A late night blues DJ and a concussed stranger roam the streets together at night.
A group of young actors and actresses struggle to find themselves while preparing to perform Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”
Two Wall Street brokers embark on an acid trip that will change their lives.
These are just a sample of the projects that Yale seniors have undertaken for their senior-thesis film, a culmination of a year’s work in either narrative or documentary filmmaking. Seniors who choose to do this project enroll in either “Advanced Film Writing and Directing,” taught by art and film studies lecturer Jonathan Andrews ’96, or “Documentary Film Workshop,” taught by American Studies and film studies professor Charles Musser ’75. Over two semesters, students write, direct and edit their own pieces, which range from 15 to 20 minutes in length.
SOMETHING YOU’LL HAVE FOREVER
For film and media studies majors, the senior-thesis film is just one option by which to complete the senior requirement. Other options include writing a senior essay, writing a screenplay, or in the case of intensive majors, submitting both an essay and a film.
Eric Nelson ’16, a film and media studies major, said that although he initially planned to write a senior essay, the chance to make an original film was too great to pass up.
“A paper is nice, but you’re not just going to pick up your paper and read it again,” he said. “A film can reach a lot of people — it’ll be something you’ll have forever.”
Musser, who graduated Yale with a bachelor’s degree in film and literature, agreed. He recalled that during his undergraduate years, his professors emphasized analysis of documentaries more than obtaining actual experience in the craft. He added that the senior-thesis film allows students to tackle the process in its entirety, and thus gain some insight into what type of film career they might want to pursue.
However, not all seniors completing senior-thesis films are film and media studies majors. Lara Panah-Izadi ’14, a double major in theater studies and mathematics and philosophy, decided to make a documentary senior-thesis film titled “Searching for Chekhov” after drawing inspiration from the playwright’s major work “The Seagull.” She noticed that the characters in the play — young writers and young actors attempting to find their own voice and style — matched the people she knew in real life.
“We were at a point in our life where we could relate to these characters in a very tangible way,” she said, when asked what drew her and her friends to this topic. “I thought it would be natural to make a documentary adaptation of ‘The Seagull’ — I knew the text would come alive in unexpected ways.”
Musser noted that in addition to seniors whose majors relate to the arts, students in departments such as American Studies and Environmental Studies enroll in his workshop. He has also taught graduate students from such disparate programs as the Divinity School and the School of Nursing. Musser said that documentaries allow for the communication of ideas and issues that students think are important, regardless of what field they are in.
Even though the students in “Advanced Film Writing and Directing” work on narrative films, they agreed that the themes they explore in their films remain very personal despite the distance that fiction affords. Travis Gonzalez ’16, whose senior-thesis film “Over Dinner” focuses on a family celebrating Thanksgiving, said that he drew inspiration from his own childhood. The conversations of the mother and grandmother characters in the film mimic those he overheard when he was younger.
“This idea of a façade of happiness surrounded by economic problems, family problems — it’s something that I’ve wanted to capture in film for a long time,” he said.
Michelle Mboya ’16, another student in the class, also focuses on issues that are very literally close to home. Her film “The Camel’s Back” is shot in Kenya, where she is from originally. She noted that the film has allowed her to explore themes such as love and the trials of adolescence through the lens of people from her country who are normally overlooked.
INVENTING THE WHEEL
For the first semester of their workshops, seniors focus on writing the screenplay for their film, while in the second semester they begin production in earnest. These workshops serve more as spaces for critique rather than lectures on technique and skill. Gonzalez said that students in “Advanced Film Writing and Directing” will send in what they are working on about two days before the workshop convenes; during class students discuss what they like and dislike in each other’s work.
Nelson said this process has been incredibly helpful for him. When he first started working on the screenplay for his film, “Lavender,” he sketched out a 15-minute film composed of just experimental shots and music.
“People in my class said that that’s not really a narrative film.” He laughed. “And I was like, ‘Oh — right.’”
He then revised his screenplay into a satire of Wall Street’s hypermasculinity, which he felt better conveyed the film’s overarching message of queer sensibility. He emphasized that while he still managed to retain his original experimental vision, his classmates helped him ground the film and make it more accessible.
In “Documentary Film Workshop”, Musser tries to bring in industry professionals to review students’ work. He stressed that this experience gives students another perspective on their project and allows them to receive commentary from veteran filmmakers, some of whom have won Academy Awards.
Musser noted that the students ultimately decide how much involvement they want him to have in their film. While in some cases he actively helps them shoot material, in other cases students “invent the wheel” by themselves. However, he says that most students reach a point where they no longer need his assistance.
“There are certain moments students take off,” he said. “Their project comes to life, they understand what they’re doing, what they need to do, and I can back off.”
Panah-Izadi also highlighted the independent nature of the senior-thesis film. She said that while she always had people who could guide her, she felt like one of the more important aspects of the project was striking a balance between incorporating new ideas from her peers and maintaining her own artistic vision.
