Lights, Camera, Action!: Seniors Begin Film Theses
For some seniors, the thesis process involves a tiny carrel, hundreds of pages of Marxist criticism, and drowning in Post-It flags. For others, however, a thesis might entail thousands of dollars worth of film stock, a search for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles poster, or Saturday afternoons spent in a boxing gym.
A new batch of Film Studies majors is hard at work in the pre-production phase of their theses. From the first draft of the script to the final screenings in the spring, The Argus will follow several intrepid filmmakers as they attempt to create 12-minute works of creative genius.
Theses are not required in order to complete the Film Studies major, and students must decide in the spring if it is a project they wish to undertake. There are three paths these students can take: a production thesis, which entails working with 16 millimeter (mm) film or digital, a screenplay, or a historical essay. Majors must take either Intro to Digital Filmmaking or Sight and Sound before their senior year in order to make a production thesis.
Jenna Robbins ’13, whose film is about a girl who falls in love with fictional characters and attempts to fall in love with real people, chose to make a 16 mm film after taking Sight and Sound, the production class that focuses on that medium.
“I like the process of working with film,” Robbins said. “It’s a lot more difficult, it requires a lot of work, there’s more potential for things to go horribly wrong, and it’s more expensive, which are all wonderful reasons to not [use it]… [But] when am I going to get the opportunity to do it? Probably never. So I thought I’d finish that and then move on to the digital world, which is what the industry is doing now.”
Gus Vita ’13 also chose to work with 16 mm. His film is about an amateur boxer’s conflict between needing money he would get from throwing a match and wanting to live up to his son’s ideals. Vita was persuaded by the visceral experience of working with film and he said it felt right for the tone of his piece.
“Digital is awesome, but 16 mm is a process where you have to think about everything you do before you do it,” he said. “There’s so much gravity to doing it—it’s not just a button. For a gritty, tough story, I think there’s something physical about filming it on film and having it represented on film.”
After deciding to create a thesis film, students must turn in a first draft of their script by the week before classes start. Up against the deadline, Robbins changed her entire script at the last moment.
“I had a lot of writer’s block trying to come up with my thesis film idea and wrote a different script that I was really unhappy with,” she said. “The night before my thesis script was due, I was in the shower and I [came up with a new idea and] was just like, you know, I would watch that movie. Yeah, totally. So I completely rewrote it the night before my first draft was due.”
Gabriel Urbina ’13 got a head start on his script by working on it in a Wesleyan summer class on screenwriting. As the professor who taught the course is his current thesis advisor, Urbina felt confident about his script by the time summer ended.
“I spent the month I was taking that class just workshopping that script,” he said. “I was able to get my first draft to him and he was like ‘this is a good idea, but you should throw out every single one of these words and just restart.’ I was like, ‘okay.’ We were able to get four or five drafts of it over that month, and by the end of it, we had something that we were pretty satisfied with.”
Getting the script nailed down early has allowed Urbina to focus on a unique aspect of his film: the music. His movie follows the story of a boy who professes his love to a female café employee by holding the other customers at gunpoint and making them perform a musical number, in which he tells her he loves her.
Urbina said he was inspired to do a musical thesis by his long-standing love of musicals and a particular conversation in a class he took last spring on musical films. In that class, a student asked why people find it harder to accept the conventions of a musical than the conventions of a horror or science fiction movie, and Urbina liked the answer.
“Our professor very smartly said [it was] because the things you have to accept in horror movies are bad things,” Urbina said. “They’re what the conflict is, they’re the element that you’re fighting against. With musicals it’s always you have some conflict and then on top of that you have this happy, dancing, singing stuff. It’s never the conflict. And after he said that, I thought it would be really interesting to try to think of something where the problem is actually the music, where that is the antagonistic force, we are fighting against this musical presence.”
While the music has been a big focus for Urbina, other directors have concentrated their attention on other elements of the filmmaking process. Will Feinstein ’13 is making a high school movie about a boy who likes a new girl at school. He hopes that the film will play with the conventions of high school films, but nailing down the location has been an issue.
“My challenge is going to be getting into a high school on the weekends when I’m shooting and having enough time in there,” Feinstein said. “So what I might have to end up doing, and probably will, is get in there for a little bit of time, shoot the things I need, and then shoot some of them in places on campus that look enough like a high school that I can make them pass for that.”
To compensate for that difficulty, however, Feinstein wrote a script that would allow him to cast Wesleyan students in all of the roles.
“Before I even started anything, I knew that I would want to do something where I could make something convincing with a youth cast,” he said. “No young people are playing old people. And then you don’t have to worry about finding older people through other outside auditions, which some people do.”
Several of Vita’s characters are younger and older than college students, leading him to search for actors on Craigslist and at boxing gyms around Connecticut. He found his main adult actors this way, and rounded out his cast with a child actor recommended by a friend, who cast him in a short film he made over the summer. Vita said that he has enjoyed working with his cast so far.
“Most of these guys have jobs themselves, but they’re really interested in acting and want to build up a reel, so they’re really eager to get into anything,” he said. “It’s a fun collaborative process in that sense.”
In addition to casting actors, the directors must also put together a crew, which includes an assistant director, producer, production assistant, and director of photography, among other roles. Many film majors end up working on several of their friends’ films in addition to directing their own.
“The collaboration is such a big thing,” said Sam Barth ’13, who is directing a nineties piece about the Internet and coming of age. “Other theses you can just do on your own, but there’s absolutely no way I could do this on my own. That’s the first job, figuring out people you can delegate to.”
He has, however, been able to take care of some of the fun parts of the planning himself, including scouting out retro arcades for one scene, and transforming a bedroom in an empty house into a nineties time capsule, complete with VHS tapes, action figures, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles posters. Putting together the costumes for his characters has also been fun, he said.
“We were at a bunch of Goodwills just finding hilarious nineties clothes,” Barth said. “We have some just awful-looking turtlenecks and some Hawaiian shirts and vests and Converse sneakers. Some of the characters have pretty normal nineties sweaters, and [for] some of the more outrageous characters they’re awful, bright orange, just cringe-worthy sweaters.”
While some directors are still knee-deep in details of preliminary planning himself, others are preparing to shoot this weekend. Vita chose to shoot the bulk of his film over fall break, as he has good memories of working on other theses in past years and bonding during the five-day shoot.
“I thought there’s something about shooting over fall break,” he said. “You’re alone and you’re shooting five days in a row and it’s really intensive. Everybody on set gets super close and something really special happens. It’s a really focused energy. That’s why I chose fall break, even though it’s first.”
Thesis filmmakers each get two scheduled weekends to during, in which they can get access to the University’s cameras and equipment. From next weekend until the end of the semester, crews will set out to locations around campus and the surrounding area each weekend. The Argus will follow up with these students later in the semester to see how their films are coming along. For now, though, they are tackling the pre-production logistics with positive attitudes.
“Everything will work out,” Urbina said. “You never have problems, you only have challenges. That’s the right way to look at it.”