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Pens to Lens Gala Empowers Emerging Filmmakers

On August 13th, a day that marked the 117th birthday of suspense maestro, Alfred Hitchcock, a community of filmmakers gathered in Champaign, Illinois, to celebrate the work of emerging talents aspiring to become the next masters of cinema. For the fourth year in a row, the Pens to Lens Screenwriting Competition invited students ranging from kindergarten age to twelfth grade to submit their own scripts, 18 of which were selected by directors from Champaign Movie Makers to be produced. The completed short films spawned from this contest, organized by the Champaign Urbana Film Society, were shown in a two-part program at the Virginia Theatre, the annual location of Ebertfest. As a labor of love championing communal artistry, the event was hugely inspiring. It even attracted Oscar winning talent. Brenda Chapman, the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature ("Brave," 2012), and her husband, Kevin Lima, director of "Enchanted," graced the stage. What made it all the more remarkable was the impressive quality of the films themselves.

One particular film was so powerful and so profoundly timely that it knocked the wind out of my lungs. High-schooler Gabriela DeLisle Diaz wrote the script for “Fast Rodney, Who Was On His Way Out,” a riveting meditation on race, class and other barriers that are continuously preventing us from understanding one another, resulting in a seemingly endless series of senseless tragedies. The lives of three people with different backgrounds and economic circumstances are interwoven throughout the largely wordless picture. We see an affluent Caucasian boy prone to partying, a Hispanic teen working to support her family and an African-American student, the titular character, aiming to acquire a track scholarship. In stunning footage captured via drone, Rodney runs along a track, determined to break out of his cyclical fate from which there appears to be no escape.

“I wrote this script following the Baltimore shooting, and I was thinking a lot about what my peers were saying on Twitter,” said Diaz. “I was reading all these hypocritical statements, and that’s what motivated me to write this. A lot of people don’t understand that racism works on various levels. It’s not just a black and white issue.”

Diaz told me that there was more dialogue in her script, but she was convinced by the film’s director, Rachel Berry, that it would be more effective to let the images articulate the story instead. Berry’s previous experience working with homeless families played a key role in leading her to make the film.

“I was fearing for the safety of the teenagers I worked with,” said Berry. “The fear of violence was always on their minds and on their parents’ minds. Whenever there’s another killing of a black unarmed youth, it makes me think of how I’d feel if that were one of the kids I had invested so much time in. That’s part of the reason why I chose Gabriela’s script. There are so many dimensions to it—the plight of the working poor, the gender issues, the racial issues.”

Concluding with a spectacular rap song performed by local artist T.R.U.T.H, “Fast Rodney, Who Was On His Way Out” is a triumph on every level. Yet there were other shorts in the program that also poignantly conveyed the preoccupations of young people, such as the fear of losing a parent. Ethan Grinberg’s “Listen,” beautifully shot and directed by John Isberg, focuses on a boy as he grapples with the impending death of his mother, whose cancer has confined her to a hospital bed. Though it starts off like a quirky comedy, Katarina Blakeslee’s “The Goldfish,” directed by Thomas Nicol, finds richer meaning in the friendship between a young girl and her dead pet fish, which is ultimately a distraction from the real loss haunting her house. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, food also proved to be on the minds of many young writers, though what was less expected was their surrealistic approach to casting people as food. Evan Unzicker’s “The Search for Pizza,” directed by David Schiller, showed a spunky trio battling villainous pizza slices resembling disgruntled extras in a Macy’s Parade. Unzicker deserves a thumbs up for writing the priceless line, “I never thought I’d meet a pizza I didn’t like—until you.” Receiving one of the gala’s most jubilant receptions was Shardale Negre and Kayla Gardner’s cheerfully outlandish “The Potato Boy,” directed in high camp mode by Chris Lukeman and Tim Meyers. The film is about a boy in a shoddy potato costume who is mistaken for an actual potato by a ravenously hungry couple, played to the hilt by Joi Hoffsommer and veteran filmmaker Mike Trippiedi. And I loved the satirical edge in Devante Derrickson’s “Burrito as a Pet,” directed by Anna Zorn and Adam Howarter, in which a woman gets revenge on her husband, who is clearly more in love with his dog than with her. After the dog bites the dust, the man somehow becomes convinced that a burrito he’s about to eat is, in fact, his dog reincarnated. 

