Monday, October 12, 2009

Trailerpark: Student-Made Feature

This is an unedited version of an article appearing in the Fall Issue of Filmmaker Magazine.

By Roberto Quezada-Dardon

For nine years students in MDIA 419, a narrative video class at Ohio University, have made short films selected from twenty-five to thirty scripts that they have written. Teams are chosen, one per script, and over the course of two quarters, people work as producers, editors, cinematographers, etc. with a director who’s been chosen on the basis of his or her experience and performance on past shorts in other positions. Anywhere from sixty to 70 additional students are divided among each of the five various projects as grips, electricians, and P.A.s, and everybody working on the projects gets course credit. The course is taught by the associate professor who developed it, Frederick Lewis. This year he decided that all this energy would be focused on making just one movie— a full-length theatrical feature.

While still a student at Brown University, Lewis remembers falling in love with a book of short stories by Russell Banks called Trailerpark. Twenty-five years later, as a filmmaker screening his documentary at the Lake Placid Film Forum, Lewis finally got to meet Mr. Banks, the founder of the forum. Banks was particularly interested in the subject of the film, the artist Rockwell Kent, because of a character based on Kent he was developing for a novel. The Trailerpark characters and stories had made a lasting impression on Lewis, but when he met the writer, he couldn’t find the words to mention this as coolly as he would have liked to. Over the years, the two men stayed in touch via email after the forum.

Juniors and seniors in MDIA 419 write both an original short screenplay, and an adaptation from a published short story. In the past the course has produced short films based on stories by various published writers intrigued by this method of teaching digital film production, the most notable being Kurt Vonnegut and T.C. Boyle. But no one at Ohio University had ever attempted a feature length film as part of the undergrad curriculum. This is also uncommon at most major film schools. In fact, if Google, IMDb, and Youtube are reliable measures, “student film” seems to be synonymous with “short.”

There are some very good reasons given for discouraging the practice at most film schools. There is the fear of permitting a student to set himself up for failure, or at least distraction from directing, due to the dimensions of such a project. Or the unfair advantage a student with access to finances would have over students who didn’t. Some schools, because they are providing equipment, editing rooms, tape, and in some cases, film stock and processing, claim ownership of all projects, thus creating a problem for students needing a return on their investment to pay for everything else. Even with most necessities donated, it’s difficult to get a polished feature in the can for under five digits. And what about the sheer drain on resources that a feature would cause a school trying to accommodate the projects of many students each semester?

These obstacles apparently did not exist in the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University. First of all, there’s the course instructor himself. I’ve spoken to Frederick Lewis and, frankly, he’s kind of crazy— in a wonderfully contagious way. The possibility that such a venture might fail colossally simply never occurred to him. This fed into the element of surprise. No one was expecting a full-length feature to come out of an undergraduate video course. Lewis feels that it’s fortunate MDIA 419 is not a part of a traditional film school. It is in the School of Media Arts and Studies which mainly focuses on television studio production, documentary, post-production, and animation. Nor is Lewis’s class in narrative video required to graduate. Lewis believes that this relieves a lot of pressure because students get course credit for any job they do on a production, not just directing. Everyone that works on a project like this is committed to it in a way that they would not be if they were all directors just putting in their time on someone else’s project in turn for help on theirs.

One day, five years after meeting Russell Banks, Lewis brought up Trailerpark as a good example of source material for screenplay adaptations to a student in the course, Patrick Muhlberger. During this conversation, it occurred to Lewis that the various short stories in the book and all its disenfranchised characters might work as a full-length screenplay. When he said to Muhlberger that maybe they should try it, Muhlberger’s silent response was “yeah, right.” But Lewis was now on a mission.

Soon after, he emailed Banks and he explained to the twice-produced author (The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction) the concept of the class. Banks liked it and Lewis’s timing was perfect. HBO had just relinquished the rights to Trailerpark back to Banks. A couple of weeks later, Lewis and Banks had signed a simple, one paragraph letter of agreement allowing a movie to be made by MDIA 419 that could be shown only on the campus of Ohio University. No biggie. It was something Lewis had done many times before with published writers.

Lewis got Muhlberger a copy of Trailerpark and suggested he start selecting stories and characters that would all fit in one over arching story. It was a big job. Other students taking the course became involved with the project. Nick Knittel, Jeff Bowers, and Jonny Look all joined in the assignment to sort stories and characters into a single narrative. Lewis met with the students twice a month and read each draft of the script working with them on sequencing of scenes and improvements to the script.

After editing and condensing and adapting and writing for two quarters, what takes place over 60 years on the pages of Russell Banks’s book was condensed into a single year. The wheels of pre-production began to turn, and Lewis selected two directors to helm the project, Patrick Muhlberger and Jonny Look.

Each director worked with his own cinematographer, Andrew Poland, a senior in the Media Arts department, and John Veleta from the film school. Each D.P. had his own camera crew, but everyone else, the Production Designer Lauren Malizia and her department, Chief Lighting Technician Hank Wagenbach and all the grips and electricians, and the P.A.s, formed a single crew along with Conor Hogan as the coordinating producer.

Funding was raised by the students themselves and from many donors, as well as a very generous grant from the Ohio University Student Activities Commission. Andrew Poland managed to convince companies such as Mole-Richardson and Zacuto USA that this was not a typical student film and they were loaned all the grip, lighting, and camera equipment used on the project.

The scenes and story lines each director would be in charge of were agreed upon at the writing stage of production. Sets were built and dressed (including eight seventy-foot house trailers that were rented and transported to the side of a lake) and photography was accomplished in 32 days, mostly on weekends. The picture was edited during and after shooting by Ben Draher, and picture was locked four weeks after shooting wrapped. According to Jonny Look “Frederick gave Patrick and I complete creative control….He allowed us to be the final decision on set for all of our principal photography, which needed to happen, or else our role as directors may have been a bit confusing.”

Trailerpark premiered on campus at Ohio University and was then presented to the public at this year’s Lake Placid Film Forum. It was very well received. Russell Banks was present and in a taped interview said that the work of the filmmakers just blew him away. “They caught the mixture of comedy and tragedy which is really hard to do. The book has that mix and they caught that and I was very grateful for that….I just thought the level of professionalism was really extraordinary. REALLY extraordinary. I have never seen a student production of that quality in my life.” The distribution agreement he has with the school has been expanded so that the film can now be submitted to any and all of the film festivals Frederick Lewis has planned for it.


  1. Roberto,

    First of all, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Danny Cox and I am a student at Ohio University and the PR Director for Trailerpark. Thank you so much for your terrific article on our project- I know it was a truly life-changing experience for most of us involved. Words cannot describe the excitement we all feel at the thought of seeing Trailerpark in Filmmaker Magazine, but the phrase dream come true comes to mind. I stumbled across your blog while doing press research for the movie and felt compelled to thank you on behalf of everyone from the project for your story.

  2. I saw your film and spoke with some of the people involved in making it. Both their passion and their talent really came through, and it was a rewarding experience for me to have made their acquaintance. Loved the film. Mr. Banks is a treasure. Roberto