One of the challenges that seniors face while working on their senior-thesis film is obtaining enough funding for their project. Nick Henriquez ’16, who is working on a narrative film titled “All Night Blues,” mentioned that concerns about his budget factored into his decisions on his film’s content.
“As much as this film is a product of things that I like, it’s also a product of various decisions that were enacted to limit my extraneous costs,” he said.
He explained that the Creative and Performing Arts Awards offered by the residential colleges comprise the primary source of funding for senior-thesis films. Although students can obtain up to $1,200 from this award, use of the money is restricted. While he can use the money to rent equipment and buy props, he cannot cover other costs such as food and transportation for his crew and actors.
Gonzalez agreed that his film’s budget has been one of his primary concerns. Although he has worked on projects in the past with Bulldog Productions and the Yale Film Alliance, his senior-thesis film is the most expensive project he has ever undertaken. He said that he fundraises in order to pay for expenses not covered by the CPA Awards.
“We have to get all those funds on our own,” he said. “To me, it’s very daunting.”
Nelson also uses online crowdfunding in order to raise money for his production costs. While he started his campaign on Indiegogo, other students in his class fundraise through Seed&Spark, a similar crowdfunding site that is dedicated to films.
OCCUPYING THAT SPACE
For Panah-Izadi, casting remained local. Because her documentary revolved around putting on a production of “The Seagull” and filming the process, she worked with some of her thespian friends who were interested in the idea. She also contacted actor Kevin Kline, whom she had met while working on a movie set, for an interview. Previously, he had acted in Mike Nichols’ production of “The Seagull” in Shakespeare in the Park.
However, seniors in narrative filmmaking mostly choose to cast their projects out of New York City. Henriquez explained that although Yale has a significant acting pool in the School of Drama, many of the students who have enough on-camera experience are too busy and cannot work over spring break, which is when seniors in the class do their principal shooting. Gonzalez, who also casted his film out of New York City, also says that New York City has a greater variety of actors and actresses than New Haven, especially in terms of older adult and child actors.
In “Advanced Film Writing and Directing,” students post on Backpage, a website advertising casting notices. Interested actors apply electronically, and the students narrow the submissions down to a reasonable number. Then they rent a space in New York City to audition their final round of applicants.
Gonzalez noted that although 75 people initially applied for the three roles in his film, which he narrowed down to 24 before the in-person auditions, choosing actors for the parts in his film felt natural.
“It’s the person that when they walk into the room and they start speaking, you zone out,” he said. “You see them as the character, occupying that space.”
Gonzalez added that he selects people that he knows will take directions well. Mboya, whose film casts child actors, also emphasized the importance of working carefully with an actor to make sure they are believable on screen.
Nelson said that one of the most important aspects of directing a film is having a crew that is both professional and cohesive as a unit.
“I want the set to be as friendly and warm as possible,” he said. “These are people that I could see myself getting coffee with or having a regular conversation with.”
A GOOD FILM
At the end of the year, seniors in “Advanced Film Writing and Directing” showcase their senior-thesis films in the Yale Student Film Festival, which runs from April 18 to April 23. Seniors in “Documentary Film Workshop” screen their works as part of a class screening, which is also open to the public.
Panah-Izadi said that screening her film was one of the most rewarding parts of the process. She emphasized that it is important to put projects out there, especially in front of a fresh audience, with people who don’t necessarily know who she is. Mboya agreed: She said it is difficult to gauge how successful a film really is until an audience has watched it.
Henriquez said he plans to submit his project to other film festivals as well. He emphasizes that although only a festivals are widely known, such as Sundance and Tribeca, there are many others to which students can apply.
“I don’t believe in making films to get an audience,” he said, “but you don’t screen a film in front of an empty theater.”
Musser also encouraged students in his class to submit to other venues, such as the New Haven Documentary Film Festival, which he co-founded.
“The students get some place deep with what they’re working on,” he said, “so I encourage students to have their work shown, because they have value.”
THE WORLD YOU MADE
Seniors agreed that the process of completing a senior-thesis film is far from simple. Mboya suggested that, at least for her, nothing about it has come easily.
Henriquez said that one of the greatest challenges he faced was keeping the project fun. He admitted that although he enjoyed the overall experience, there were some moments that he found difficult, especially when things didn’t go according to plan.
“The transition is quick,” he said. “You’re doing the imaginary, wow, exciting part of writing, and then you move to the concretized nuts and bolts of making it happen — because, it has to happen, and it will never quite happen the way you want it.”
Gonzalez also stressed that the most challenging aspect of the senior-thesis film was making sure everything came together in the end. However, he recalled the feeling of his film finally taking shape as one of his most precious memories. While visiting the Yale props warehouse, he discovered three separate butterfly plates that matched the three characters in his film perfectly.
“You have this moment,” he said. “You say ‘Oh my God,’ because this is the world you made.”