By Gina Beach
Adding to an impressive lineup of achievements, an Ohio University student-produced film has taken top honors at the Las Vegas International Film Festival.
"'The Dying Western' was something we're all proud of," said Michael Kortlander, director and co-writer of piece, which recently was named Best Student Short at the festival. "Every other movie we've made was a learning device that set us up. And now we've been validated for the time spent working on it."
The film developed out of last year's Media Arts 419: Narrative Production class, which calls for students to cast, direct, shoot and edit short films. A 20-person crew led by Kortlander and two other seniors in the Honors Tutorial College students -- Wes Cronk and John Veleta -- produced the technically demanding piece.
The plot is set in 1960s Hollywood, where a two-bit actor dreams of becoming the next John Wayne while playing dying extras in westerns. To prepare for his roles, he fastidiously practices at home, faking his death on a near-nightly basis. But when his wife, June, is diagnosed with cancer, Howard becomes convinced that she is trying to "out-die" him.
Kortlander adapted the script with Kansas City-based author Tim Macy after reading Macy's short stories online. The first story Kortlander had wanted to adapt was already being made into a film, so Macy suggested adapting another one of his pieces, "The Good Nights, When My Father Died." The two developed, and have continued, an online writing partnership.
Associate Professor Frederick Lewis, the instructor of 419 and head of the Video Production sequence, said he thinks "The Dying Western" is a culmination of the efforts of previous 419 students who raised the bar, creating bigger, more elaborate projects.
The success of the film is a big reason why this year's full-length feature 419 project, "Trailerpark,"was given the green light, he said.
"There are hundreds of student films out there, but precious few are so well done from start to finish, especially at the undergraduate level," Lewis said. "'The Dying Western' is superior to most of the work I've seen done by graduate film students."
Veleta, the film's director of photography, is one of six film students in the HTC. He plans to move to Los Angeles after graduation to pursue cinematography and led the camera and lighting crews to achieve Kortlander's vision.
"You just get that rush of being high on adrenalin and having to make decisions all the time," he said of their block shoot, when they spent nine days filming during spring break in Cleveland.
The challenge of recreating Los Angeles in the 1960s fell to production designer Lauren Malizia. The senior video production major found props in thrift stores, brought in appliances and oversaw the creation of set pieces.
The film's $15,000 budget -- large by student-film standards but low by professional standards -- was raised primarily though many small donations from friends and family in addition to a $6,000 Ohio University Student Enhancement Grant and $500 from the School of Media Arts and Studies.
Ohio University alumnus Mike Mihm played the lead.
"We had casting challenges because we had old and young characters -- and they had to look like a family. These were not traditional student-actor roles," Kortlander said.
Cronk, described by Lewis as a "post-production powerhouse," took on the roles of editor, sound designer and visual effects editor. An HTC video production major, he has worked on more than 50 film projects at Ohio University.
"A lot of people make their biggest movie senior year and they might have a great film but no time to work with it," Cronk said. "[This past] fall and winter we spent dozens of hours fine tuning things: packaging for festivals, cuts for festivals, it's a huge process."
"The Dying Western" will be screened Saturday morning at the Appalachian Film Festival in Huntsville, W. Va., where it is a finalist in the Young Filmmaker category.
It also will be shown alongside "Trailerpark" at the Lake Placid Film Festival in June. For more information about the film and filmmakers, visit www.thedyingwestern.com.