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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.*

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 sulfurcreekproductions.com, 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

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Carla E. Anderton is the Founder, Owner & Editor-in-Chief of Pennsylvania Bridges Magazine – Connecting Communities

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