In a darkened section of Smith Library, between an interior-facing window and a shelf of music scores, snow falls.
The snow is actually shredded plastic sprinkled from the hands of senior acting major Darcy Pierce as she stands above actors Devon Werkheiser (known for his role on TV’s “Ned’s Declassified”) in the role of Sam, and acting professor Hank Stone (an industry vet, here playing Santa’s associate, Jack Frost), while they perform a scene from the film “Santa Girl,” co-produced by Shenandoah University and Capital Arts Entertainment.
“I’m learning how the movie set works and getting an IMDB credit [for the role of Trevor], which I’m happy to get,” said junior Max Hendrix, as he watched the scene play out. Hendrix is mass communication major interested in a career in entertainment journalism, broadcasting, or podcasting, who primarily worked on lighting, but, like many of the student crew members, turned his hand to anything in a pinch.
Capital Arts Entertainment has produced numerous successful films and TV shows and is a substantial distributor of independent films. Its founders Mike Elliott, Rob Kerchner and Joe Genier are, like Shenandoah co-producer and Distinguished Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Production and Recording Technology and Film Studies Lecturer Paul DiFranco, veterans of famed director Roger Corman’s entertainment production and distribution company Concorde-New Horizons, which specialized in productions with tight budgets and turnaround times. DiFranco, in his film studies role within the mass communication program in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Elliott worked diligently over the course of a year to create this one-of-a-kind opportunity that allowed more than five dozen Shenandoah students to learn through the hands-on experience of creating a commercial motion picture.
“Santa Girl,” directed by Blayne Weaver, stars Jennifer Stone (known from her role as Harper on the television show “Wizards of Waverly Place”) as the title character, Santa’s daughter, Cassie; and movie and stage star Barry Bostwick (Danny Zuko in the original Broadway production of “Grease,” television’s “Spin City,” and Brad Majors in the cult classic film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”). It follows Cassie as she attends college and asserts her independence from a Santa who is more CEO than jolly old elf. Musical theatre major Josh Cody ’20, also has a principal role in the film, as Jack Frost’s son, J.R.
Pierce acted in the film in the role of Deirdre and also served as first assistant director (a director’s right hand) scheduling crew, sending out daily emails about the schedule, and being depended upon to keep operations running smoothly during the shoot, which ran from late October through mid-November.
“I didn’t really have that many expectations going in,” said Pierce, who ultimately just dove into the experience, traveling wherever the metaphorical waves took her. “I think I bit off more than I could chew, but I’m not choking,” she said. “It has definitely prepared me to be on sets as an actor, and if I decide to, crew.” She now understands the patience and energy required “and how much each person matters to the process.”
“If one person doesn’t show up, it’s a domino effect,” on the rest of the production, said senior acting major Tony Matteson Jr., who also did double or triple duty, like many of the students, portraying a character (a very tall leprechaun), and working as a crew member. In his case, he’s the film’s production designer.
“I think I definitely want to go into film in design and acting. . . whichever one gets me work,” said Matteson in between takes of the library scene. He and longtime friend and fellow senior acting major Trevor Ontiveros (the pair met as acting partners freshman year) listened intently and grinned each time Hank Stone spoke, inhabiting his character’s madness. Ontiveros called him “frickin brilliant.”
“He’s such a great teacher,” Matteson added.
Several other industry veterans were involved in the film as location shooting occurred, like cinematographer Rob Senska. The students felt like the vets didn’t mind taking on an educational role. “They were in our shoes once,” Pierce said.
“It’s been great,” said Ontiveros, who handled a variety of tasks (acting, props, sets, craft services) over the course of the shoot. He even worked with cameras, lights and the set during a whirlwind day of filming at the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum in Winchester, which served as the site for the film’s Tooth Fairy Ball.
Students hauled equipment to not only the Discovery Museum, but also to the George Washington Hotel in downtown Winchester, a couple of private residences, and all around campus, from Racey Hall, to the Village, to the Brandt Student Center.
“This is how you get experience – by being there,” Ontiveros said of his work on the film, which also includes a role as J.R.’s best friend, Trip, who gets thrown over for Cassie. “It’s been a good process. . . a tiring process, but it’s been extremely satisfying.”
Keeping school and filming in balance took a bit of work, Ontiveros admitted, but professors in the acting program worked with their students’ schedules, making for what he called “an awesome process.” But, the days could grow long. Pierce noted one upcoming day, which was set to start with a workshop with the film’s casting director, then time on set, then auditions for spring shows, then a return to set, most likely until an 11 p.m. wrap.
Even so, students enjoyed themselves. “It’s so much fun,” Matteson said.
“I’m more here for the fun aspect,” said psychology major Rachel Sherman, an “almost-senior,” who previously majored in acting at a different university. As she taped down electrical cables while working with lighting, she said she would love to work on another film at Shenandoah. “I like the kind of family environment that we’ve built here,” she said.
Senior acting major Sabrina Torres Peña, who also had a role and helped out Pierce on the crew side, found the experience really informative, because she was far more used to working in theatre.
“I’ve never worked on a film before, so I wanted to see how different it was to the stage,” said freshman acting major Katie Holland, as she set up lighting for a scene on the lower floor of the Brandt Student Center. “It’s vastly different. I can’t compare the two,” she said before noting that she’d definitely work on a movie again at Shenandoah. The experience also had a great side benefit for her. “It’s made me more confident in my ability to pick up a new skill,” she said.
“It feels like the real deal,” to work on the film, said freshman musical theatre student Caylin Keliehor, who also assisted Pierce and did some touch-up makeup for the film. Admittedly highly career-oriented, she said she also sees the film as an opportunity “to network and get that experience,” so that perhaps she too can have a career like Bostwick’s, which has shifted between stage, film and television roles.
Shenandoah students can continue to work on the film in the spring semester, in a class offered by the mass communication program focusing on post-production tasks, such as editing and special effects work, on the holiday tale, which should be released for the 2018 holiday season.
Ontiveros said the film’s story is a fun one that viewers should enjoy. He called it a “feel-good movie,” and that’s just about perfect for a feel-good time of year.