Like I said in the preview, this is my third year covering Pens to Lens, and I always have an amazing time. I never expect writers to be in town for an all-day event, but this year writer Nika Lucks joined me on the press-side of the velvet rope, and together we tried to get all the goods about the attendees.
A formal event, the red carpet gala gives everyone an extra chance to get some extra mileage out of their clothing finery. Local talents and national celebrities walked the red carpet just like a Hollywood event. With glamorous dresses, crisp suits, sparkling jewelry – and the shoes! – the C-U community showed up and showed out! Everyone looked amazing.
Something I hadn’t realized over the years is that very few of the people involved see the finished films before the gala. Obviously, the directors know what’s in the can, but cast, writers, and even crew may not know what they’ll end up seeing on the Virginia’s enormous screen. Jarrod Finn of Malachi Entertainment helped out on several films, and admitted to me that he’d been asked to capture a shot with a technique he’d never tried before, and would find out if he was successful during the evening block when I Know You premiered. Mathew Green, aka Dr. Evil of Super Amazing Man said, “I trust Anne implicitly, I’m just nervous because I’ve never seen myself on film before.” From the positive reactions to his villainous laugh, he had no reason to worry. Even Kyle A. Thomas, who has participated in several years’ worth of Pens to Lens projects, had never been able to attend the gala and was anticipating the jolt of seeing himself on such a large screen for the first time. Director John Isberg, after his film starring Thomas screened, was still hyper and said that seeing his work gigantic always affects him for a while afterwards.
(above) Mathew Green of Super Amazing Man and Yen Vi Green, with Barbara Evans of Writer's Block behind.
(above) Parker Evans with Matt Fagerholm of rogerebert.com; (below) Max Libman -- photos by Scott Wells.
Included in those directors seeing their finished product on the big screen for the first time were the four entrants into the Student Filmmaking Competition whose movies screened: Rowan Fisher, Max Libman, D.J. Wang, and Parker Evans. Rowan Fisher, honorable mention, submitted his second Lego stop-motion film in two years, and seemed to get a boost of energy from the excitement. Libman and Evans are both prior participants in Pens to Lens: Libman as an actor, and Evans as both actor and screenwriter. Caught before the screenings, both young men enjoyed the ability to take part in many aspects of the film industry, but had opposite reactions. Max Libman told me he was curious about directing after his experiences acting, and he thinks he prefers it a little bit more. While Evans let me know, “over the years, I’ve learned the intricacy of each job involved in filmmaking, and how critical each role is.” His ambitions lie anywhere in the film industry, though at the moment he feels acting is his preferred role. D.J. Wang, who tied Evans for first place, held the oversized check (almost as tall as he is) and when asked what he was going to do with it, quickly quipped “Duplicate it!” making a joke on the title of his other screenplay, The Double Machine.
But it’s not just the screen, the personalities, or the rewards which are gigantic – the stars come out for Pens to Lens, to help friends and to support getting kids in the arts. This year, as for the past four out of five, wrestler and TV star Bishop Stevens was in attendance. Stevens helped with three films this year: onscreen in The Luchador and The 9th Annual Community Opposite Day, and providing a voice for The Perfect Friend. “I will always try to be a part of Pens to Lens; this is a great opportunity for young people who want to break into the business. If you have that dream to be a director, actor, producer…here’s the chance to work with people already in the business,” says Stevens.
Stevens’ joy at being involved was no more apparent than during The 9th Annual Community Opposite Day, written by junior Aidan Henry and directed by Charlie Kessler. Stevens and Kessler have collaborated for several years in the past, and the director reported that the actor needed very little guidance. “The stuffed animals? That was his idea.” Kessler also secured another impressive cameo for the script he chose due to its goofiness that could be shot very stylistically.
The Luchador is a sci-fi comedy written by Luca Villaseñor and directed by Andrew Stengele. The 13 year-old screenwriter told us, “I don’t know, the story just came to me. There’s not enough Hispanic people in movies, so I made one.” Director Stengele has a well-documented interest in wrestling, and felt drawn to the well-written script. After seeing a Lucha Libre show in Urbana, he reached out to the organization and they put him together with Francisco Vargas, a luchador from Chicago who says he had a great time acting in the film, and looks forward to having another chance to help out in the future. And for those like me who like to shout, “Hey! It’s that guy!,” yes, that is Colt Cabana in that hat.
As for The Perfect Friend, I’ll try not to spoiler, but Bishop is the “that guy” in this one, providing an unexpected but perfect voice in a simple film written by 1st grader Rosalie Anderson.
