Private Project



ONCE WAS is an LGBTQ+ short film that asks the question: Is love ever a loss?


Having experienced a tumultuous history as a couple, Kate and Zo reunite a year after their breakup. In a span of a 9-minute film, we learn about their history as a couple: we brush up against the subject of childhood trauma in the character of Kate and learn about Zo's struggle of finding her identity as an immigrant in a new country. Their reunion in ONCE WAS reveals the unavoidable truth: Although their timing was always off — their love was not in vain.


ZO (VERA CHERNY) is a first generation immigrant finding her identity and a sense of belonging in New York City. A graduate of Columbia, she’s dedicated her life to immigration law. She yearns to be free and brave.

An artist to the bone, KATE (AUSTIN HIGHSMITH GARCES) turns everything into art and chaos. She's impulsive, hedonistic, messy and brilliant; and is doing her best to manage her addiction. She's Zos's ex love and a proud owner of a new ukulele shop.

ONCE WAS Website:

    DIRECTOR: Becoming Eddie, Moonbug shows T-Rex Ranch and Blippi (YouTube) / ACTOR: Andi Mack, Indebted, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Drunk History, Future Man, LOVE, Parks and Recreation, CONAN.
    ACTOR: The Americans, Queen of the South, Counterpart, StartUp, For All Mankind, Magnum P.I., Grey's Anatomy
    Director of Photography
    DP: Inside Boxes (A finalist for the 2016 Cannes Short Film Corner), Janet Jackson (mini series), Poetry in America with Elisa New, Never Catch Pigeons: And Eleven More Hard Lessons from Mr. Paul Van Doren, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (Netflix), etc.
    EDITOR: VMA-nominated music video for Marshmello’s Happier, Stargate Origins (MGM), Richard Branson EP’d short film Sides of a Horn; Monstrous (feature starring Christina Ricci).
    PRODUCER / FILM & TV: Like Love, Twelve Days of Christmas, On the Ropes / MUSIC VIDEO: Steve Aoki, Justin Roberts, Warner Bros Music.
    Key Cast
    ACTOR: Dolphin Tale 1 & 2, MTV Scream: The TV Series, SEAL Team, Criminal Minds, CSI: New York, The Rookie, Big Love
    Key Cast
    ACTOR: The Americans, Queen of the South, Counterpart, StartUp, Magnum P.I., Grey's Anatomy
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Drama, Romance, LGBTQ+
  • Runtime:
    11 minutes 11 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    January 3, 2023
  • Production Budget:
    40,512 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Mill Valley Film Festival
    San Rafael, CA
    United States
    October 9, 2023
    World Premiere
    Official Selection
Director Biography - LILAN BOWDEN

LILAN BOWDEN is an Actor / Director / Comedian most notable for her role as “Bex” on Disney Channel’s Emmy nominated show Andi Mack (winner of a GLAAD and Honors Academy Award). Her credits also include Indebted, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Drunk History, Future Man, LOVE, Parks and Recreation, CONAN, and many more.

She is a trained sketch and improv performer from Upright Citizens Brigade Theater LA, currently performing in the monthly show “Asian AF” (now online). Along with her writing partner Wilder Smith, she has written material for Funny or Die, and occasionally performs live under their two-person group “Lilan and Wilder.”

Lilan has directed various commercials, Moonbug shows T-Rex Ranch and Blippi on Youtube, and her directorial debut Becoming Eddie (trailer: has been featured at numerous festivals such as Bentonville Film Festival, CAAMFest Forward, Portland Film Festival and currently at Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

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Director Statement



Vera and I were on a long hike in nature escaping the drudgery of Hollywood and the pandemic for a couple hours when she told me about the script she had written, ONCE WAS. As a seasoned actress, she was tired of Hollywood casting her as the same character over and over, a tough-as-nails Russian archetype. As an artist, she needed more, and wrote a script inspired by a tumultuous relationship of her past. She wanted to assemble a production team of women, and asked if I’d be interested in directing.

I was excited by the idea of bringing to life a female, immigrant, and queer story, as these perspectives don’t get to be seen in media that often, and even more excited to work with a team of all women, which is so rare! But I was personally insecure about directing. I was a comedy director. At that point, I didn’t identify as queer. Was I the right fit? Vera reassured my insecurities, feeling as if I knew her and I knew enough to give honesty and compassion to the script. I didn’t know it at the time, but Vera saw something in me I wasn’t able to see in myself yet. With her reassurance, I signed on.

Vera and I went over the script bit by bit so I could understand her story better. I asked painstakingly annoying questions and she answered all of them with patience and brought me into her world. She shared what it was like to discover feeling electric about a woman for the first time. How much it meant as an immigrant to arrive in America, insecure and lonely, and meet a queer woman who bravely lived her truth, and encouraged her to live hers. How devastating it was for her to realize a relationship that had offered her so much in the beginning could be detrimental in the end, but how much she grew from it.

Then something happened I didn’t expect. I started asking myself questions. One night I woke up and went to my journal and wrote “What is it like to fall in love with a woman?” I didn’t expect my pen to move after that. I didn’t know what I could offer as an answer, but to my surprise, I wrote about times I have been attracted to women in my life, or fantasized about a relationship I longed for, and reflected back on experiences I had that related to Vera’s. That was my first moment of enlightenment that there was more to me than I was willing to let myself see. I was finally beginning to embrace myself as a queer woman.

It took many moments of realization combined, but had it not been for the experience of immersing myself in ONCE WAS, I don’t know how long it might have taken for me to live my authentic truth of being bisexual. For this experience I feel so grateful. Vera’s bravery to put her personal story on paper, and trusting me to bring it to life, in turn gave me courage to see myself more wholly. This is the power of turning our experiences into shareable art. I hope we’re able to continue this ripple effect: the more we as filmmakers can share these personal stories, the more of us can feel safe living our truth.

Lilan Bowden



My name is Vera Cherny. I’m the Writer, Executive Producer and Actor of ONCE WAS, an LGBTQ+ short film that asks the question: IS LOVE EVER A LOSS? I'm also a first-generation immigrant who wants to connect with those audiences who feel like they don’t belong.

From the inception of ONCE WAS, it was crucial to me to not only hire a team comprised of Women, Non-Binary and LGBTQ+ Filmmakers — but to pay every Artist for her/their talent and time. We were fortunate to raise $32K in cash and in-kind contributions through a Crowdfunding Campaign on Seed & Spark. This budget covered our pre-production expenses, cast and crew rates and two days of principal photography in Los Angeles.

The third shoot day took place in New York City, a place that commemorates so many immigrant stories, including my own. That day was funded by my personal budget. It involved two people on location (myself and Director of Photography Michelle Kwong), with Director Lilan Bowden directing remotely. We shot most of our b-roll by the Hudson River, and the heritage of that symbolic place graces our film with its magic.

Part of our in post-production budget (of $3.5K) was funded by a $1,000 To.Get.Her Grant from the Chimaera Project. Now that the film is completed, we’re excited to begin entering festivals.

This project has been a tremendous testament to the passion of all the Women Filmmakers involved. We are proud of both the film and the experience of sisterhood and support on set. And with over 95% of the cast, crew, production and post-production team being Women, it has been a victorious journey of amplifying Women’s and LGBTQ+ voices and talent.

Our additional sites and social media include:

ONCE WAS website:
ONCE WAS on Seed & Spark:
ONCE WAS on IG: @OnceWasFilm (
ONCE WAS on DO WORK Podcast:

Thank you for your consideration of ONCE WAS!

Vera Cherny
EP / Writer / Actor