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Emerson-made film debuts at Slamdance Festival

Every film student dreams of making his or her mark: creating the next Casablanca or Pulp Fiction.

This week, a handful of Emerson graduates are getting a small taste of that success. Their film, a BFA project called Beneath Contempt, will be screened at the Slamdance Film Festival in Los Angeles.

The 16-year-old festival of independent films received 5,000 entries this year but will screen just 56 shorts and 18 features from around the world, including Beneath Contempt, which was filmed locally in late summer 2009.

“I’m excited and quite overwhelmed,” said Anna Rau ’10, the film’s executive producer. She now works for a Los Angeles production company. “Since we were accepted by Slamdance, we’ve been contacted by various festivals throughout the world, requesting screeners. It’s an incredible honor to be considered.”

Benjamin Brewer ’10 is the film’s writer and director. He was joined by Rau, cinematographer Shant Ergenian ’10, production designer Erin Thiele ’10, and WERS sound engineer Bill Kelson ’11.

“… we each informed him that he’d made the strongest dramatic film either of us had seen emerge from Emerson.”

Although he said students are discouraged from making feature-length films for the BFA for reasons including cost and manageability, Associate Professor John Gianvito has high praise for Beneath Contempt. “When my colleague [Associate Professor] Rob Todd and I were first given a full screening of Ben’s initial fine cut-edit of Beneath Contempt, we were both blown away. Unhesitatingly, we each informed him that he’d made the strongest dramatic film either of us had seen emerge from Emerson. In the strength of its casting, its cinematography, the authenticity of its locations (e.g., gaining access to a real prison detention facility), its understated and non-cliched dramatic structure … it really has a lot to commend it.”

The story follows Sean Beckett, played by Colin Janson, as he is released from prison four years after a drunken-driving accident that claimed the lives of three of his friends. The quartet had been partying and enjoying a late summer day when Beckett’s car overturned on a country road. The scene is graphic and morbid as the youths lay on the ground, covered in blood.

Of course the film students were consumed by the mechanics of making their vision come to life on the screen, and downplay the grisly, gritty moments that viewers will experience. “When we did the car crash scene, we had to figure out how to flip it and break the windows. It was pretty profound, figuring out how to do all of that,” said Rau. She added that there were “surreal” moments when the crew filmed in the state prison in Billerica, in areas where Christian Bale had just filmed parts of The Fighter.

Inspired by feedback from VMA Artist-in-Residence Paul Turano and films he suggested, Brewer used 16mm film, eventually racking up 8 hours and 17,000 feet of celluloid.

“Using 16mm is a challenge and risky, but it’s worth it; your film will have a timeless look, and you won’t risk having a movie that looks dated by old HD technology,” Brewer said.

Though he sounds like an old salt full of time-tested advice for would-be filmmakers, Brewer admitted to some misgivings. “I really didn’t feel like we were on our way to accomplishing what we set out to do until we were shooting the prison,” he said. “We took a shuttle from the road checkpoint through various gates to get into the prison, and I remember looking at our cinematographer, Shant, with a camera on his lap and a few rolls of film in a backpack, and my uncles dressed as prison guards getting ready to do cameos, and thinking about how hilariously nutty it all was. But we were getting it done somehow!”

View a trailer and blog chronicling the team’s progress »

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