One of the most impressive scripts submitted for this year’s festival was Mitchell Flanagin’s delightfully deadpan noir, “Lance Lawson: The Case of the Misplaced Politician.” Director Charlie Kessler took inspiration from the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” in crafting the film’s black-and-white widescreen compositions (expertly lensed by Isberg), as well as navigating the film’s tone. 

“I liked that the script played on all of the tropes of the genre and that it wasn’t spoofing them,” said Kessler. “The comic timing of it to make sure that the laughs landed was very important. There were things that I came up with during the edit, such as the moment when the camera cuts back and forth repeatedly between the police chief and the detective taking a bite of the banana.”

Reeling from the sudden news of Kenny “R2-D2” Baker’s passing, “Star Wars” fans in attendance were elated to observe the impact that their beloved franchise has had on the science-fiction penned by several writers. Parker Evans’ “The Star Prince,” directed by Thomas Polk, even featured lightsabers, as did Florence Lin’s “The Flying Jedi,” one of three winning films made entirely by students that were selected to screen alongside the official Pens to Lens productions. Quinn Fisher was among 13 writers whose scripts received an award onstage even though they were not chosen to be produced (in many cases, for budgetary purposes). Fisher told me about her sci-fi yarn, “Guardian Of The Realm,” while sharing a funny story about her experience shooting “Listen,” in which she gives a very naturalistic performance. After being encouraged to chat with her fellow actors during a classroom scene, she got into a debate with them about whether Princess Leia must now be considered a Disney princess (hopefully this footage still exists).

John Nicol’s cleverly written fantasy, “The Cody Chronicles: Murphy’s Law,” directed by Michael Bach, featured amusing animation reminiscent of “Home Movies,” while Caleb Wolters’ “Bananas and Mr. Snake’s Big Adventure,” directed by AJ Christensen, created vast digital landscapes for its whimsical interstellar journey. I laughed out loud multiple times during Ella Kirwan’s live-action comedy, “Wanda and Pickles Discover the Earth,” directed by Anne Lukeman and featuring two martians utterly confounded by the weirdness of human behavior, such as the tendency of couples to exchange dead flowers before squeezing the oxygen out of each other. Doug Fischer’s score enhances the film’s screwball spirit immeasurably.

An adorable highlight of the gala’s afternoon program occurred when young filmmaker Rowan Fischer sprung onto the stage to accept his first-place award for the Lego stop-motion film he made, “The Weirder It Gets.” He proudly held up his star Lego figurine (“My main character!”) to accompany him in accepting the accolade. The third filmmaker honored for her self-made work was Sarah Stelzer, whose “Summer Daze” centers on a girl who finds herself in a “Groundhog Day”-like time warp presumably caused by her inability to have fun. Adrian Blume’s infectiously silly “The Runaway Toilet,” directed by Thomas Nicol, took Lego stop-motion to another level of sophistication, bringing uncanny fluidity to each movement. Yet perhaps the weirdest film of all was Nathan Lee’s “The Alarm Clock,” directed by Emily Polk, a film affirming that, if for nothing else, cats are indeed from a different planet.

I suspect the Master of Suspense himself would have approved whole-heartedly of Autumn Ellis’ supremely suspenseful script, “Hello Fear,” the knockout horror film selected to close the gala’s evening program. The film begins with a little boy huddled under his bedsheets, terrified of the creature lurking in the darkness of his bedroom. It turns out that it’s only his mean brother wearing a werewolf mask. Yet when the boy discovers that there truly is a monster in his room, his thoughts turn toward vengeance. Ellis told me that she loved the opportunity to collaborate with the film’s director, Andrew Gleason, who took a somewhat different approach to her original ending while still preserving its essence. 

“I was so psyched when the director invited me over to be in the small room that they constructed for the film,” said Ellis. “Just seeing all the work and time and patience that it took to get the perfect shot was really amazing.”

The final extended shot, gliding up the stairs and into the brothers’ bedroom, took no less than 27 takes to perfect. 

