The challenges of filmmaking

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First Posted: 5/22/2014

Jeff Fowler grew up on many of the same films his generation did – “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” Back to the Future,” anything by John Hughes – and he worked in movie theaters across Northeast Pennsylvania throughout the ’90s. He followed the industry closer than most, however, which led him to become much more involved than the average moviegoer.
“As the late ’90s approached, I started to see that the ability to make a film was going digital and that soon we’d be able to edit on our home computers, and that was always exciting to me, just the thought of that. I kind of saw that coming just through reading articles in magazines and stuff like that,” Fowler recalled.
“So in the early 2000s, I went back to school. My background is in industrial engineering, but I went back to school to study communication arts at Marywood (University), and it was there that I first got my chance to play with digital video cameras and nonlinear editing systems.”
He started making his first films at Marywood, launching the Community Film Project in 2004 with friends and fellow independent filmmakers. Jer Tobin of Pittston became a part of this local indie film organization after following his own path to motion pictures.
About 12 years ago, Tobin was chatting with a friend about live theater, and she encouraged him to try out for an original musical in Carbondale despite the fact that he never sang in front of anyone before.
“I hadn’t been on a stage since I was in first grade in this play; I played a snowman and I fumbled my lines because I looked at this girl out in the audience. She stuck her tongue out at me and I was like, ‘Oh God, what do I do?’” he acknowledged with a laugh.
“That was the first and last time up until that point that I was on stage.”
Teaching himself to sing in the car, he “winged it” and was offered the lead role. He then auditioned for a role in a feature film by local filmmaker Jason Sherry called “Cubes” that later received Netflix distribution. While he didn’t get the role, Sherry asked him to help out on the set and wrote a small part for him; he eventually got involved with Community Film Project, continuing to learn through experience rather than formal training.
As CFP started to wind down over the years, Tobin and Fowler decided to make a film together and test their creative chemistry.
“We wrote this script and shot it within about three days. Jeff almost issued it kind of like a challenge to me in a way, like, ‘Let’s see what we can do and how we work together under stress. In a short time, what can we really do?’” Tobin said.
The result was “Alley Pop,” a seven-minute comedy in which Tobin plays a movie theater usher who runs an “illicit underground popcorn popping ring” in the back alley of a movie theater, selling the snack for half price so customers can avoid ridiculous theater prices.
“Ever since we put together ‘Alley Pop,’ that’s when I started becoming interested in post-production and editing because Jeff and I sat there together and did the editing. That was my first foray into seeing the editing process work,” Tobin continued.
“Editing is like speaking the language of film because that’s really where the film is made in a sense. You can shoot all the footage you want and write how you want, but it’s really put together right there in the editing room.”
With friends like these, who needs film school? Together, they formed Big Idea Photo and Video Productions, a business that has produced everything from wedding and web videos to a pilot for the Travel Channel.
“I’ve been trailing after the ability to tell a story visually for many years. It’s always been an interest of mine. Technology has made it possible for me as well as anyone else to get involved, so it’s become a cell phone phenomenon,” Fowler explained.
“I’ve been chasing this long before YouTube has been around.”
It’s easy to see, then, why The Vintage founder Conor O’Brien asked Fowler and Tobin, along with Kyle Rebar and Kevin Vogrin of Iron Reels, which reviews local films in a live setting and online, to organize The Vintage Short Film Fest, a brand new film festival to be held on Saturday, June 21 with two unique sections: the first half will be the results of a local film challenge, and the second will feature short films submitted to the festival from around the world.
The challenge wasn’t easy – those who signed up had to create a film that ran five minutes or less within two weeks that had to include a randomly assigned prop, character name, and line of dialogue. With so much focus on their business over the last two years, Tobin and Fowler decided to get back into indie filmmaking and participate in their own challenge, creating a mockumentary called “Selfie Nation.”
The film takes place in Jessup, which has banned “selfies” after three teen girls die in a car accident when they are distracted from the road by taking pictures of themselves.
“You have two sides – the people who think, ‘Thank God – ban selfies. I’m so sick of these egotistical people with their selfies and nonsense. It’s stupid,’ but then you have the people who want to take selfies: ‘It’s my right to choose. I can do what I want. It’s my phone,’” Tobin described.
“There’s protests. What the film is supposed to point out is that even though it’s a comedy, it’s showing that it seems that people today are so much more apt to get off their ass and bitch about s—t that doesn’t matter when there’s so many other things going on there that affect their lives so much more that they don’t care about.”
