From short story to silver screen: Summerlings, Part 2

summerlingsIn the last issue of Pennsylvania Bridges, we learned about a film that has been recently awakened from the folds of time. Now is the time that the idea, written by Don Ammon so many years ago, has just about stepped into the light. An idea, conceived, discussed, written, changed, polished now stands center stage in the lives of at least seven people. How did it get this far and why now? Perhaps the questions really don’t need answered as this group recently shot the initial scenes of the film Summerlings.

Let’s step back a little bit in time. Last issue, we heard from the originator of the story, Mr. Don Ammons and came to know a little about his now production partner Kris Veenis. This issue, I sat down with Kris and discussed filmmaking, collaboration and development well into what most consider the wee hours.

“In collaboration, the thing is keeping the project as the central focus and leaving egos behind,” Veenis started the discussion.

The origin of this collaboration seemed on two very different tracks. Ammon wanted to see if there was a possibility of turning his high school story into a short film and Veenis was looking for a finished film project he could submit to larger film schools that required one for his admission. However, with all great stories, they evolve…change. This is a great story.

“I was so compelled by Don’s original story, which was entitled ‘On Gracie’s Corner,’ I felt this was the story I wanted to be a part of. It was written by Don after losing his friend to a car accident and the emotion and heart in the story was something that just blew me away,” Kris recalls.

Then a thought occurred, “what if we write this as a feature film?” The two men went to work. Over the next couple of years, there were revisions and rewrites and then more revisions and rewrites until the two decided that maybe it was where they wanted it to be. This is where the third person of Team Summerlings entered, Melissa Martin. Melissa is a critically acclaimed, award-winning, commercially successful independent filmmaker.

Known for her film, ‘The Bread, My Sweet,’ Kris had always admired her talent. Don and he decided to test the waters with their script and hired her as a script consultant.

“At our first meeting after Melissa had read the script, she came in with 20 pages of notes. She said not to be alarmed as she felt that there was a real solid heart and idea there, it just needed some tweaks,” Veenis said.

Back to work the writing duo went. Subsequent meetings with Melissa inevitably lead to a script they all felt was solid. At this point, they entered the screenplay into the Steeltown Screenwriting contest.

“We really had no expectations when we entered, it was just more to test the integrity of what we had created.”

Summerlings won the contest. It was then that two things happened. The first was obvious, Kris and Don started to think that this could be an actual, tangible property that could be produced into a feature film if they did it right and took their time with the development process. The second thing blew Kris’ mind.

“Melissa came to us and said she would really like to direct the film. Do you know how cool that was to have someone in the industry that you respect so much to want to be involved at that level with your work?” Kris said.

Now there were three players involved with the project. Additionally, Kris asked Melissa if he could shadow her through the development and filmmaking process to gather the experience he knew no school could teach him.

They added a fourth with award winning and extremely experienced cinematographer Mark Knobil, who Kris had worked with while employed at Steeltown. The development phase now began. Melissa engaged an Executive Director, Peter Karlovich who would bring an enormous wealth of business experience to the production. Peter became number five.

“Our Exec has been invaluable on helping us also focus on the business aspect of filmmaking. We filed for our LLP, created share options, helped us develop our pitch and any documents we need to ensure that we have our business side as solid as can be when we present to investors,” said Kris.

“It’s been an unbelievable learning experience.”

I asked Kris how he saw his role if they were funded tomorrow.

“Don and I would move into production roles. We’d have creative input into the film and I’d continue to shadow Melissa as she has a magic with how she works with actors,” Veenis replied.

Speaking of actors, Kris feels they have casted two of the best for the main roles. Anthony Marino and Benjamin Pimental are veterans of the stage and other various area productions. Although sixteen and eighteen respectively, both have been working together at Stage Right! In Greensburg for the past six years, mostly together. They were so polished and so nailed the casting call, Kris and Don wanted to watch the video playback to ensure they were believing what they were seeing. They were. Add numbers six and seven to the growing production. Veenis also loves the interactive involvement of the pair.

“Because Anthony and Ben have worked with each other so often, there’s a trust there and they can play off of that with the characters. This is something that is rare, even with adult actors. They are both so committed to the characters, they even email us ideas on the characters as they have so transformed into them. It’s just awesome.”

So with all of the main pieces in place, all that remains is the funding. Kris informed me that they have pitched to several investors and are simply awaiting responses. He expects answers by late July, early August on the first round of funding. Once the first round is secured, they can go to work filming the outdoor/exterior shots as the film takes place over the course of summer. This would lock down primary shooting by late September.

The second round of funding would be for shooting interior shots, which can be done anytime over the course of a year.

“We’re hoping to get that first round of funding. If we get pushed past September, we will have to wait another year to start the principal shooting,” said Kris.

Once the film is completed, what’s next for Summerlings?

Kris answered, “We all talked at length about that. With the independent film market shifting so rapidly, almost daily, there are a lot of options for us. Of course every filmmaker wants to see their film on the big screen, but practically, that’s not necessarily the most sound financial thing to do. There are a lot of distribution options out there and our first and foremost priority is to get the investors back their money. Once we have the film completed, we’ll sit down and consider all of our options.”

On an editorial note, what really struck me when talking to Kris is how well this production is organized and how this group evolved into a team. From the idea of making a short for a demo reel to standing on the precipice of shooting the first scene of a feature length film, every person along the way that touched this script became engaged emotionally and professionally. It will be interesting to see what this team creates with Summerlings and other future projects they produce. I have a feeling this is the first of many.

Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges. *Updates on the project in future issues.*