When six Brookstone School students and their teacher walk down the red carpet Thursday before the Columbus debut of their short film about domestic violence, the event will culminate a learning experience that went beyond how to make a movie.
Maria Reed, who teaches the advanced studio production class at Brookstone, saw her students go through "the complete cycle of emotions." She called them "The Breakfast Club" when they started their trip to New York City last month, "because they were so different. But, by the time we left, they were such a family and such a unit."
The Brookstone students on the film team are Wright Eggena, Cara Hunter, Browning Lane, Naeisha McClain, Levi Wolff and Allie Harlan, who couldn't join the other five on the trip to New York but helped with the writing and pre-production.
While searching on the Internet for a high school film competition her students could enter, Reed learned about the All-American High School Film Festival Invitational in April. Her class missed the deadline for this year's festival, which received approximately 1,400 entries and showed more than 500 films, Reed said, but event officials liked what the Brookstone students submitted and offered them a spot among 10 teams in the inaugural AAHSFF Invitational.
They had nine weeks to write, pre-produce and practice their eight-minute film, but they had to shoot it all in New York City within 72 hours.
Brookstone's advanced class of six students competed against teams with more than triple the number of members, Reed said. Some teams were from schools in the city or nearby, she added, so they could scout and secure locations before the competition. Brookstone's team had to do all that via phone, email, Google Earth and Skype.
Each team was assigned a mentor. The mentor for Brookstone's students was Connor Howe, the West Hollywood, Calif.-based executive assistant to award-winning TV show producer Danny Rose, including episodes of "Scrubs," "Scorpion" and "Cougar Town." They also were advised by one of Reed's friends, Nelson Cabrera, a Cannes Film Festival award-winning director from Miami.
The AAHSFF assigned two New York-based professional actors to each team, but Brookstone's film required four actors. So the school's theater teacher, Krista Maggart, contacted Columbus State University graduates Daniel Blanda and Emily Parrish, who happened to be in New York.
On a lark, the Brookstone students emailed renowned Steinway pianist and composer Chad Lawson a request to use his music in their film. They received enthusiastic permission in an email from The Netherlands, where he was on tour and called the part of their film they sent him "awesome," Reed said.
Reed came to Brookstone three years ago when her husband, Staff Sgt. Patrick Reed, was stationed at Fort Benning. She has two decades of experience in the film industry as a director and producer in Miami and New York, making documentaries for HBO and commercials for companies such as Scion, Toyota, Macy's and Flower Power & Light.
Starting Aug. 2, the competition required the teams to choose one of four prompts on which to base their film. Brookstone's team selected, "How could I leave her? Where would I start?"
The students went through nine ideas before finalizing their script. During a free-writing session, Naeisha, a 17-year-old senior, read her contribution aloud, "and we all just felt impacted," said Levi, a 16-year-old junior.
"We all wanted something that spoke to different people but showed one general message," Naeisha said. "I just went home and listened to music and wrote down whatever came to my head. Then we all elaborated on it and put our ideas to work so everyone could have a say in it."
Naeisha summarized the film this way: "The movie is about a guy who had a rough childhood and watched his father abuse his mother and years later still is trying to cope with it and find a way to deal with it. He learns the pain his mother went through, he wasn't to blame for it."
Around midway through the three-day competition, the Brookstone students lost about 2 hours worth of edited footage when they accidentally erased it on a computer. Instead of pulling apart, they came together.
"We kind of realized we just had to put aside our differences," Levi said.
"You start saying yes to people's ideas and put them inside so it's one collective idea," Naeisha said. "We learned how to collaborate."
But they had one final obstacle to overcome.
The deadline to deliver their film was 6 p.m. Oct. 9. "Six o'clock and one second," Reed said, "you're disqualified."
Using the Final Cut Pro software at the Apple store on West 14th Street, they had finished their film 45 minutes before the deadline. All that was left to do was to copy it from the hard drive to a flash drive. But, due to a computer glitch, that took 44 minutes and 45 seconds.
Levi called those final moments "terrifying. It was a fear of failure. I'd slept 12 hours in 72 hours, and the fact that we could lose because of a matter of seconds, that just was too much for me."
"I thought we were doomed," Naeisha said. "Not to turn in a film after three days would be pretty devastating. At the same time, you just hoped for the best."
As a competition official counted down the time, the Brookstone team members grew more concerned.
"We were just panicked, for sure," Levi said.
"I called my mom," Naeisha said, "and she was praying for us."
With 30 seconds before the deadline, the computer screen indicated the upload had 29 seconds left. At the 20-second mark, however, the computer screen flashed a "done" message, Reed recalled, "and we just yanked it out and said, 'Here!'"
The official looked at his watch and announced that Brookstone beat the deadline by 15 seconds.
"I finally could breathe and relax," Naeisha said.
"It was just a mixture of all sorts of emotions," Levi said. "I had a huge adrenaline rush."
And so was seeing their film debut in a New York theater.
"It was amazing," Naeisha said. "Even though I knew what was on the film, I was sitting there hoping nothing would go wrong."
Brookstone didn't win the $5,000 grand prize, and the students don't know where their film finished in the competition, but they did receive a critique from the judges. Although the sound quality needed improvement, the judges told them, the cinematography was "beautifully done," Reed said.
The Brookstone team already knew the film seems authentic to an audience. During one scene, the mother and father characters have a loud fight in the middle of a New York City street.
"We had cameras and booms, so you think everybody is going to know that this is a film set," Reed said. "But it was so powerful, so real, the onlookers were like, 'Do I need to call the police?' But as soon as we called, 'Cut,' the whole street broke into applause."
"This was definitely not Georgia," Levi said. "I mean, in New York, you can't see more than 30 feet in front of you because there's just so much of everything."
Through the experience, Naeisha said, she understands why it sometimes takes years to make a film.
"It's a lot harder than it seems," she said. "Usually, you don't think of the production side whenever you're watching a show or a movie. Now, I think about how much effort it takes to actually produce one episode or one movie."
Naeisha had aspired to be a lawyer. Now, she is considering a film career.
"I really thought film was just like a hobby," she said. "But after going to New York, I'm like, 'Wow, this is kind of stressful, but it's really fun."
And she credits Reed for lighting that spark.
"She teaches you, but she also intrigues your interest," Naeisha said. "She wants you to succeed. For her to trust us and have faith in us so we could go to New York and do this, it's amazing."
Although he isn't sure about his career goal, Levi is certain this experience will prove valuable.
"You can do things if you just put your mind toward it," he said. "I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but it's true. We did it."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
IF YOU GO
What: Columbus premiere of "Unconscious Skies" (rated PG), an short film about domestic violence and created by Brookstone School's advanced studio production class during the All-American High School Film Festival Invitational last month in New York City.
When: Nov. 5. The red-carpet arrival is scheduled to start around 6:30 p.m. The eight-minute film, preceded by a documentary about its production and a presentation from the students, will start at 7 p.m., and then it immediately will be repeated.
Where: Carmike Hollywood Connection Ritz 13, 1683 Whittlesey Road
Tickets: $10 at the theater or in advance at www.brookstoneschool.org/register. All proceeds to be donated to Hope Harbour, a domestic violence shelter.
More info: Brookstone School communications director Connie Mansour, 706-324-1392, firstname.lastname@example.org