures not completed and mysteries unsolved. There are real pieces of me that will never see their dawn, because of moves, or relationships, or scheduling fell beneath the guillotine. I’ve left demons free to stalk the soldiers of the Somme. I’ve left kingdoms to molder because my work schedule changed. I’ve walked away from men and women that I spent years building up. It would be disingenuous to say that no part of me went with them. The feelings that Morning is Broken brings up are as real as any game, which is to say that they have all the power and importance that you choose to give them.
Morning is Broken is the kind of story that very well could support a much larger narrative. In fact, the team is in talks to conceptualize and, if we’re lucky, adapt the film into something longer, but I’m not sure they realize the tantalizing verisimilitude this leaves the film’s message with. Right now it, like its protagonist, is in a state of dormancy with infinite potential. There is so much unrealized possibility sitting in front of Morwenna, Chloe, and Drew that it leaves the audience with a wellspring of unresolved energy.
For now, all we can do is imagine the heights of what might be tomorrow, if the right people are put in the right place. I can’t say where this team will go, only that I’ll be watching whatever piece of paper finds their pen upon it. To step away from my usual verbose pretense, this shit is good and I need more of it. When Morning is Broken becomes available for general release, I have every confidence that you’ll feel the same.
John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/