Mark Metcalf
MFF Preview

Ward Three’s Natalie Mullins

By - Sep 29th, 2009 10:58 pm

WardThreePICWard Three: Presented by Collaborative Cinema
2009, 12 min, part of The Milwaukee Showcase
Thursday, Oct. 1, 6:30 pm, Oriental Theatre


I believe I have written in these pages before about a program I run called Collaborative Cinema. This year, out of more than 150 submissions, we chose 50 high school students to come to a workshop run by 12 or 13 professional filmmakers and writers to learn the craft of writing for the movies.

They came with an idea and went away with the tools to turn those ideas into screenplays. Then we selected the best 15 projects, and, in another workshop, the students worked with directors and producers to fine tune their screenplays and make them as filmable as possible. When they completed their second draft, we chose the best one and went about making it into a short film.

This year, the film is called Ward Three, and its author is Natalie Mullins, a sophomore at Wauwatosa West High School.


Natalie Mullins, writer of “Ward Three.” Photo, courtesy of Jonathan Jackson.

In some programs, the journey for the student might end there — with her having a script made into a film. But we try to give the student the full experience of working on a film with filmmakers who are intent on sharing their vision. As the name of the program indicates, we think of the art of filmmaking as a collaboration. And, we take the student along on this journey, too.

Four years ago, the winner of the screenwriting contest was Vincenzo Balistreri, who was a junior at Pius XI High School. This year, Vinnie worked with us as a mentor during the workshop phase of the program and because of his affinity for Natalie’s script, he worked directly with her through several rewrites.

Natalie’s script was unique in that there was no dialogue. The entire film is from the point of view of a boy who does not hear sound the way we do. He only hears musical instruments in harsh, cacophonous tones. Natalie has said that she wanted to explore what we call mental illness. She wanted to explore the people we don’t understand, that fail to live up to our standards of normalcy and find out what they see, hear and think.

So, we were faced with the prospect of trying to tell the story of a boy who is placed in an institution at age 7 and lives there his entire life. The only sounds he hears are the bleating of a tuba, the raspy sound of an untuned viola and the rapping of a drumstick on a table top. This is what he hears when someone speaks to him, or if a clock ticks or when a door slams shut.

Once we began to work with Natalie on a daily basis, we worked on integrating the visual and auditory elements of the script because the two would need to support each other.

By necessity, the script needed to change slightly as we added cinematic elements such as location and period, when casting decisions were made and as we deepened our understanding of what the story meant. Every addede element affected something else. Before a movie becomes an organic whole, there are one hundred different people with ideas and input. It can feel like chaos, and often is. But the constant work behind the scenes is what provides some semblance of organization. And that lesson can be tough for a student in high school.

I often worry that a student might feel that his or her script is being taken away and that the original thoughts and feelings are no longer present once the film project is complete. And, I imagine that those thoughts did occur to Natalie, to Emily Downes last year, to Katrina Schwartz the year before that and to Vinnie the first year. But that’s how the process works best at every level. Nothing is sacrosanct. No one person stands above the rest and dictates what will be. Everything is a collaboration.

Natalie could tell you how many drafts she went through. We asked her to change things right up until the day before the shoot. We even added a character, giving the young boy a sister who says good-bye to him when his mother leaves him at the home. As an insight into her natural talent and ability, Natalie questioned every suggestion and challenged every request that we made, forcing us to thoroughly think through each decision.

It was a wonderful, difficult, sometimes wrenching process, and I think the final product speaks to whether it was worth it or not.

We try to make the best possible film while, at the same time, giving the student who works with us, a real-time, realistic experience. It is a narrow wire to walk, but luckily some of the most talented people in the city are up there with us, including some very gifted students.

Ward Three, written by Natalie Mullins, directed by Jason Satterfield and produced by Alison Abrohams and myself (Mark Metcalf) will show during the Milwaukee Film Festival at the Oriental Theatre as part of “The Milwaukee Showcase” on Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Movies

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