Move over Sundance: Lexington Short Film Night debuts

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BY EVAN O. ALBERT

Lexington filmmaker Justin Hannah

As Sundance lights up the big screens out west, Lexington doesn’t yet have its own film festival for local filmmakers. But it does have a rich history, from the days of 100 Proof up through KET’s ongoing Reel Visions series, and  more recent efforts last year like Hitting the Cycle and Pleased to Meet Me. Fall also offers Filmslang, an opportunity for Lexington filmmakers to show their work as part of WRFL’s annual Boomslang.

January 30 will offer a unique dinner and a movie night out — five short films by five local filmmakers, all to be screened at Natasha’s downtown.  Is the next Lena Dunham or Henry Joost  living next door?

Justin Hannah has been making films and animation since 2003, and he organized the evening. He’s a filmmaker and artist based in Lexington, Kentucky who works in marketing, web design and video production. He recently set out to find the best short films from central Kentucky filmmakers. He spent hours scouring YouTube, Vimeo and social networking sites to find top-notch local work. “I looked at films to see what Kentucky was doing. I emailed a lot of people, watched their films and picked the five best.”

Hopefully, pending the success of this night, this becomes somewhat of a regular event in Lexington. Hannah claims that there is enough material out there to support many more events. “You could do something like this almost quarterly, and have enough good movies to actually make this happen. There’s a vacuum that we haven’t filled, there isn’t a film festival in Lexington. There is a theme here, a lot of people are making things in this area.”

Endeavors such as this are part of what some are calling a “Lexington Renaissance,” a cultural makeover of our fine city. There are more places to play music, more places to perform, more galleries to hang art in and more local products to enjoy. The corner of 6th and Limestone has gradually filled up with bars and shops (artist John Lackey’s short film here), many of which offer performance spaces for musicians. Cheapside is now surrounded by bars, food, and live music around the Fifth Third Pavilion, which also serves as a downtown outdoor venue. Lexington’s Distillery District is now anchored by Buster’s, a mid-size venue comparable to the Exit/In in Nashville and Headliners in Louisville. The downtown LexArts Gallery Hop is still going strong, and innovative entrepreneurs have given us a brewgrass trail of craft beer.  This event is a foot in the door for filmmakers to share in the fun alongside of musicians, painters, actors and entrepreneurs.

The featured films are all under twenty minutes and touch on subjects spanning a myspace bromance, misplaced briefcases filled with cash, a wedding singer, puppets, and consignment stores with dark secrets.

I took a night to sit down and watch every one of these films and was not only impressed by their quality but was thoroughly entertained. Each offering is short and captivating, evidence of strong curation and central Kentucky filmmaking talent.. Here is what you can expect to see on January 30th.

Age/Sex/Location

Kentucky natives and musicians Jon Moore and Jeremy Midkiff (Big Fresh) settled on a mockumentary set in “Shoulderblade,” Kentucky because they could do it on their own “without a huge production.”

They shot eight hours of footage for a 15-minute short, with zero budget. “We shot everything on borrowed gear and had no other expenses. Our goal is to use the enthusiasm about the short to launch an IndieGoGo fundraising page in the next week or two to raise funds for the feature film we are making. We have stepped it up by getting a better HD camera and we hope to raise enough money to get a few lights, audio equipment, and other gear to make a more professional film this go around. The goal is to finish shooting the feature (which revolves around the characters we created for Age/Sex/Location) by August and editing the film to submit to film festivals at the end of the year.”

Jeremy Midkiff (Left) hanging out with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys

They’ve been encouraged by the response so far. “We did have a screening as a part of the LFL/Lexington Public Library Film Night at the Farish Theater (at Central Library) back in April of 2012. We were very encouraged by this screening because there was a lot of people and most of them laughed the whole time. This is one of the beauties of making a straight comedy – there is instant feedback to know if you are successful. If people laugh then you have succeeded.”
Midkiff’s elevator pitch is “a mockumentary set in small-town Kentucky about the most awkward Myspace party ever thrown. Pyramid-schemer Rob Bronson threw the party, but only one person stayed, Ova Reynolds, who raises cockfighting roosters. An unlikely friendship blossoms before our eyes.” Presented by Claw Machine Films.

The Walk Softly Films crew and the cast of “Bizanival”

Bizarnival: Shot all over Danville (the filmmakers’ hometown), this film has won some recognition at local and international film festivals. It is an experimental journey through the creative process. Expect a carpet-bombing puppet pilot (“my plane? have you seen it?” “is it puppet size?”) and mimes (“Guys, it’s mime night”).

They’d already purchased the camera they used for another project. “So, our total budget for Bizarnival was about $400 dollars,” and that was paid for out of their own pockets. No crowdfunding yet. How did they spend it? “That consisted of a few costume pieces, a puppet, three  tuxedos (off eBay), and a piece of music.  A lot of people donate their time to us that we would never be able to pay  them for. For example, there is an amazing little robot character in the  film that everyone loves. Matt Todd is a part of the WSF family and he  built that for us just because he’s a great guy and likes to help us out.”

Their elevator pitch is simple, “Mr. Weinstein, this is a weird flick about puppets, mimes, and tiny  robots that won’t make a dime.”

This film is presented by Walk Softly Films. Winner of the Audience Choice Award at the Danville Lawn Chair Film Festival, the Best Narrative Short at River’s Edge International Film Festival and the Best U.S Short at the Derby City Film Festival.

