By Erin Roberts and Kristen Rapin
Finding locations for out-of-town shoots, scheduling actors and signing for insurance on equipment is just part of the routine for a Hollywood producer. But a group of 70 Media Arts and Studies students in the Scripps College of Communication are taking on those jobs and more in Athens.
As part of a unique, two-quarter advanced video projects course, this year's MDIA 419 students are hard at work converting Russell Banks' collection of short stories "Trailerpark" into a feature-length film.
"It's absolutely inspiring to see these kids running around in the freezing weather to make this happen," says Associate Professor Frederick Lewis, who directs the course. "If somebody needs a lighting fixture, they're not walking, they're running, to get it. It's incredible."
Lewis remembers reading "Trailerpark" a few decades ago while living in New England, which is where its stories of small-town America and its residents are based. He later met Banks at a film festival where Lewis was screening a documentary about explorer Rockwell Kent. The two developed a rapport after learning they shared an enthusiasm about the explorer's accomplishments.
In 2007, Lewis learned that HBO had dropped a planned television short series for "Trailerpark," and he approached Banks with the idea that the students in his 419 class could each shoot a different short story from the collection. Banks agreed and gave exclusive rights to the class.
While the class originally planned to shoot separate films, they started toying with the idea of one film because of the pieces' interlocking nature, Lewis said.
Traditionally, the 419 class has divided into five groups, each producing a 30-minute short film. The teams have producers, directors, sound, lighting, editing and actors -- all components of a professional production team. Since 2000, the class has produced 39 short films.
"Each year the projects get better and better," Lewis said. "Because the students continue to excel, it's the right time for a full-length feature and the right project."
As the complexity and quality of the films has increased, so have the budgets.
"Trailerpark" has an estimated budget of $45,000. Fundraising began last summer as students traveled to King's Island and Cedar Point amusement parks to take advantage of fundraising opportunities offered by both. They have also raised additional funds by parking cars during Ohio University basketball games. To date, students have raised nearly $29,000 toward their goal and are waiting to hear back from additional on-campus funding sources.
A group of four students -- then juniors Jeff Bowers, Nick Knittel and Jonny Look, and then sophomore Patrick Mulhlberger -- began developing the 13 short stories into a script last spring and finished it over the summer.
Since then, students have secured equipment donations for various tools, such as high-end professional lighting equipment from Mole Richardson and a rail system and accessories from Zacuto, and worked with Jay Elsea and his family company, Elsea Home Centers, to reach a deal on trailer homes for the set. In addition to renting eight mobile homes and camp sites at Lake Snowden, students bought a ninth trailer that will be set ablaze. The fire safety program at Hocking College will manage the event, which will take place Feb. 14 on Hocking College property.
"As long as we stay more than 50 feet away, it should be a pretty cool weekend," Muhlberger said.
He says the fire team will draw a line in the dirt and that they'll have to shoot their actors behind that line. Later, the crew plans to fake fire light to get close-ups of the actor's faces to complete the scene.
"We're going to have about four cameras going at once and we'll have about 30 minutes to get the shots we need," Muhlberger said of the trailer burning. "It's the second half of our climax, as this trailer burns to the ground. It's our money shot, so we really can't mess this one up."
The students have hired a cast of three undergraduate actors, three Ohio University alumni actors, six union actors -- including four Screen Actors Guild members and two Actors's Equity members -- and an 8-year-old Athens girl. The film will also utilize local residents for minor roles.
Most of the filming will take place at Lake Snowden, though a trip next weekend to Pellston, Mich., will allow for shooting scenes on a frozen lake. Twenty-four students and cast members plan to make the seven-hour drive with a U-Haul carrying equipment and a dismantled ice fishing house the crew made especially for this film.
"We're doing the Michigan trip with the help of the local community there," said Lewis, who reports that local residents will be on hand with snow blowers and snowmobiles for equipment set-up and that two townspeople plan to open their heated garages to cast and crew to serve as home base. "If students worked to make just one of these things happen, I'd be impressed, but this is amazing."
Junior Conor Hogan, the film's coordinating producer, has spent most of his time on fundraising efforts, but says his job has now expanded to delegating tasks to different departments, completing paperwork, securing locations for shoots and keeping a close eye on the film's budget. Hogan, who worked on three productions for last spring's 419 course, says while his job has been hard and he has been met with resistance, that he loves it.
"I imagine that in Los Angeles or New York City, it's a lot easier to convince people to see the passion in what you're doing," Hogan said. "It's harder to inspire people in a small town. If you can just surround yourself with people that believe in your dreams and just carry on, everything will be all right."
Production is expected to wrap up mid-April. At that time, students will be busy editing and reaching their fundraising goals. While the next few months won't be easy, especially as students maintain full course loads, co-director and writer Muhlberger believes it will be fulfilling.
They've tentatively scheduled a screening of their film, which will be open to the public, in early June.
"I'm hoping that it's a learning experience, and all who are involved get to see what it is like to work on a feature film," Muhlberger said. "I also hope that Russell Banks is pleased with the project we've done."
For information about how to donate to the project, visit www.trailerparkmovie.com.
Updated Feb. 16, 2009.