Ohio University students shooting upcoming feature film "Trailerpark"
Saturday night, 30 Ohio University students set fire to an old, run-down trailer.
As flames licked at the roof and smoke billowed out the windows of the dilapidated shell, students with cameras and equipment shouted orders to one another while shooting a pivotal and climactic scene for their upcoming feature film “Trailerpark.”
The film, based on a book of short stories by New York author Russell Banks (“Continental Drift,” “The Sweet Hereafter”), is the first full-length production to come out of an OU Media Arts and Studies class and an unprecedented undertaking by an undergraduate film class.
Frederick Lewis, associate professor of media arts and studies, said this is the first year his advanced narrative production class, MDIA 419, has actually attempted a full-length film. The class expects to wrap up shooting by April and to screen the film on campus by the end of spring quarter.
“This project is personally rewarding for me,” Lewis said, adding that he became fascinated with Banks’ ‘Trailerpark’ when he first read it decades ago.
When he learned that HBO had dropped the rights to the book in 2007, Lewis approached Banks and secured the rights for his class project. He then quickly had four students writing adaptations of scenes in the book for a script-writing class, with the intent of making a series of short films. “But we quickly realized that it had to be a feature,” Lewis recalled. “It pretty much demanded to be a feature.”
After that, the project snowballed into a massive undertaking, with his class of 70 students working at a daunting pace to pull off one major film, instead of a series of shorts. Since the beginning of winter quarter, the students have spent countless hours and a number of long, cold weekends planning and shooting scenes for the film.
ANDREW POLAND, A JUNIOR VIDEO production student and director of photography on Saturday’s shoot, talked about the amount of time and energy that goes into such a large project. Poland was one of many students who spent much of Friday and Saturday this weekend outside shooting in the cold. “Basically all my time is spent on this feature,” he said.
In addition to burning down a trailer on Saturday’s shoot, the crew built an entire trailer park set from the ground up at Lake Snowden where much of the film will be shot. Lewis called the set “surreal,” and said that undoubtedly, drivers passing by “are going to think that’s a real trailer park.” Next week, all nine actors on the film and part of the crew are traveling north to shoot a series of scenes in Michigan.
In addition to having the rights to Banks’ story, Lewis said, “This year there was just the right combination of talent.” Because of the students in the class, he said, “this was the year to try it.”
Patrick Muhlberger, one of two directors on the film and a junior video production student, said he’s spent the past six months refining and rewriting the script. He and three other students – Jeff Bowers, Nick Knittle and Jonny Look – began writing scenes for the film late last year. Look, a senior video production student, is the other director on the project.
The crew plans to do a screening for Banks once the film is finished, Muhlberger said. “I think he’s been impressed with how we’re handling the film… Our main goal is for him to see it and like our adaptation of his work,” he added.
Muhlberger said he and the other students saw endless possibilities with Banks’ book. “There’s so much fun stuff in the book that we were really eager to tackle,” he said.
In tackling a feature production, students on the project have also learned what it means to tackle a major budget – the estimated cost is around $45,000. Just last week, Student Activities Commission gave the project a $20,000 grant, on top of $2,500 given by the Honors Tutorial College and a $1,500 performance grant given to the project from the School of Media Arts and Studies. Lewis said that students have been fundraising since the summer and are still seeking more funds.
Given the magnitude and scale of the production, Lewis said his students are seeing what it takes to make a real feature film. “This is even more like the real deal than ever before.”
Muhlberger agreed. “What we’re getting is a really professional experience,” he said. “We’re learning how to deal with a big crew and a lot of other aspects that go into professional film-making.”
Conor Hogan, whom Lewis called the “producing lynchpin” of the entire project, said he’s already learned a number of lessons as coordinating producer for the film. Hogan, a junior, said the project is helping him find out what “producing in the real world is like.
“There’s been a huge difference between doing short films and this,” he said.
Junior Andrew Heaberlin said he’s been working on the logistics of the trailer-fire scene since mid-December. Heaberlin, who was instrumental in planning and pulling off the shoot, said that all the work involved in setting up the scene made it a massive undertaking. “It’s really not an easy or small thing to burn down a trailer,” he said.
Muhlberger said, “I had no idea it would require this much time for just a half-page of script.”
After buying the old trailer, Heaberlin said, the crew had to get approval from the state EPA to actually burn it. Then, with cooperation from the York Township Volunteer Fire Department, the crew set up the trailer at Hocking College’s fire-safety program’s burn site.
Before the shoot, all that was left inside the trailer were remnants of a kitchen, a ceiling fan, a torn-up bathroom, and hay scattered across the floor. When it came time to light the trailer, the two directors and Heaberlin went in armed with road flares and hay. When they came out, the empty shell had already begun to fill with smoke and orange and red flashes were starting to light up the windows.
Heaberlin called the entire experience “fantastic and mind-boggling at the same time.” He said he never thought he’d be working on such a major project during his college career.
As soon as the fire was raging, Poland sprinted back and forth across the set shouting directions to his crew for all needed shots. Poland had four cameras filming the trailer burn, two for the main action shots and two others for close-ups and cutaways.
After the shoot was over, Poland said, “Man, it was just nonsense.
“For every single thing in this shoot, we had to be above just being on top of our game,” Poland said. “Our ‘money shot’ was this wide silhouette shot, and we got it.”