Behind the Scenes: UofC students’ feature film premieres at Doc Films

Jack Mayer is nervous. Leaning on a metal desk in the one-room office of Fire Escape Films in the basement of the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall, surrounded by cameras, cables, and computers, the young film director and fourth-year college student holds the brim of a tropical print ball cap and stares at the floor, thinking very hard. Mayer and his cast and crew of fifteen have spent eighteen months and thirteen grand turning his screenplay “A Girl Named Clyde” into a feature-length film. The movie is supposed to premiere in about two hours, upstairs, in the theater of the UofC’s Doc Films. Shot in high-definition, the film’s digital file is so big that the Doc Films system may not be able to handle it, and there’s no time to write a DVD. The search is on for a small cord that might be able to connect the film to the Doc system, but Mayer wants a backup plan. In a slight Georgia accent he sighs, “We gotta find ourselves a projector…”

“Clyde” is Mayer’s third feature film and the first for Justin Staple, who edited most of the film. It’s also one of the most professional films to come out of Fire Escape Films. Staple, a third-year undergraduate, is loose and completely unworried as he describes the dilemma of a student film. “We made this movie for more than ourselves…and that’s a bad thing…or maybe not.” He laughs and clarifies, “We want to make something universally enjoyable–which could also mean ‘commercially viable.’” The film follows the 20-something Clyde on a road trip from Atlanta to Texas as she struggles to find herself in a universe of sincere, bored, and directionless friends. The cast and crew spent 25 days shooting over 50 hours of footage in Atlanta, Austin, and Galveston, and they’ve gotten good at improvising solutions. “The whole crew was eating ramen for a day and a half while we waited for a check to clear,” Mayer recalls between phone calls to find a projector. On the drive between Atlanta and Austin, the rear axle of Mayer’s car snapped and spun off of the highway, somehow injuring no one. The project’s biggest setback came when Staple tripped and dropped a hard drive, erasing hours of important footage. The filmmakers brought in an illustrator who drew 450 frames to animate some of the lost scenes.

That same problematic hard drive is now sitting on the floor of the Doc Films projection room, attached to the little white cord, which has been located and is not working. Mayer did find a projector, though, and it appears that the premiere will be happening. Staple is positioning the projector in a window of the projection booth, but he’s forgotten his glasses and his vision is making it difficult. “Sometimes,” he contemplates, as he holds the projector back from a thirty-foot drop, “it’s hard to know what student film is all about.” The first UofC student film to be shot in high definition ends up having its premiere shown from a mediocre projector balanced precariously on a stack of course books and CD cases. Mayer adjusts the color as best he can, and the anxious crowd of about 250 enters the theater only ten minutes behind schedule.

When the lights go down, the film that plays is a lot like the hours that led up to its premiere. It’s surprising, makeshift, a little haphazard and a little hurried as it struggles to be both sincere and professional. It alternates between relaxed dialogue and moments of genuine distress; it’s honest, moving, and really entertaining. The editing is gorgeous and the quality of the production is impressive, although Mayer looks physically ill when several scenes are too dark. The film overflows with music from Chicago and the various hometowns of its creators. “A Girl Named Clyde” is a genuinely good film, and the premiere is a genuinely good place to be. The film’s future is unknown; Mayer and Staple hope to sell a DVD on the project’s website under a pay-what-you-want model, and they will submit the film for festival consideration. But tonight, at least, is a success.

As the credits roll, Staple attempts an apology for the image quality. Nobody seems to have minded. People are excited; they congratulate the cast and crew on their way out, and discreetly toss a few PBR cans into the trash. Staple is still relaxed as he talks with well-wishers; Mayer still seems nervous, but he seems happy with the premiere and the long process that produced it. In the lobby he gives his dad a long hug and heads upstairs to retrieve the unused hard drive, which he carries with both hands.

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