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Columbia's aspiring young filmmakers emerge for student film festival

Thursday, April 10, 2008 | 7:09 p.m. CDT; updated 4:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kevin Kersting, left, and Ben Kaplan, right, battle mummies as part of their movie filming on March 9. The main fight scenes for the movie were filmed on the Francis Quadrangle on the MU campus.

COLUMBIA — One weekend last month, Missouri senior Daniel Willis had just wrapped his second long day of shooting his short film “Ups and Downs,” when his first assistant director, senior Tara Daniels, told him that they had a problem.

“Is it bad?” Willis asked, hoping that whatever it was wouldn’t set him and his crew back after having already completed almost all of their filming.

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At 7 p.m. Friday in Jesse Wrench Auditorium, there will be a showing of all films entered. All films run no longer than 17 minutes and will be judged by the MU Special Events Committee. At 7:20 p.m. Saturday, there will be a red carpet ceremony followed by a presentation from Hollywood producer and festival judge R.J. Visciglia. The top five films of Friday will then be screened and a panel of three judges will rank the films and provide feedback. Admission to the Silver Screen Film Festival is free and open to the public.

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Daniels smiled the way most people smile when they’re trying to make the best of a problematic situation. She explained to Willis that the various numbers that show up on the camera’s viewfinder displaying date and time, which normally don’t affect the footage, were actually recorded onto the tape. They would need to reshoot the entire film over again.

These are the kinds of problems that happen to amateur filmmakers, and Willis, a 21-year-old English major who dreams of one day writing professionally for film and stage, is one of them. He had written film scripts in the past, but Willis said he had never considered turning one into an actual film.

That seed was planted in his mind when Jay Johnson, the chairman of the MU Special Events Committee, came to Willis’ screenwriting class last fall to talk about his plans for a student short film festival in Columbia. Johnson said the committee would provide prospective filmmakers with filming equipment and an opportunity to have their work professionally judged.

Willis saw the chance to take his creative desire to another level. He had his short play of “Ups and Downs” performed as part of the Mizzou New Play Series the previous spring and thought it might translate well to film. Because the story is about a tragedy that occurs when two men with similar lives meet in an elevator, Willis felt that actually showing the characters in an elevator would echo Willis’ themes of space and confinement.

Willis’ film will premiere at Jesse Wrench Auditorium on Friday night, along with the films of 15 other local students, as part of the first annual Silver Screen Film Festival.

The festival has provided an invaluable opportunity for Willis and many other aspiring filmmakers and actors at MU and Stephens College to develop and showcase their talents, Johnson said.

“This has given me a great opportunity to get some hands-on experience, to learn how to work with a crew and to learn how to see something through from conception to reality,” Willis said.

But as Willis and his crew experienced firsthand, amateur filmmaking is not without its challenges.

MU freshmen Ben Kaplan, Kelly Wright and sophomore Chuck Caldwell said turning their concept for “Action Team Go Squad” into a tangible product took a lot more effort than they first expected.

The trio grew up together in Columbia filming a variety of movies that Kaplan would deem “dumb,” but not one of them was afraid to admit that their festival submission, “Go Squad,” is one of those ideas.

Since the film is about a government-employed crime-fighting squad defending the world from Egyptian terrorists, the filmmakers had some difficulty finding a way to turn what they imagined the film would be like into something they could actually do.

MU sophomore Randy Prywitch, who screened his feature-length film “American Gothic” on campus last fall, knew that he would need to tackle that problem earlier on for his festival submission. Since he lives in a fraternity house, Prywitch decided that was where his comedy “The Girlfriend Claire” would take place and also where he would get most of his actors.

“We needed a movie that would look plausible, like it could happen here,” Prywitch said.

Prywitch wanted to utilize the fact that the festival was going to give his filmmaking a wider audience in addition to being judged by professionals, so he made sure “Claire” had his stamp on it.

“(Silver Screen) is supposed to showcase exactly what I want to do,” he said, “so for this movie I just pulled everything out that I could. I tried to do so many different kinds of shots and techniques.”

While Prywitch sees the festival as a chance to pursue his more serious filmmaking goals, Kaplan and Wright see it as a chance to do what they love to do as a hobby for a wider audience. They would never trade their wild, imaginative ideas for anything more realistic.

“This is just how we are,” Kaplan said. “We wouldn’t be happy doing it any other way.”

Wright said that they take their work seriously; it just happens to be that the work is cheesy comedy.

“I like to see how other people feel about it, see if people actually think what we do is funny as opposed to just me and my friends,” Wright said.

Getting an idea of how funny they are is especially important to Kaplan, who would like to be professionally involved in comedy. The festival has provided him another means of displaying his talents to a big audience.

Giving budding filmmakers broader exposure is one of the goals of the festival, Johnson said.

“We wanted to give (students) an opportunity to showcase their talents and in a meaningful way,” he said.


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