About the author: Jesse Darland â06 is studying towards a masterâs in journalism from Indiana University in Bloomington. Previously, the Elizabethtown native worked for Georgetown Collegeâs office of communications as a graphic artist. At Georgetown, he majored in theatre and writing, and directed an original re-imagining of Sophoclesâ Antigone as his senior project. He is engaged to Ashley Gabbard, current editor in chief of The Georgetonian.
By Jesse Darland â06
Actors arrive at the restaurant ready to film. The crew sets up lights, unpacks cameras and checks microphones. The cast and crew are here to film the final scene of Surviving Guthrie, a feature-length independent film theyâve been working on for nearly three months. Theyâve come today because they have a passion for this film.
But what they donât have yet is a script. The screenwriter, Jesse Harris â06, sits at a laptop, rewriting in a hurry. The ending has to be shot today, and some of the actors arenât able to make it. What used to be a big crowd scene is being scaled back to a more intimate gathering of a few characters. Phone calls come in with updatesâwhich actors will or wonât be able to make it. Harris adjusts the scene again.
Dr. Edward B. Smith, the filmâs director, dashes home to print off the new pages. The actors quickly memorize their new lines and the cameras rolls. Welcome to the fast-moving, uncertain world of independent filmmaking. Indie films that adapt to changing circumstances survive; those that canât fail. Today, this production survives and thrives. Despite the fresh script pages, the actors nail their lines, and the final scene wraps to a satisfying conclusion.
Surviving Guthrie is the first feature-length movie produced by Georgetown Collegeâs burgeoning Theatre & Performance Studies department. In addition to writing and directing, Harris and Smith are co-producing the movie at the head of an army of students, faculty and alumni from Georgetown College and professionals from the communityâ Director of Photography Marc Gurevitch of Trigger Happy Productions and actors from Lexington. Their flurry of activity first started last fall and if all goes well will conclude with the premiere of the finished film this December, nearly a year later.
The movie is a dark comedy, bitter and sweet like a piece of fine chocolate. The âGuthrieâ of the filmâs title is Carter Guthrie, played by Lexington actor Joe Gatton. Guthrie is an aging, angry journalism professor at fictional Paulsen College. Students fear him and love Guthrie, a mind-bending combination of Raoul Duke, Bobby Knight and the teacher from Dead Poets Society. His daughter Ally (played by Jessie Pennington â09), herself a student at Paulsen, wonât talk to him. The administration hates him but since heâs tenured they canât fire him. So, when a wealthy alumnus offers the school a massive donation on the condition that Guthrie clean up his act, Paulsenâs dean of students (Dr. Todd Coke) blackmails Ally into reforming her estranged father. If she canât, heâll expel her. Ally responds to this challenge, and how she comes to know and love her father for the first time, forms the heart of the Surviving Guthrie.
Harris and Smith began shooting this film in April with the movieâs opening scene. A couple of campus safety officers come to break up an illegal party and, in the process, the main characters are introduced to the audience. Harris and Smith used a house on Military Street, just off campus, transforming it into a movie set. Since itâs a night scene, Director of Photography Marc Gurevitch strung lights in the yard, the street and on the roof! Paradoxically, it takes a lot of light to shoot an exterior scene at night. Filming began at 5 p.m. and didnât finish for the actors involved until 6 a.m. the next morning, when they left exhausted but satisfied.
âAn ongoing scheduling odysseyâ is how Smith describes the project. He laughs when he says it; he laughs often. As associate professor in Georgetown Collegeâs theatre department, Smith marshaled a large number of students for the project; sometimes with âcreativeâ scheduling to accommodate them, he says. But everyone was glad to do it. âPeople were there, ready and willing,â he said.
With students volunteering their time, homework was often present during breaks on the set. âI had my books in my characterâs bag,â said Calie Goins â08, who plays Anna, one of Allyâs friends. âIn between takes Iâd be pulling them out and reading Milton.â The student actorsâalso students in the movieâfound ways to blend their charactersâ lives with their own. âI never heard complaining,â Smith said. âThe people on the set were in a good mood.â
While filming continued, the producers realized that the original shooting schedule had been too ambitious. âIt was harder than I thought, but it was good because the cast really got together,â Goins said. Filming continued into June, shooting scenes in classrooms, the Ensor Learning Resource Center, the Collegeâs offices, the Thomas and King Leadership and Conference Center near Toyota Stadium and Bianckeâs Restaurant in downtown Cynthiana, Ky.
