How a crew of film majors and professionals helped bring a professor’s vision to life
Subei Kyle ’17 has worked with professional film crews before. She spent the past two summers as a production assistant on the sets of the television shows Wives with Knives and Bar Rescue, where she handled small jobs like fetching coffee and painting walls for the art department.
But her most hands-on experience on a film set so far happened this August in Gambier, when Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell and Associate Professor of Film Jonathan Sherman invited students back to campus to shoot a short film with professional crew members and equipment.
“I think it’s sometimes surprising, even for film majors, how much care and specificity it takes to make a professional quality film,” Tazewell, who wrote and starred in the short — tentatively titled A Little Insurance, said.
When Tazewell wrote the script a year ago, he already knew he wanted to film in Gambier. He also knew he wanted to star in the film and that he wanted Professor Sherman to direct it.
The decision to hire a student crew came later. Tazewell and Sherman noticed that film students tended to rush their projects, often neglecting to light their sets or leading teams that lacked organization. “We hadn’t modeled for them what a semi-professional set should run like, and how everyone has a job, and what those jobs are,” Sherman said.
The two professors had collaborated with film majors before; in 2012, they took a group of students to Breezewood, Pa. to shoot their 2013 release, the eight-minute-long drama Breezewood.
Four years later, they had a fresh opportunity for what Sherman called a “hybrid” experience: one that combined a product-oriented project with a valuable teaching moment.
In July, Sherman sent an email inviting film majors to participate. One month later, 10 of them arrived on campus. Nico Raggi, a professional cinematographer, led a two-day instructional workshop before the students took over their jobs on the set.
“We really wanted to make as good of a film as possible that would have a life outside the workshop,” Sherman said. “In order to do that, we really needed to push people.”
Challenges began immediately for the crew. On the first day of filming, Kyle, working as first assistant camera, had to capture a difficult shot of Tazewell. The camera had a very shallow depth of field — meaning it can only focus on a very tiny area of the frame at a time — and Tazewell was walking, so Kyle had to continuously adjust the focus.
“We had to make sure he was in focus the whole time, but Nico didn’t want me looking at the monitor. Just by intuition,” Kyle said. “My hands were sweating, it was terrifying. He just kind of assumed that I would do it. And he didn’t coddle me at all.”
Sherman acknowledged that Raggi had demanded a lot of Kyle, but he also thought she rose to the challenge. “The whole quality of the image depended on her doing the job right,” Sherman said. “And she had to perform.”
Acting The Part
A Little Insurance follows a homeless man who shows up at the house of two grown siblings and claims to be their father.
“It’s really the story of whether they are willing to accept him back into their lives, and whether the father deserves to be back in their lives or not,” Tazewell said.
Tazewell planned to cast his own son, Conor Tazewell ’15, in the film, and had a specific actress in mind for the part of the daughter. When time came to shoot, both were unavailable.
Tazewell eventually hired Columbus-based actor Tony West for the male part, but he struggled to find an actress. When Kyla Spencer ’18 responded to the email inviting students to work on the set, Tazewell offered her the role. Spencer was his advisee, and Tazewell had worked with her before as an actress.
She eagerly accepted and soon found herself on the other side of the lens, playing the daughter.
“I was really overwhelmed at the beginning,” Spencer said. “It was kind of nerve-racking, acting with my advisor.”
Spencer’s performance complemented Tazewell’s, whose acting abilities impressed many of the students. “He was crazy!” Austin Barrett ’18 said. “He could cry on cue.”
Matthew Christopher ’17, who worked closely with Raggi as the second assistant camera, saw the cinematographer brought to tears at the height of the film’s emotional scene.
“We get done with the first cut, and Nico looks over at me and he’s all teary-eyed,” Christopher said. “He said, ‘Don’t laugh, don’t laugh. This is why I make movies. Because you can’t get this kind of emotion in real life.’”
A Little Insurance is now in post-production. Tazewell is editing the footage himself, and members of the student crew will have a chance to take part in that process, too.
The two professors will submit the film to festivals across the globe — first, though, they plan to screen it on Kenyon’s campus, perhaps as early as February.
The film has already made an impact on campus: Like Tazewell and Sherman hoped, the students who worked on the project have taken the learning experience to heart.
Kyle and Christopher are preparing for their senior thesis films this year. “It gave me a realistic perspective on how labor-intensive it is, how it will be if I put as much effort into my project as [Tazewell] and [Sherman] put into theirs,” Kyle said.
Barrett, now a junior, is thinking ahead. “This helped me understand how a very well-organized, well-oiled machine kind of works,” he said. “I could kind of see what problems we still had and how to overcome them.”
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