From high school story to feature film: Summerlings, Part I

summerlingsSome stories are so important they must be told, even when they’ve remained dormant for years, living on in the author’s imagination. That was the case for Don Ammon, a 1997 alumnus of California University of Pennsylvania’s now shuttered Masters in Communications graduate program.

Ammon recently returned to his alma mater to speak to students as part of a lecture series recently initiated by Cal U’s Department of English. His presentation, given with his collaborator, filmmaker Kris Veenis, detailed the creative process that resulted in the pair winning Feature Length Screenplay from Steeltown, a non-profit film agency located in Pittsburgh, to produce a full length feature film, Summerlings.

A brief synopsis from the official web site of Sulfur Creek Productions describes Summerlings as being set in 1980s Pitcairn, Pennsylvania, a town where “the train barrels through town, always on its way elsewhere.” It’s a “coming-of-age story” about “two isolated teenage boys.”

The fact that the film’s two leads are teenagers seems suitable when you consider the author was still in high school when Ammon first penned the short story on which Summerlings is based, 30 handwritten pages he began scribbling in 1981. The film’s main characters, Billy – described as a “latter-day Huck Finn” – and Sid, are unlikely friends, with disparate backgrounds and a secret that couldn’t be revealed in a less tolerant age, when “boys might fall in love… but could never speak of it.”

Ammon initially intended for the story to be just that, a short story with a tragic ending, but he developed such an affinity for the characters he wanted to spend more time with them.

“I liked these characters so much,” Ammon said in a phone interview, “I didn’t want to kill Billy off. I wanted them to keep getting into trouble and having adventures.”

Billy and Sid’s story remained in the author’s imagination. Others who had been given the opportunity to read the early draft remembered the tale of “unexpected friendship” between two lonely teens.

“In 2002, I was at my 20th high school reunion, and a classmate asked me about the story,” Ammon said. “I couldn’t believe she remembered.”

A year later, Ammon talked with Kris Veenis, then one of his students at St. Vincent’s University, where Ammon taught from 2000-2005. That conversation would soon lead to a collaboration that brings us back to the present day, when the duo are currently seeking investors to fund the production of Summerlings as a feature length film.

Veenis read Ammon’s early draft and thought it had great potential as a movie. Veenis and Ammon began meeting weekly at Panera Bread, where for the next two years they would collaborate on a longer version of Ammon’s original story.

The team’s initial plan was to keep it simple and cast friends and family in starring roles to help keep costs down. At some point, however, their vision shifted, and it was decided to attempt to secure recognizable talent to help get the film – and its message – out to the masses.

A series of rewrites led to many changes in the script, with the only constant being the friendship between Billy and Sid.

“I’ve always believed in the importance of telling the truth,” said Ammon, who describes Summerlings as his “passion project.” One detail Ammon was insistent about was that the film be set in the 1980s, when there were no cell phones and people were less connected than they are in today’s digital age.

“I didn’t want cell phones and connectedness because it heightens their feelings of isolation,” he said.

While Summerlings remains in the development stage, the script is “ready to go,” according to Ammon. Written by Ammon and Veenis, the film is directed by Pittsburgh’s Melissa Martin, with cinematography by Mark Knobil. Actors from Stage Right! in Greensburg have been cast in the two lead roles of Billy and Sid. A promotional video is online at, along with more information about the film and production company.

In the next edition of Pennsylvania Bridges, we’ll talk with Kris Veenis about his role in the collaborative writing and filmmaking process, as well as bring our readers up to speed on updates on the film itself.

Story by Carla E. Anderton for Pennsylvania Bridges