Magazine article American Cinematographer

Saga or a Shoestring Epic

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Saga or a Shoestring Epic

Article excerpt

The filming of an impossible dream: a 45-minute historical drama-complete with 19th century costumes and settings-on a tiny budget

Spartan budgets and ambitious scenarios are not uncommon stablemates in motion picture production. American Cinematographer often recounts the pursuit of improbable dreams by tenacious and imaginative (and usually under-financed) filmmakers.

Another such saga quietly unfolded last year in Arkansas. The project: a 45-minute, historical drama-complete with authentic 19th-century costumes and settings and a nearly 100-member cast. The total production budget: $18,000.

The guiding ambition behind this cinematic quest is a practicing organizational psychologist and part-time quixotic filmmaker named Jess Young. Dr. Young began his project several years ago after becoming inspired by the Hollywood-produced introduction movie used at Colonial Williamsburg. As an ex-broadcaster, amateur historian and occasional writer/producer, Dr. Young felt that the colorful early history of Arkansas and the existence in Little Rock of a renowned restoration of the state's original territorial capitol would make possible a good film.

For three years Dr. Young researched Arkansas history for events and conflicts that might lend themselves to a short dramatic film. Finally, among the circumstances surrounding the elections of 1827, Young found the elements he needed to satisfy both historians and contemporary motion picture audiences. It was all there: murder, political intrigue, young love, pistol duels, fights, freedom of the press struggles and historymaking conflict.

As it turned out, researching and writing the PRINTER TO THE TERRITORY script were easy compared to what followed. Since the main "hero" of Dr. Young's film was William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette- the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River-it seemed natural that the publication's current management might want to sponsor such a film in observance of the paper's 161st anniversary. Indeed, since the history of the.Gazeffe was fer tile ground for motion picture ideas, the newspaper agreed with Dr. Young. However, the prestigious daily thought the responsibility for such a project should fall to someone, say, like David Wolper-not to a struggling local filmmaker with a minuscule budget.

As William Woodruff's successors patiently awaited a call from Hollywood, Dr. Young meanwhile set out to secure the blessing of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, which controlled the authentic historical buildings and artifacts required for the production. Dr. Young submitted his script to a panel of scholars who could attest to the project's historical accuracy and potential educational benefit. After months of revisions and academics vs. artistic verbal thrusts and parries, Dr. Young emerged with a script that satisfied both requirements of accuracy and dramatic potential.

With a completed script and a flurry of bureaucratic paperwork, Dr. Young managed to obtain a $16,263 grant from the Arkansas Endowment for the Humanities. Dr. Young shook a few other piggy banks-including his own-and began work with an $18,000 budget.

Here is where Dr. Young's training as a psychologist became every bit as valuable as his filmmaking experience. Only an individual with psychological insight could have convinced several hundred people to audition for roles that would require much of their time for a month and pay absolutely nothing. Only a producer having firsthand professional experience with mental illness is likely to have started a full-blown dramatic film with a volunteer cast and crew, a Bolex with a homemade blimp, borrowed lenses and microphones and a few rented lights. …

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