Champaign Central High School drama club’s fall production of Clue will have more in common with the 1985 film adaptation of the board game than was initially envisioned. Instead of bringing the cast onstage for this black comedy murder mystery in the midst of COVID-19, director LaDonna Wilson chose to make the play a film, capturing each actor’s individual performance with the help of a masked camera crew. It is unlike anything most of them have worked on in the past, but that’s not going to hold them back.
As noted on the drama club’s Facebook page, “Central shows are widely recognized as setting a high standard for excellence in high school theatre.” This is thanks to the combined effort and vision of Wilson and her students —no matter what challenges arise, their dedication is to the art.
I spoke with Genna Roth, a senior who is in charge of cinematography for Clue. Over the course of our Zoom interview, Genna told me about her experience with Central drama club, how she first became interested in filmmaking, and what she hopes to do moving forward.
Smile Politely: You’re in charge of filming Central drama club’s production of Clue. How did you make that happen?
Genna Roth: I’ve wanted to go into filmmaking since my freshman year of high school, and Ms. Wilson had known that. I’ve done a lot of assistant directing over the years, and when the opportunity came about, she said “Well, I know you're going to film school, and doing a film production would be plausible right now.” So I said “Yes, absolutely.” That was in early August, I think, and we've been planning it ever since.
SP: Are you involved with the local filmmaking scene?
Roth: Yes! When I was a freshman, I met a group of people at Ebertfest 2018, and they were very accepting. From there, I started working with Shatterglass Studios in my free time sophomore year, and I've had so many amazing opportunities with them. I’ve also done Pens to Lens— the summer after my freshman year and this past summer, I submitted short films that I wrote and directed.
SP: How do you think you've adapted to the format of this production?
Roth: I've worked with small crews in the past, so that part is no big deal. The biggest difference has been working with one actor on set at a time. To get around that, I looked at scenes from movies where the editing was absolutely outrageous and really played up the camp. Those are the scenes that will make the final product run eighty minutes.
SP: So you’re editing all the individual performances together?
Roth: Yes, we are currently only filming one actor at a time. For scenes where there has to be interaction like a dead body being carried or someone getting stabbed, we're thinking of bringing in more than one actor at that time, but we're going to work around that by having them wear masks. We’re taking as many precautions as possible because we not only our cast, but our crew as well to feel safe.
SP: So you feel like you’ve acclimated to it pretty well?
Roth: Yes! Our first day of filming was on Saturday, October 24th, and it went a lot better than I thought it would. There were hiccups, but that's going to happen with anything. Our crew had never used the type of equipment that we were working with, but they adapted really well, and our actors did a great job adjusting to not having another person to act against. It was an extremely productive day and we learned a lot about how we should go about this moving forward. It has been difficult trying to estimate when we’ll be able to get the movie done because filming something like this usually takes a couple of weeks, but we're trying to get it all done in just a few shooting day, so we’re having to cut a lot of corners and break the rules of filmmaking, but we're making it work.
SP: You said it’s going to be about eighty minutes, correct?
Roth: Yes! We're also making a title sequence with choreography. We’re trying to keep this as simple as possible.
SP: What are some other film projects that you've worked on with the Champaign-Urbana film community?
Roth: I did behind-the-scenes stuff at Ebertfest 2019. That was insane, like five days of standing behind a camera for fourteen hours with no breaks, but it was a really amazing experience because I got to meet so many wonderful people and established filmmakers. I mostly saw them talk in their panels, but they would also chat with us backstage, which was really cool. Just over a year ago, I also did a music video shoot for a band called Night Dreamer with the guitarist from Smashing Pumpkins.We filmed it at the abandoned air base in Rantoul and that was also a very grueling but very rewarding video shoot.
SP: Before Clue, what were some other productions that you assistant-directed with
Central drama club?
Roth: I started with The Crucible my sophomore year and basically assistant-directed everything since then.
SP: How long have you been interested in filmmaking?
Roth: I used to want to be a scientist, but then I found out I was really bad at science. I remember taking AP Biology and it was just not for me (laughs). Through both the Champaign-Urbana filmmaking community and Central drama club, I’ve been able to discover my creative side. For a long time I needed to be very analytical about everything, but I’ve learned to let go and just allow my creativity take charge and that has been life-changing.
SP: Can you name any influences as far as other directors and movies?
Roth: Baz Luhrmann! His approach to filmmaking is throwing it all at the wall and seeing what sticks. His style is very in-your-face, and while I don't want to go that extreme, it’s the sort of camp I want to bring to this production. There's one particular scene in The Rocky Horror Picture Show that I bring up when people ask me about the style I'm going for. It’s a scene where one character is shown on-screen at a time and the view switches between them as they exclaim “Janet!” “Dr. Scott!” “Janet!” “Brad!” “Rocky!” My vision for Clue is that scene, but eighty minutes long. Since we have no budget, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are two films that I've been pulling from to get a sense of how I can do this in a way that's not going to completely disorient the audience.
SP: Is the script that you’re working with the same as the one from the original 1985 film adaptation of Clue?
Roth: It's very similar to the movie. There are differences here and there, but it more or less remains the same. It has three separate endings, but that's different in the sense that instead of licutting from ending one to ending two to ending three, the script has the cast rewind like “No, this is what actually happened.” Other than that, it's almost identical to the movie.
SP: Have you been drawing from the movie or are you trying to do your own thing?
Roth: We've been pulling character stuff, particularly with Wadsworth. Tim Curry is just such aprolific actor that it made a lot of sense to take cues from his performance in particular. Our actor playing Wadsworth, Riley Smith, has done a really great job not necessarily stealing but taking elements from Tim Curry's performance and incorporating it into their own image.