“We were working with narrow doorways and the film equipment was very wide, so my poor DP has this huge body cage on and he would clip my bedroom door every time we’d do a take,” said Gleason. “In order to sell some of the realism in that shot, we put some syringes in the teeth of the monster, and squeezed out the exact same formula that they used for the alien drool in the movie ‘Alien.’ It was a combination of dish soap and vaseline.”

Apocalyptic dread seeped into two pictures this year: Cameron Johnson’s tender “Love and Death,” directed by Jen Bechtel, who skillfully illustrates how childhood memories flicker before the eyes of young lovers in their final moments; and the aptly titled, “The End of the World,” directed by Robin Berthier and written by the quartet of Caleb Pyrz, Chase Vickers, Nik Johnson and Brett Barcus. For their pint-sized heroes, the inevitable end to their playtime truly does feel like a matter of life and death. Joining “Hello Fear” were two other bona fide creature features: Madeline De Coste’s “Bumps in the Night,” directed with John Carpenter-esque panache by Jon Lecouris; and Fred Scher’s “Horrors,” directed by Andrew Stengele as a Muppet movie populated with Universal monster icons. I savored the funny little details tucked into the corners of the frame, such as the “Garlic-Free” lunch table where Dracula (now a school kid) is forced to sit, while sipping his A Positive juice box.

In between both programs, I was honored to moderate a Q&A with two filmmakers who are largely responsible for my lifelong love of cinema. Brenda Chapman and Kevin Lima joined me onstage to discuss the extraordinary pictures they’ve made while working at Disney and Pixar. Chapman’s career blazed multiple trails for women in the industry when she became the first female script supervisor on an animated feature (1994’s “The Lion King”), the first woman to direct a major animated studio release (1998’s “The Prince of Egypt,” co-directed with Steve Hickner and Simon Wells) and as previously mentioned, the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, earning the award for 2012’s “Brave,” a film that she explained was deeply personal. 

“The character of Merida was inspired by my own daughter, and she was about four or five years old when I started thinking about this movie,” said Chapman. “She would always be giving me a hard time, and I’d drive to work thinking, ‘Ugh, she’s so hard to get to school. Why won’t she just listen?’ I realized I had to write a faerie tale about my daughter and what our relationship might be like when she got older.”

Lima, her husband, reflected on his directorial debut, 1995’s “A Goofy Movie,” which explored the fractured relationship between a father and son that also had personal origins.

“My dad left us when I was 12, and I didn’t see him for 25 years,” said Lima. “That film helped me work through some of those feelings. The challenge became finding a way to make the film personal without causing it to become so incredibly raw that people wouldn’t have a good time watching it.”

Though “Frozen” often gets touted for being a major feminist leap forward for Disney, Lima’s 2007 film, “Enchanted,” served as the precursor to that picture in many ways, with its heroine who realizes that it’s wiser to date a prince before rushing into marriage. 

“We tried to figure out how to take the princess story, turn it on its ear, and give it a modern feminist twist,” said Lima. “It was really about self-empowering that character to define what she wanted her future to be without giving up being a woman.” 

In addition to promoting the inaugural Lincoln Film Festival, which will run from October 14th through the 16th in Lincoln, Illinois, Chapman also discussed Camp Reel Stories, an excellent camp providing opportunities for young female filmmakers to have their skills sharpened and their voices heard.

“A friend of mine in the San Francisco Bay area, Esther Pearl, started this camp for high school-age girls, a lot of them underprivileged,” said Chapman. “She invited all of her friends who were professional filmmakers to come help these girls make a film over the course of the two-week-long camp, which ends with a festival screening all the movies. It’s the most amazing program, and we are actually going to try bringing Camp Reel Stories to the midwest.”

This announcement was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and as I gazed into the audience, I observed the beaming faces of children empowered by a community that has gathered to nourish their artistic potential. If only every town had a community like this one. I was reminded of just how important high school theatre was to me, and how growing comfortable onstage gradually allowed me to be comfortable in my own skin as well. Wyatt Taber, the young star of “Horrors,” undoubtedly spoke for many of his peers when he chatted with me outside the theater.

“The experience of seeing yourself up on screen, where you never thought you’d be, is crazy,” said Taber. “I don’t like being the center of attention in real life, but onscreen, it just feels natural.”

Photos by Darrell Hoemann. For more information on the annual gala, visit the official Pens to Lens site.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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