If you’re walking around campus this summer, you might be surprised to come across the tell-tale signs of a professional movie set. But these lights, cameras and craft services tent don’t belong to Hollywood visitors; they’re in service of faculty, students and alumni of the University of South Carolina.
And, thanks to a new partnership between the University and the SC Film Commission, it might just be a regular sight.
That’s because of a $100,000 grant that UofSC’s Department of Theatre and Dance has recently received from the Film Commission. The funding, combined with additional support from the University, has made it possible for the department to commence production on Hero, a feature-length film that gives UofSC students and alumni, as well as students from other colleges around the Southeast, experience behind and in front of the camera. Hero is the latest project in the department’s renewed commitment to providing students with real world experiential learning in narrative filmmaking, and the first of what is planned to be a yearly undertaking.
Hero, penned by Atlanta-based screenwriter Myles Isreal, is a coming-of-age dramedy about Tre, a misfit artist struggling with his place in the world after his career-driven ex-girlfriend reveals she’s pregnant with his child. Further complicating Tre’s dilemma is the fact that he has become attracted to another girl who actually gets his quirks.
“It’s sort of like the TV show Atlanta meets the movie Juno,” says director Dustin Whitehead, a UofSC acting professor whose non-profit production company Local Cinema Studios is co-producing the film. “The protagonist is trying to be a man, trying to be a father to this child. It’s a journey of trying to decide what he wants to do with his life and how he wants to be in the world.”
Hero is just one of several features produced by Whitehead’s company, which he founded to foster independent film while giving students the chance to work alongside professionals in a real-world filmmaking environment. The company’s model has already proven successful. Its first film, the hard-hitting drama Bruiser (made while Whitehead was on faculty at Western Carolina University) had award-winning appearances at several film festivals and is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Holy Irresistible, shot last summer with significant UofSC support and student participation behind the camera, is currently being submitted to festivals with plans to also be picked up for the streaming market.
Jim Hunter, Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, says this new filmmaking initiative is a winner for everyone involved.
“It’s our mission to change the lives of our students,” says Hunter. “We’re here to provide opportunities for learning and bridges to practical, real world career experiences. And, similarly, the film commission’s mission has always had an emphasis on creating learning opportunities for citizens of the state.”
“It’s important to give our students these essential practical skills that are applicable not only to live theatre but to all the future entertainment industry endeavors they might choose to tackle,” he adds. “In this age where streaming television and media is exploding, it is essential that we prepare our students with the tools needed for success in a range of careers.”
A lot of filmmaking is technical, but so much of it is managing people, places, and things. It is an insanely ambitious feat and the most effective and telling team-building exercise I have ever experienced. I see it as the boot camp of collaboration.
Dustin Whitehead | Director, Hero
The filming of Hero is itself evidence of students continuing into the film world, with several crew positions filled by former LCS interns now working in a professional capacity. UofSC students returning from last summer’s Holy Irresistible shoot include senior theatre major Nakoa Zurlo (Production Manager) and third-year graduate costume design student Kyla Little (Costume Designer), plus theatre program alumni Lilly Heidari (Script Supervisor), Jordan Postal (Production Designer), and Susan Swavely (Second Assistant Director). In total, 17 current or former UofSC students and 4 faculty/staff members are participating in the project. They join a crew representing schools around the region, including Clemson, Georgia Southern, Western Carolina, and Benedict College.
Clearly the seeds that Whitehead has planted on his previous film shoots have begun to take root right here in South Carolina. In fact, plans for next summer’s production are already in the works. Whitehead will begin the script selection process in early Fall and once selected, the script will be developed and workshopped in the spring of 2023. Whitehead’s “Advanced Acting for the Camera” class will have a key role in this development work and, once again, current students and alumni will make up a significant percentage of that film’s cast and crew.
Whitehead says he ultimately wants to make the art of filmmaking more accessible to UofSC students, while also providing a practical exercise in the power of teamwork to make something great.
“A lot of filmmaking is technical,” he says, “but so much of it is managing people, places, and things. It is an insanely ambitious feat and the most effective and telling team-building exercise I have ever experienced. I see it as the boot camp of collaboration.”
It’s also, he says, a great experience in artists making an impact on the world around them.
“We are shooting this movie all over Columbia,” says Whitehead. “Our students are interacting with and apprenticing under professional filmmakers, but they are also meeting neighborhood kids who ride by on bikes asking questions, local caterers, business owners, and community members who are all eager to be part of something special. One of my favorite things about this film initiative is getting to watch the students learn how to include the community in the work that they create.”