SP: Have you done any acting or do you prefer writing and directing?
Roth: As much as I love acting, I don't know if I'm particularly good at it (laughs). It’s more of a hobby than something I'm actively pursuing. But I am considering doing a minor in journalism, and marketing is also something I enjoy doing. I’ve written a couple of pieces for Central's newspaper, mainly movie reviews, so that’s also something I'm interested in. I know that filmmaking isn’t necessarily the most profitable line of work, so I have to be able to assure my parents that there’s something I'm passionate about that I can fall back on if I need to.
SP: What has been an important lesson you’ve learned from your time with Central drama club?
Roth: A lot of it is being sure of myself. I struggle with confidence, like I used to second-guess myself a lot and I still do, but I’ve come a long way, especially with this show. I’ll go to Ms. Wilson with all these ideas and she’ll say that it's up to me, which has been liberating. I've been acting in Central shows since I was a freshman, so whenever I play a character, I’ll come up with all these ideas and not be sure how to really implement them, so Ms. Wilson helps a lot with streamlining a vision of like a character or scene or whatever. That has been really important for me as an artist, because I've been in acting class since sophomore year and during our first poetry-reading unit, I felt like I was about to cry every time we performed. I was so not confident in my abilities and Ms. Wilson had to be like, “Genna, you're going to be okay, I'm not going to yell at you.” I guess the lesson has been gaining that confidence, like by the end of junior year acting class I wasn't doing that anymore, so character development, right? I'm not going to have the full four years of Central drama club, but I'm happy that I'm able to take more of a creative position this year before I graduate. If there's anything I'm able to leave behind for underclassmen, I'm hoping that they’re able to come out of this shooting process having learned something new. I know I've learned a lot so far, and we haven't even really gotten started. There’s so much work left to do and I'm not absolutely dreading it.
SP: What’s something that you’ve learned working on Clue?
Roth: How to properly handle little blips in the day. I'm naturally a very anxious person, so usually the most insignificant inconvenience will happen and it’ll completely throw me off, and the first day was Ms. Wilson and I filming for twelve hours. I was very scared that I wasn't going to be able to keep it together, but I’m proud of how I took problems as they came up and fixed them. You have to keep telling yourself that it’s part of the job and things are bound to happen, so I'm proud of myself for being able to handle it with grace. It's been a journey so far, that's for sure. Having Ms. Wilson come to me before my senior year even started and say, “Hey I want you to work on this with me.” It’s not something I was necessarily expecting, but I was really excited to get to work combining the two things I've been most active with over the past four years. Taking the knowledge that I've accrued from Shatterglass Studios and Pens to Lens and bringing that to Central and sharing what I know with the cast and crew has been really fun. My peers have been excited to try out different types of lights and tasks like boom mic operating, which is something I never really enjoyed doing, but I'm glad that they’re enthusiastic about it. I hope that other people can discover a passion for filmmaking from this experience. That would be fantastic. I wouldn't say we just need more young filmmakers, but more young female filmmakers, BIPOC filmmakers, and queer filmmakers. I think this generation of artists can make the film industry better. I don’t have a ton of experience in the industry, but it's been a certain way for such a long time, which I've seen firsthand, so just being able to see young people like myself getting involved has been really special.
SP: I think it’s cool that you’re already thinking about inspiring future generations of
Roth: That’s my intention! Inspiring a similar interest in younger people. I recognize that I'm young myself, like I haven't even graduated high school, but I've had middle schoolers come up to me and say “What you did was really cool!” My little sister is a freshman now, and she always helps out with my short films. I always try to get a message across, and hearing people a few years younger than me say that they want to get involved in filmmaking has been really nice. I'm especially happy that people are getting interested what with all of the movie theaters shutting down recently. The closing of the Art Theatre was absolutely devastating to me. I would go there all the time with my step-dad, and I remember they did a series of Ingmar Bergman movies, and that was really big for me. I saw movies like Sorry To Bother You and If Beale Street Could Talk over the last couple years, and I have so many fond memories there, so I'm sad that younger people won't be able to have that same experience. So I'm hoping that our generation can revitalize that passion for movies and filmmaking.
Even if this production of Clue doesn't look exactly like what I expected, something good is going to come out of it. It has absolutely been a team effort between Ms. Wilson, the cast, and the crew. We have a crew of eight people working in shifts, and the fact that they're interested in working on this even with all of the challenges presented by the pandemic is incredible. I know I grew to miss it, so I’m glad that everybody wanted to create this thing together, and I'm really proud of them. This is unlike anything we've done before, so seeing everybody’s enthusiasm for the project has kept me going. We did some scenes with our Wadsworth and Mrs. White that we didn't plan on doing, but we gave them some time to look look over their lines, and in five minutes they were both ready to go. Starting out, I was nervous that people wouldn't be feeling it, and I know I sound like a broken record, but it has been so rewarding (laughs). Other Champaign-Urbana theatre companies have been
continuing with the arts, like each high school is doing something a little different. They livestreamed a play out in St. Joseph, we’re filming Clue, and some schools are planning for the next few months. I’m just happy that I'm able to get a senior experience, and I can find solace in knowing that there's probably not going to be another senior class that has a theatre season like this one. It's been really difficult, but also it's been reinvigorating.
SP: Any closing thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
Roth: Don’t be afraid to express your creative side. I was afraid, but I've still been able to do what I love, and I think people should try it even if they don't know what the outcome is going to be. Good or bad, I say just go for it!
Central drama club’s film production of Clue is set to be completed and available by
Thanksgiving. More information and updates can be found on their Facebook group.
All photos by LaDonna Wilson