By Tony Rutherford
On a crisp February afternoon, several nondescript trucks lined the service area behind Marshall Universityís Memorial Student Center. Closer inspection revealed that one of the trucks said "Hollywood rentals." Under the balcony of the center was a cinematographer seated on a high definition camera.
Independent filmmaking had come to Marshall. Van Flesher, a 1990 MU graduate, returned to campus with a small group of experienced filmmakers to direct his first feature. While none qualify as household names, their credits include movies that hit the mainstream.
Flesher seemed comfortable in the center of what some extras were calling "organized chaos." While the camera captured students approaching the center, crew members readied the interior and the cafeteria for shots. A computer contained a categorized listing of the dayís scenes and a glance at tomorrowís schedule, including the crew call time, cast necessary scene by scene, locations used and assorted props.
The outpouring of energy synergized into a series of quick rehearsals, takes and cuts. Then, the process is repeated with close-ups, side shots and reaction angles. Unlike the weeks of rehearsals that occur with collegiate and community theater productions, filmmakers have little time to rehearse. The budget, peopleís schedule and shooting on location reduce rehearsal time. For instance, Brian Klugman flew to Huntington, went to the hotel, cleaned up, got in wardrobe and came straight to the set.
"We had no rehearsal," Flesher said. "We rehearsed in between shots. In other cases, I had a few days with each of the actors."
Although rumor has it that two video games were the "consideration" for an option on the screenplay, the ensemble cast and crew of "Burning Annie" typify what Flesher calls "down and dirty grassroots filmmaking."
Flesher and his two producers - Echo Gaffney and Randy Mack - have lured solid up-and-coming filmmakers to tell the story of Max, a geeky college student obsessed with Woody Allenís Oscar winning "Annie Hall." Max believes that unless a relationship has a chance for permanency thereís no need to become involved. Then, he meets Julie who teaches him to go with the flow and enjoy life.
"Rarely do college relationships last forever," Flesher explained during an interview prior to shooting a nightclub scene at Marcoís. "People make mistakes but even though the relationship doesnít work out, you can enjoy it [for the moment] ... and look fondly upon it for the rest of your life. I donít know if thatís the filmís message but itís definitely an underlying theme."
The cast includes Sara Downing as Julie (a prom date in "Never Been Kissed," "The Forsaken," "Take the Money and Run" and "Rats"); Gary Lundy as Max ("Donnie Darko," a sci-fi mystery that starred Jake Gyllenhaal - Homer Hickam in "October Sky"); Brian Klugman, as Charles (Dr. Niles Craneís assistant on "Frasier"); Kim Murphy as Beth ("1:00 a.m." episode of "24," "City of Angels," "The In Crowd," and "Oprah Winfrey presents David and Lisa"); Jay Paulson ("Canít Hardly Wait"); Rini Bell ("Ghost World," "Bring It On," "Road Trip"); Todd Duffey ("Office Space") and Kathleen Perkins ("The Hudsucker Proxy).
Flesher said the most difficult part of directing is that "everybody has a question - the actors, the set people, the cameraman, the media. Ninety percent of my day is answering questions. The other 10 percent is working with the actors and even then Iím answering questions."
Crew members interrupted the interview to ask Flesher questions about set decoration, camera angles and the next dayís location. By the time the high definition camera finally rolled, the "extras" had waited up to five hours for their few seconds of fame. During the nightclub scenes in Marcoís, Flesher carefully watched a monitor and fine-tuned the performance of the actors playing Max and Julie.
Meanwhile, the assistant director worked with the 20 or 30 extras. He taught them how to dance without music blaring and to quietly speak. The process required about six takes. By contrast, when the crew shot in the Drinko Library, only Max, Julie and one extra was needed. Flesher whispered some instructions, made some last minute blocking alterations, and two or three takes later, the scene wrapped.
Flesher credits Marshall University theater professors (Dr. Maureen Milicia, Dr. Elaine Novak and Dr. East) and English professors (Dr. Billy K. Sullivan, Joan Mead, Leonard Deutsch, Robert Geerky and Dr. Loraine Duke) with a solid foundation for his film career.
"As an English major, it gave me a solid sense of story, character and plot," he said. "If you want to become a storyteller - which is what I am - you should know how stories are told. Working with actors [at MUís theater department] is the other big component."
Although it will be six months to a year before anyone sees "Burning Annie," Flesher was grateful to Huntingtonians for their support.
"It costs a lot to travel and bring these people from various cities but that was offset by the generosity of Marshall University, the help of the Huntington Film Commission and Mayor Fellingtonís office ... working in Huntington is a dream."
He particularly complimented MU management prof John Wallace and Keith Spears (assistant to MUís president). "This [type of cooperation] is what it takes to bring filmmaking to a community like Huntington."
"Burning Annie" will likely premiere at the Keith-Albee but Flesher explained that a requirement of film festivals is that the invited productions have their first public sc
reenings at the festival.
Following the editing and marketing of "Burning Annie," Flesher has several projects in the works including cinematographer on Stephan Schultzeís first directorial effort. Schultze, who shot "Burning Annie," has lensed "The Doghouse," "Last Chance," "Lesser Evil," "Loverís Leap" and Love & Sex, etc." Then, he would like to direct one of his own screenplays.
"Iíve enjoyed working together with a small group of filmmakers [without] a distributor or studio influencing the product," said Flesher. "They say after your first film, you may never get that much control again - unless youíre Stephen Spielberg."