Consignment

Margaret Wuertz and Abbra Smallwood in Consignment

Justin Hannah kicked off the $1600 budget for Consignment by winning a Beach Boys video contest, along with a few others. “The rest came from savings. It should’ve cost a lot more,” he says, “but I was lucky to get the assistance and support of some very cool local business – Pink Door Boutique of Louisville provided the vintage wardrobe, and let us use their shop as a filming location. TKO Hair Studio (of Nicholasville and Lexington) recreated the 1950s hairstyles, and Street Scene (of Lexington) provided all the vintage accessories and antiques.”

The atmospheric black and white short  was inspired by a “women’s consignment shop in Lexington that I would pass every day on my drive home from work. Every day, I’d sit at the red light and while waiting for the light to change, I’d glance into the windows of that store, and it would give me ideas. I’m not sure if it was because of the vintage/older clothing in the window, or because it was dark from the outside and you couldn’t really see beyond that front window. But it gave me this feeling of another time, and of an unresolved mood. I love the style of films from the 1950s (everything from the lighting to the pacing to the performances), so as these ideas started to coalesce, I began to see it in terms of a film from the 1950s, about a lonely woman staring into the window of a dark consignment shop, longing for something dark and mysterious inside.”

Justin Hannah (Left) on the set of “Consignment”

Casting ”was difficult, because the actors didn’t only have to perform in this specific way, they also had to ‘look’ right, if you know what I mean.” Abbra Smallwood as Margaret, in her film debut, was the first person cast. Her performance (and her look) is a  little bit January Jones as Betty Draper mixed with Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn.

“Margaret Wuertz as the Shopkeeper [is] a wonderful actress from Louisville. She couldn’t make any of the auditions, so we met at a Starbucks and she did her audition right there in the middle of the coffee shop. And of course she nailed it.”

Consignment is a dark tale seasoned to perfection with riveting music and cinematography. Justin Hannah claims it is the “most ambitious thing I’ve ever made.” Justin Hannah’s hard work has paid off, Consignment looks and feels like a professional piece.

Sour Notes

Harlan County native Jesse Harris is a Georgetown College grad now living in LA who interned with veteran filmmaker Tom Thurman years ago at KET. Harris’s film is inspired by a short story he wrote and decided to revisit for an MFA thesis at Boston’s Emerson College, where he graduated last spring. The pitch? “A wild-child wedding singer has to mentor a 10-year-old girl on the same day she has to sing at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding. It’s Rachel Getting Married meets About a Boy.

“Budget was $8,600, and we raised just north 0f $8,700 on Kickstarter. Kickstarter takes 5%, so we had to raise a little north of what we wanted to reach the mark.” (Kickstarter is a popular resource for Kentucky filmmakers, partially funding Archie Borders’ Aimee Mann/Joe Henry/John Doe effort, Pleased to Meet Me last year.)

“Shot around central Kentucky, with locations in Georgetown, Lexington, and Frankfort, the second half of the film was shot in the First United Methodist Church in Frankfort.” It stars Jessie Rose Pennington as Emily, Rhyan Sprague as Sally, and Clay Burke as Jack.  “Jessie Rose is an old friend of mine and a ridiculous talent, and when I knew that I was going to make a film about a wedding singer, I knew she was going to play the part.” Rhyan was a student of Joe Gatton, “who helped out as an associate producer, mostly assisting with location scouting and casting.”

His  first feature film, Surviving Guthrie, grew out of a short he wrote for screenwriting class at Georgetown. “During filming, I was working days at First State Financial bank in Lexington, and driving at night to work on the shoot.  There was a month during filming where between the two jobs I worked four straight weeks of 60-80 hours a week.”

Jesse Harris, creator of “Sour Notes”

Next was graduate school. Harris says,  “I could have stayed in Lexington and worked at the bank and made movies on the side for the rest of my life, but I wanted to put out the best product I could.  Emerson College is one of the best film schools in the world, and really gave me a chance to test my strengths (writing, producing) and work on my weaknesses (editing, directing).  It was an all-around program that gave me access to award-winning writers, directors, and producers that wouldn’t in a million years look at my work otherwise, not to mention workshop my material with some fellow sharp young minds.”

Watch Me

“If you’re watching this, I’m dead.” So begins Watch Me.

Co-directors Lee Clements and Erin Picone were both Asbury students in media communications, casting fellow students. “Part of our preproduction time was spent in Whistler, British Columbia during the 2010 Winter Olympics.”  They’ve since graduated. Lee says, “I’m currently getting my Masters of Fine Arts in Directing Cinema & Television while pursuing freelance and engineering work, while Erin is living in Los Angeles, freelancing and working with several casting agencies.”

“The main camera,” used for Watch Me, “was a Canon 5D Mark II, bought only a few months after it began taking over the indie film scene.”

Lee Clements in action

“It started from a music video idea I had, which involved the agents and briefcase and dead partner, so the bones were there. The rest of the film came from an idea to tell the story in only eight minutes, with a main character who has almost no dialogue–carving out things that didn’t tell the story or advance the plot.”

Bad guys chasing good guys through the city, in cars and at the airport. It’s fun to see an action thriller that takes you through Lexington. Fans of the Bourne series and The Matrix will get a kick out of this. Winner of Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Editing at the 2010 Highbridge Film Festival at Asbury University.

This article also appears on page 12 of the January 24, 2013 print edition of Ace.

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