A horror director and a high school student team up for Collaborative Cinema
Local director and graduating UWM senior Michael Viers arrived to our interview wearing a Frankenstein shirt from the Times Cinema. He has a tattoo of a coffin with bats on his right arm and another of Jason Voorhees's legendary hockey mask on the left.
During our chat, he went into Rob Zombie's growth as a director, explained why John Carpenter's "Halloween" is one of his favorite films ("its simplicity," he noted) and discussed the public access television horror movie hosts – like Svengoolie and Sir Cecil Creape – that inspired the character Uncle Seymour Cadavers in his most recent short film "From the Darkness Theatre."
Yes, it's safe to say Viers is a horror movie junkie, but surprisingly, his upcoming project, "Love You Still," is less boogeyman and more "Old Man and the Sea." The most shocking part, however, is that the story – a tale of an old fisherman reflecting back on his life, including the career that never took off and the woman who left too soon – comes courtesy of a junior in high school.
It may seem like a strange combination, but for Milwaukee Film and its Collaborative Cinema educational program, it's just another exciting year of locally-bred film and hopefully a sign of more to come.
Every year since its inception in 2008, the Collaborative Cinema educational program accepts one-page script ideas, called treatments, from Milwaukee area high school students. They select the top 50 treatments and invite the applicants to come to two screenwriting workshops with experienced mentors to learn how to turn their stories into real, film-able screenplays.
The program then takes the top five scripts and gives them to four up-and-coming local directors, who individually take their favorite of the bunch and pitch their vision to a panel of industry professionals. The winning combination of script and director gets produced with a full-scale crew in late June and premieres at the Milwaukee Film Festival.
Last year, the winning short script was "The Vampire Formerly Known as Dracula," written by Ian Walls, at the time a freshman at Milwaukee High School for the Arts. This year, the winning script belongs to Katie Theel, a student at Franklin High School and three-time participant in the screenwriting program, who was surprised by the good news just a few weeks ago during her Advanced TV Production class.
"Susan (Kerns, educational director for Milwaukee Film), the director and the sound guy were all there," Theel said. "They were just like, 'Oh, we're just here to talk about Collaborative Cinema … but also, really why we're here is because we're going to be producing Katie's movie this summer.' I wasn't expecting that at all. Actually, when I walked into class, I was thinking, 'Dang it, why haven't they emailed me back? I want to know if I won!'"
The story for "Love You Still" came to Theel while she was scanning Google and Tumblr for an image that would spark some inspiration. During the search, she came across a picture of two rowboats with a man in one and a woman in the other, bridging the small gap between them by holding hands. From there, she crafted the story treatment and the script, which ended up impressing Viers as he went through the entries, looking for one to craft a pitch around.
"She had a lot of great description in there that I could visualize exactly how it should look," Viers said. "Just through her writing style, I was able to read a lot into things, like themes that she didn't even mention, but I could read her influences. There was a lot of great maturity, and there were deeper emotions than you would expect from a high school student."
Viers was also impressed by Theel's ability to "show, don't tell," a crucial lesson the young filmmaker from his own days participating in the Collaborative Cinema screenwriting program back in high school.
"Everybody thinks they can write dialogue," Viers said. "I wouldn't say nobody can, but it's extremely difficult – I struggle with it myself. Someone once told me you can tell an entire story without an entire piece of dialogue, just through people's actions and the way you show things."
Viers wasn't the only one hooked by Theel's script. The director immediately before Viers during the pitch process chose Theel's script as well, adding even more pressure to make his pitch strong and memorable to the panel.
"I tried to bring creativity and artistic vision to it," Viers said. "I was essentially overthinking the material and adding symbolism to different elements that I thought were important. I'm trying to do different, creative practical effects that I haven't seen done before, at least not in a Collaborative Cinema film. I took a risk pitching this script, but I felt strongly for it."
Obviously the risk paid off. While they wait for crew applications – due on May 21st –Viers, Theel and their producers have been meeting, tossing ideas around for the script's adaptation and emailing different clips and images for inspiration for the film's look and feel. So far, Theel said Viers's vision for "Love You Still" still matches what she sees in her head for the film.
It's an exciting first step for Theel, who hopes to use the finished product to apply to colleges with strong film programs and continue turning what was once simply a fifth grade hobby with friends into an actual plausible future.
"(The program) made it real to be in a place where there are all these professionals, and they know what they're doing, but they still take you seriously," Theel said. "That was kind of surreal the first time. Then I got to work on the set of the movie they chose last year. To see all these people that do this locally and to see people with jobs in an industry in a place other than just Los Angeles was one of the most valuable things I gained."
As for Viers, "Love You Still" serves as a chance to show he's more than just a horror movie director.
"It's not what people expect from me," Viers stated. "I want to show that I do have range. I love horror films, and they've been a big catalyst for why I'm in filmmaking right now. But I don't want people thinking I'm a one-trick pony. My first film in film school, in fact, was actually a Southern drama."
There might even be a few more eyes than usual on "Love You Still" at its premiere during this fall's Milwaukee Film Festival. Viers's short film I referenced in the introduction? The one starring a character named Uncle Seymour Cadavers? It's showing at the Short Film Corner of the upcoming Cannes Film Festival.
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