It’s a movie, shot in Fowler’s hometown of Jessup, as well as Peckville and Pittston, that he believes will make audiences smirk as well as think.
“I’m really proud of it because, first of all, it’s a story that has an element of social criticism to it. That’s the bedrock of the entire film. I think it’s essentially a criticism of our apathy towards politics, towards social structures, and, in a greater sense, the way we communicate with one another,” Fowler said.
“But predominantly, it’s a criticism of our apathy towards all the things we think we can’t change. It’s a wakeup call to the audience to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves what needs to change. I wanted to have that as the underpinning of an absurd comedy.”
The production renewed their passion for filmmaking, and the pair plans to release a longer director’s cut to enter into other film festivals in the future.
“I think this helped us get back into a groove – a roll, I guess – getting the wheels moving again, so we’ll probably end up even with a few more by the time submission season comes around again next year,” Tobin enthused.
Of the 20 groups that entered the challenge, 12 completed the contest, and all the completed entries will be shown at the festival.
“I think the key is having a deadline. Those who really want to do it and who it’s a priority for will get it done within the deadline,” Fowler pointed out, appropriately making a “Star Wars” reference to describe the successful filmmakers.
“It’s kind of like the cave on Dagobah – the only thing that’s in there is what you take with you. If you want to put a lot into it, you certainly can, and I think several of the filmmakers who participated in this fest or in this film challenge brought a lot into that cave with them. They brought a lot in, and it shows. I think that’s a testament to their love of telling a story, of conveying an idea or a thought to a broader audience.”
He knows from experience that the process is never as easy as it looks to the audience.
“Weather happens, crickets make noise, people cut lawns, you come to a space and you find that something new is there that wasn’t there the day you scouted the location. There’s an excitement and a vibrancy to the production part of it,” Fowler emphasized.
“You find new challenges, and new opportunities present themselves during the actual filming.”
After an intermission, during which attendees can vote for their favorite film challenge entry, the second half of the festival will screen short films the four organizers received locally and from all over the world. They sorted through over 70 submissions – dramas, comedies, romances, animation, “weird, experimental” films – and debated the merits and shortcomings of each indie production, voting on the final lineup right up until the festival on Saturday.
Selecting what they feel will appeal to a general audience, they hope to open up moviegoers’ minds with enjoyable and thought-provoking entertainment.
“I think you’re going to see some perspectives that are unique, something far away from what you would see if you just drove off to Cinemark. I think it’s an opportunity to see through new sets of eyes that aren’t subservient to some producer who has a cookie-cutter formula. That’s the big advantage of coming out to this event,” Fowler noted.
“I think people are still stuck in the mindset that independent film means bad film, and this will definitely show people that’s not the case, especially with technology now, with the Internet and how people can just do so much research on their own about filmmaking,” Tobin added.
“Hopefully they’ll see some well-done short films and just get an idea of what’s out there in the independent film world, not just locally, but definitely across the world. I hope they come away with the realization that you really can make a pretty good film without a Hollywood budget.
“They’ll get to see those dreams and thoughts come to life. I think they will be pleasantly surprised.”
The filmmakers themselves will benefit as well, as the festival will give them an opportunity to face their audience and fellow creators.
“Social media exists, which is fantastic; it helps us all connect, but there is still something magical about getting a bunch of creative people in a room to cross-pollinate… just to exchange some ideas, meet some new people, make some new connections, and hopefully that process will trigger additional projects locally. As we spread the word about what we’re doing, I think that can create some momentum to invigorate future projects within the region,” Fowler said.
The Vintage Short Film Fest has the potential to turn into a new regular event and, the organizers hope, serve as a catalyst for something more.
“It would be nice to have a resurgence of independent film around here and really have an independent film scene, like we have a local band scene,” Tobin commented.
“There is a poetry scene here, too, but right now, there’s not much of a film scene anymore, so hopefully something like this could spark an interest again, get things rolling.”
The Vintage Filmmaker’s Challenge submissions
“The Last Day” by Sycamore Street Studios
“The Wake Up Call” by Marij A. Wanna Films
“Searching for Davis” by 9Lives
“Difficult Hope” by Unorganized Artists
“World Heroes League” by Impulsive Productions
“Hug It Out” by Dark Mana
“Selfie Nation” by Big Idea Photo and Video Productions
“Havana” by More to See Productions
“Dealing with Skootch” by Darkest Fear Productions
“Eli” by Claydogh
“Lycopersicum” by Iron Reels
“Dr. Tanaka” by Strings & Things