About the author: Jesse Darland ‘06 is studying towards a master’s in journalism from Indiana University in Bloomington. Previously, the Elizabethtown native worked for Georgetown College’s office of communications as a graphic artist. At Georgetown, he majored in theatre and writing, and directed an original re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone as his senior project. He is engaged to Ashley Gabbard, current editor in chief of The Georgetonian.
By Jesse Darland ‘06
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 they’ve been working on for nearly three months. They’ve come today because they have a passion for this film.
But what they don’t have yet is a script. The screenwriter, Jesse Harris ’06, sits at a laptop, rewriting in a hurry. The ending has to be shot today, and some of the actors aren’t 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 updates—which actors will or won’t be able to make it. Harris adjusts the scene again.
Dr. Edward B. Smith, the film’s 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 can’t 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 College’s 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 community— 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 “Guthrie” of the film’s 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 ‘09), herself a student at Paulsen, won’t talk to him. The administration hates him but since he’s tenured they can’t fire him. So, when a wealthy alumnus offers the school a massive donation on the condition that Guthrie clean up his act, Paulsen’s dean of students (Dr. Todd Coke) blackmails Ally into reforming her estranged father. If she can’t, he’ll 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 movie’s 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 it’s 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 didn’t finish for the actors involved until 6 a.m. the next morning, when they left exhausted but satisfied.
“An ongoing scheduling odyssey” is how Smith describes the project. He laughs when he says it; he laughs often. As associate professor in Georgetown College’s theatre department, Smith marshaled a large number of students for the project; sometimes with “creative” scheduling to accommodate them, he says. But everyone was glad to do it. “People were there, ready and willing,” he said.
With students volunteering their time, homework was often present during breaks on the set. “I had my books in my character’s bag,” said Calie Goins ’08, who plays Anna, one of Ally’s friends. “In between takes I’d be pulling them out and reading Milton.” The student actors—also students in the movie—found ways to blend their characters’ lives with their own. “I never heard complaining,” Smith said. “The people on the set were in a good mood.”
While filming continued, the producers realized that the original shooting schedule had been too ambitious. “It was harder than I thought, but it was good because the cast really got together,” Goins said. Filming continued into June, shooting scenes in classrooms, the Ensor Learning Resource Center, the College’s offices, the Thomas and King Leadership and Conference Center near Toyota Stadium and Biancke’s Restaurant in downtown Cynthiana, Ky.
Film is a relatively new medium for Smith, albeit one he’s 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, “Why don’t you just make a movie? Your ideas are all too cinematic!”
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. “Then it just became, ‘Okay, what do I do?’” he said. “Jesse Harris’s idea was doable. It was set on a college campus.” Which, probably, was one of the biggest reasons he chose to go with the Guthrie script. “Film is infinitely practical,” 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 “definitely been put through its paces with the demands we’ve been putting on it,” says Michael McCord ’08, who’s describes himself as “sort of a technical adviser to the film on computer equipment” and who plays Ally’s 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 couldn’t be greatly modified. “If I say in a theatre that we’re in a bar, then we’re in a bar,” Smith says. “But in film you have to actually have a bar.” This presents problems of its own. “You get into a location and realize there’s a light you can’t turn off or there’s a machine in the background that’s making a lot of noise,” McCord says. “Basically, all the problems you could have with a high-budget film shoot,” 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 college’s mission. “It’s kind of the core of the liberal arts,” McCord says. “You’re bringing technology to bear—the sciences. You’re bringing art to bear, and the communicative medium—humanities—to bring it all together. It makes so much sense that a liberal arts college like Georgetown would do something like this.”
“Doing a movie is a complicated mechanism,” Smith says. “Just the planning of it is a really complicated mechanism.” What’s been the best thing about working on Guthrie? “One of the fun things for me is that I’m still learning a tremendous amount. How lucky am I?” Another thing is the creative atmosphere he’s been a part of. “That’s something that’s unique to schools like Georgetown. Faculty, students and alumni can go on these journeys together.”
The journey has been important to Jessie Pennington, the female lead. “It’s unique because Georgetown is one of the only colleges in central Kentucky that does this sort of thing,” she said. “It’s just a really good opportunity to get exposure, and make good projects, too.” John Farley ’04 also thinks Guthrie will benefit the college. “It’s important for prospective students coming to Georgetown,” he says. “It shows them quality productions are possible.”
Speaking of productions, let’s go back to Harris at his laptop, doing on-set rewrites. “At any point, any one of these long nights, someone could have said, ‘I can’t take this,’ and it would all be over,” Smith says. “And it happens! It happens to films like ours.” Thankfully, Surviving Guthrie has been made by people who can take it, who continue to put in hours long after they thought they’d be finished. Watching the nearly-finished edit, Harris’s on-the-spot revision fits into the storyline perfectly. That’s the scrappy essence of an indie production: don’t give up, find way around your problems and don’t let the audience catch on.
By now, post-production is almost finished. Smith has completed the film’s third edit, and things are getting close to the way they’ll 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 won’t be the last time Georgetown College tackles a full-length film.
“It’s something we’re committed to, “Smith said. “Ultimately, it will go out to film festivals, and we’ll see. My hope is that it will be accepted in festivals and people will see it.”