Film is a relatively new medium for Smith, albeit one heâs waded into farther and farther over the past few years. As a director of stage plays, Smith is fond of techniques that are more commonly found in movies: frequent scene changes, complex light cues, special effects. Smith recalls a time when Tyler Tunney, a former technical director at Georgetown, exasperated with the demands of a play Smith was directing, burst out, âWhy donât you just make a movie? Your ideas are all too cinematic!â
That was the beginning of the process that would lead to Surviving Guthrie. Last fall, Smith decided that rather than do a play in the spring, he would like to tackle a feature-length film. âThen it just became, âOkay, what do I do?ââ he said. âJesse Harrisâs idea was doable. It was set on a college campus.â Which, probably, was one of the biggest reasons he chose to go with the Guthrie script. âFilm is infinitely practical,â he chuckled.
For the project, they used a camera courtesy of the Filmmaking Certificate Program at Bluegrass Community & Technical College and purchased a new Apple PowerMac to use as an editing workstation. The raw footage shot for the project weighs in at nearly 1.5 terabytes, roughly enough to data to fill 180 DVDs. The editing workstation was âdefinitely been put through its paces with the demands weâve been putting on it,â says Michael McCord â08, whoâs describes himself as âsort of a technical adviser to the film on computer equipmentâ and who plays Allyâs friend Dave in the film.
Scheduling was far from the only challenge the production faced. Another hurdle was the problem of shooting on location. Due to the low-budget nature of the production, all the sets used were found sets that couldnât be greatly modified. âIf I say in a theatre that weâre in a bar, then weâre in a bar,â Smith says. âBut in film you have to actually have a bar.â This presents problems of its own. âYou get into a location and realize thereâs a light you canât turn off or thereâs a machine in the background thatâs making a lot of noise,â McCord says. âBasically, all the problems you could have with a high-budget film shoot,â McCord said.
Surviving Guthrie is a bold step for a small, liberal arts college like Georgetown, but everyone involved is convinced that it falls within the collegeâs mission. âItâs kind of the core of the liberal arts,â McCord says. âYouâre bringing technology to bearâthe sciences. Youâre bringing art to bear, and the communicative mediumâhumanitiesâto bring it all together. It makes so much sense that a liberal arts college like Georgetown would do something like this.â
âDoing a movie is a complicated mechanism,â Smith says. âJust the planning of it is a really complicated mechanism.â Whatâs been the best thing about working on Guthrie? âOne of the fun things for me is that Iâm still learning a tremendous amount. How lucky am I?â Another thing is the creative atmosphere heâs been a part of. âThatâs something thatâs unique to schools like Georgetown. Faculty, students and alumni can go on these journeys together.â
The journey has been important to Jessie Pennington, the female lead. âItâs unique because Georgetown is one of the only colleges in central Kentucky that does this sort of thing,â she said. âItâs just a really good opportunity to get exposure, and make good projects, too.â John Farley â04 also thinks Guthrie will benefit the college. âItâs important for prospective students coming to Georgetown,â he says. âIt shows them quality productions are possible.â
Speaking of productions, letâs go back to Harris at his laptop, doing on-set rewrites. âAt any point, any one of these long nights, someone could have said, âI canât take this,â and it would all be over,â Smith says. âAnd it happens! It happens to films like ours.â Thankfully, Surviving Guthrie has been made by people who can take it, who continue to put in hours long after they thought theyâd be finished. Watching the nearly-finished edit, Harrisâs on-the-spot revision fits into the storyline perfectly. Thatâs the scrappy essence of an indie production: donât give up, find way around your problems and donât let the audience catch on.
By now, post-production is almost finished. Smith has completed the filmâs third edit, and things are getting close to the way theyâll be in the finished product. Before the film can be finished, some exteriors and transition need to be shot. Smith hopes to finish those by late October.
Surviving Guthrie is a movie about being true to yourself, forgetting about the demands others may place on you and striking out to find your own unique voice. Smith said the same could be applied to who had a part in the production, which certainly wonât be the last time Georgetown College tackles a full-length film.
âItâs something weâre committed to, âSmith said. âUltimately, it will go out to film festivals, and weâll see. My hope is that it will be accepted in festivals and people will see it.â