Fairfield Now - Fall 2009
Once Upon a Time in South Dakota
Fairfield's film program shoots its first feature-length movie
By Meredith Guinness
It was 2 a.m. on the still South Dakota prairie. The cast and crew of Dawn of Conviction had just wrapped up another long day of shooting the first full-length feature produced by Fairfield University students. Exhausted, they looked at the next day's shooting schedule hoping for a break. They weren't going to get one.
The train robbery scene: A mere three-and-a-half hours later they would have to create the most complex and expensive scene in this four-part film and they only had one chance to get it right. After all, it's not like you would want to rent a steam locomotive for a second day.
But by dawn they were ready.
Producer Bridget Lake '04 stood to the side of the tracks as actor Brad Martocello '07, a Colt .45 Peacemaker hanging lazily at his side, prepared to confront the train as it rolled toward him. Patrick Hendrickson '10, one of the film's four directors, guided the crew maneuvering a 30-foot jib that held the camera aloft. At the same time, miles away Matt Petterson '10 directed actors on the train for an interior shot.
Executive Producer, the Rev. James Mayzik, S.J., director of New Media Film, Television, and Radio at Fairfield, sat in the driver's seat of a Chevy Suburban, while Dennis Donovan '10 popped out of the sunroof, with yet another camera in his hand. These two would race ahead of the train, filming the action, bouncing along a road that crisscrossed over the tracks. Meanwhile Bob Cammisa '10, another director, stood at the edge of a puddle under a trestle, with another camera aimed at the tracks. Something in the water caught his eye: A snake slithered lazily near his leg. He hoped it wasn't poisonous and looked back up, waiting.
"It rained for most of the time we were out there," said Fr. Mayzik of the 20-day shoot this summer. "We had an actor who had a concussion, so we had to recast. The horse wrangler broke his jaw. There was this incredibly complex train scene. We were dealing with crisis the whole time," he shrugged. "That's what filmmaking is."
But they did it. In less than a month, a dozen students, a handful of faculty and staff, and a band of professional actors and crew culled from New York City to the Black Hills filmed the makings of a Western that may be ready for film festivals and national distribution by early 2010.
Planning on the Western began in September 2008. The department had never delved into the genre, but a core group from the New Media program who had worked together on an earlier miniseries called Echo's Wayward started writing the Western script under the direction of Fr. Mayzik in January. Together, they crafted an epic-yet-intimate story of three brothers who travel from Minnesota to South Dakota in search of gold and the power struggles that ensue between them, the native Americans, and others they meet along the way. "Since I arrived at Fairfield I've wanted to work with passionate, gifted students to do a feature project like this," said Fr. Mayzik, who raised funds from friends and supporting benefactors. "This is the fulfillment of a dream, and the inauguration of an annual feature production at Fairfield."
In March, Lake and Fr. Mayzik went to South Dakota to scout locations and cast local actors. With help from the South Dakota Film Commission, they found a host of free locations, including a sprawling horse sanctuary and a recreated Old West town. A man who ran a camp offered the cast and crew a place to stay in June. Two actors who owned a Wyoming ranch let them film there for a week.
Local horse wrangler Robert "Cowboy" Culbertson gave the crew a cut rate on the six horses he provided and taught the actors how to ride convincingly. "In one shot they rode off into the sunset," Lake remembered, "and I said to Cowboy, 'You just made New York actors look like they know how to ride horses.'"
"I think it all hangs together well. We got the shots we wanted," said Fr. Mayzik. "We have a film. We really do have a film."
You could say the film began three years ago, when a few key players, strangers to each other then, decided to take courses in New Media. Take Petterson, who directed one of the film's four parts and wrote another. Dabbling in digital media in high school, he wanted to delve deeper in college. Donovan, another director/writer, did the same, inspired while in high school by watching The Making of the Lord of the Rings. These newly-arrived freshmen became part of a group that spent a good bit of their time at the Media Center, a basement treasure trove for film buffs that is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment available for student use. They started making films right away.
The students became fast friends and were soon working on their first project, a three-part sci-fi miniseries called Echo's Wayward. The students wrote, directed, cast, and shot it, with production advice and expertise from Media Center staff. Like the Western, Echo's Wayward was created for experience, not course credit. Donovan is now at work on his senior capstone project, a prequel to that film called Echo 49, enlisting many colleagues in the group's newly-formed independent production company, Companion Pictures (www.companionpictures.com). "We wanted to do a joint capstone, but we're all going to help work on each others'," said Cammisa.
The potent blend of camaraderie and professionalism that went into the Echo projects and the Western is becoming typical in the New Media program, said Lake, who minored in New Media before it was a full major. Coming back to teach and work in the Media Center, she was amazed by the program's popularity - there are now more than 90 students who major in new media.
Fr. Mayzik noted that few, if any, film programs in the country offer students the opportunity to work on a feature film, making Fairfield's program a stand-out in the field.
Petterson agreed. "With a project like this you're stepping outside yourself and you realize what you can accomplish," he said. "Sometimes you even surprise yourself."