Pros help students to produce films
Collaborative Cinema, a program that teaches interested high school students to write screenplays, continues to gain momentum. I run the program, but it was Jeff Fitzsimmons who came up with the idea. We started five years ago working in conjunction with the now-defunct Milwaukee International Film Festival. Now, we partner with the new Milwaukee Film Festival, which will take place Sept. 24 through Oct. 4.
The program began with a simple idea: ask local filmmakers to be mentors. We then put out the call to area high school students to submit ideas for short films. They only had to write a few paragraphs, one page or less, with an idea about something they envisioned as a film. The first year, we got close to 50 submissions. We held a six-hour seminar at Bucketworks and taught 25 students with the best ideas how to develop their thoughts into screenplays. They learned about form, character development and structure. We explained the function of dialogue and the value and expression of the moving image – all in six hours. After their crash course, the students went home and wrote their screenplays. We made the best one into a film that eventually played at the Oriental during the film festival. It was quite a ride for all the students but especially for the one whose idea was made into a film.
Jeff Fitzsimmons directed the first film. It was written by a Pius XI High School junior named Vincenzo Balistreri. The following year, Vinnie got something like $24,000 in scholarships to Santa Fe University based primarily on the screenplay he had written and the film that was made from it. While we were making the film, Vinnie did all the jobs from running to get coffee, delivering furniture with my truck, helping to light a scene, looking through the lens of the camera to make sure that each shot was correct and rewriting a scene at the last minute to accommodate an idea that occurred on the set. That film was called She Never Screams. It was the slightly twisted, semi-erotic tale of a man who lives alone playing the piano for no one in particular, whose job it is to cut the heads off of chickens in a run down city factory that produces chicken parts. It was shocking and funny, and we made it for next-to-nothing. But, the Richard and Ethel Herzfeld Foundation provided all the money we did have. Carmen and Bill Haberman continue to support the program even through the thin economic times of the past year.
Filmmakers and students alike deemed the program a success. Even the students whose screenplays did not win said they had fun and learned a lot. A few teachers who got involved, like Kelly Saunders at Nicolet High School and Dominic Inouye at Pius, said that they thought the program was a great idea and thought that they could get even more students involved the next year. That was what we wanted, to get more and more students involved in the first and second stages of the process. I once jokingly said at a meeting with Mayor Barrett that my “tomorrow the world” dream was a summer camp for filmmaking.
Now, I really don’t have any “tomorrow the world” dreams. I’m not ambitious in that way. But this thing seemed to be growing on its own. One of the most interesting things to me was the fact that there was a lot of talent in the filmmaking community here – and that there actually was a filmmaking community here. I began to realize that it should be possible to work on interesting projects right here and not have to travel to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. The idea of a collective of filmmakers that functioned the way the Group Theatre in New York City in the 30’s and 40’s did, a group that produced politically articulate works, shared a vision, understood that the process was the most important aspect, but that the product also had to be accessible, and that teaching was integral to the growth of any artist, if such a group could coalesce loosely here in Milwaukee … well, that might be fun. I realize that vision might be construed as a “tomorrow the world” kind of dream but I do like to work small, so we have grown very slowly. I’d like to think, organically.
Support continues to grow. The number of students submitting ideas continues to grow exponentially, as has the number of filmmakers involved in the making of the film (and these are the best at their crafts that the city has to offer). We have companies like Independent Edit and Independent Studios, Electric Sun, North American Camera, Bodi Co., First Stage Children’s Theatre and The REP. Last year, US Bank, and this year, the Milwaukee Parks Department, donated time, equipment and space so that we can produce the best possible film from a high school student’s screenplay.
Last year for the first time we used high school students as interns on the set. This year, we expanded the program in the detail and amount of work we asked them to do. Five students worked, not just on the two days of shooting, but throughout pre-production to help us plan and organize the days of shooting. We try to make the shooting of the film as professional as possible so that the students get a real-time, real-life experience of what it is like to produce a major film.
This year, the film is called Ward Three. It was written by Natalie Mullins, a junior at Wauwatosa West High School. Jason Satterfield directed it. We are in the midst of post-production at Independent Studios. And, as I said, every major filmmaker and entity involved in the filmmaking industry here in Milwaukee was instrumental in making of it. Ward Three will play on the big screen at the Oriental on Thursday, Oct. 1. It will be a major part of the Milwaukee Film Festival, playing alongside the 160 other films from around the world that will make this new film festival the best one yet. If there is any money left in the budget, we will have a limo for Natalie. Whether we do or not, we will celebrate the students and the filmmakers as well as the Herzfeld Foundation for making Collaborative Cinema possible. Afterward, we will begin again to go into high schools to talk about the program and try to get students interested to write down a simple, one-page idea that we can help them grow into a movie.