Speaking of perfect voices, can we just talk about Gary Ambler for a second? Just in case your heart wasn’t already melted by the adorable felted puppies in The Puppy Trials created by Thomas and Becky Nicol, hearing him utter the perfect words written by 3rd grader Claire Hartman put most of the audience over the edge to tears. Rolling immediately into his eccentrically-accented singing scientist in The Double Machine by D.J. Wang, co-directed by Andrew Gleason and Chris Lukeman, was an inspired juxtaposition.
[Editor's note -- an earlier edition of this article only credited Chris Lukeman. I apologize for the omission]
Just as clever was opening the afternoon with another Lukeman-directed film featuring another Dr. – this time Anne Lukeman and Dr. Evil. And Susan. The impressive Super Amazing Man, written by Ella Kirwan and starring Kofi Bazzell-Smith and Kimmy Schofield was completed entirely in front of a green-screen, which Susan (aka Lindsey Gates-Markel) had never done before. “We’d get a shot, then have to change angles; it was like Anne was doing math in her head the whole time.” Seems well worth it for the beautiful scenery illustrated by Matt Wiley — truly fitting settings for the over-the-top jokes both spoken and sight-gagged throughout the film.
Super Amazing Man, Tech Girl, and Susan act in front of a green screen (above); the illustrated background (below)
The composite image of actors on top of illustrated background. Images provided by Matt Wiley.
Following the lighthearted afternoon, the evening screening is reserved for more mature content, and while this year lacked any straight-up horror – which has been popular in the past – the older students showed they have serious things on their minds.
Daniel, written by 10th grader Scott A. Best, directed by John Isberg, and featuring Kyle A. Thomas, opened the later show. This haunting thriller about a troubled man featured some gorgeous drone shots and kept true to the impressionistic script depicting mental illness. Director Isberg felt strongly that the audience should be kept from understanding what was going on too easily, and star Thomas said that, “storytelling that creates questions makes for great films, especially for thrillers like this one.”
[Editor's note -- as predicted, it does have amazing music, including an original song written by Isberg which is unreleased as of yet.]
For Nika, the most powerful and eye-opening film was Standing Rock 19,000; Mascots, 0 where two young women challenge the ideas of a community caught up in the idea of their Native American sports mascot. Senior Gabriela Ines DeLisle Diaz follows up last year’s Fast Rodney Who Was On His Way Out, also directed by Rachel Berry, with a true-to-life film about “traditions” vs. racism. While Nika thought it drove the message home, I found the confrontational conversation to be a little heavy-handed, especially compared to her previous “show, not tell” method that was so successful with Rodney. Still, the intent is clear and the message necessary, especially here, and seeing several high-profile locals involved with this film should really make local viewers consider the perspective presented.
(left) Evening emcee Mallory Morris -- photo by Nika Lucks; (right) afternoon emcee Cara Maurizi -- photo by Scott Wells
Compared to past years, there were also fewer tear-jerkers, but the inspirational Writer’s Block closed out the evening and prompted emcee Mallory Morris, former English teacher, to celebrate. While the energetic evening host did not bring a song, she did bring her own unique insights as an educator. Her worlds intersected as she observed that screenwriter Scott A. Best, of Daniel, began the story during One People’s Arts Camp in her creative writing module. Both she and afternoon host, Cara Maurizi, marveled at the quality of the writing and filmmaking at every opportunity.
The critics seemed impressed, as well. Two professional film critics were present to present the awards for the Student Filmmaking Competition. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune stated that the best of what he’d seen during the evening bloc was “more interesting” than anything else he’d reviewed during this summer. Matt Fagerholm of rogerebert.com was down for his second year, and enthusiastically spoke to almost every screenwriter and filmmaker before and after each screening.
While it’d be almost impossible to cover every person we spoke to and every film we saw, both Nika and I were enthusiastic about the entire experience. Nika only planned to stay through the afternoon screening, but before even seeing the first set of films had asked to come back for the evening. Thanks to the support of organizer Tim Meyers, we were able to enjoy the entire event.
Even if you missed it, you can at least catch the films. They’re available to view on CU Film Society’s youtube channel, or you can help support the festival by purchasing a DVD from the Pens to Lens website. If you’d like to become more involved, they are always looking for volunteers, and your donations are now tax-deductible since they’ve become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Whether you help out now, encourage kids you know to enter, or purchase a ticket for next year, this event is one that enriches our whole community and its future.
Photos, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Scott Wells of EddieScott Photo.