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Westminster student team launches premiere feature film

Spoon River Anthology
A scene from “The Spoon River Project.” (Source: WCA)

Much has been reported lately about the effect that COVID-19 has had on youth sports, but many other activities have been affected as well. The drama department of Westminster Christian Academy knew that its annual theatrical production could not be a live performance this school year, so they made a film instead. 

Drama teacher Jim Butz’s idea became “The Spoon River Project.” The movie was based on the 1915 book “The Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters. 

“Mr. Butz knew we had some film kids and knew we could do it,” said senior and film producer Ian Gilbert.

“The Spoon River Anthology” is a collection of free-verse poems that tell the stories of the deceased residents of fictional town Spoon River.

According to Gilbert, “The Spoon River Anthology” was chosen for its monologue nature and repetition, which would make an easier transition to a movie. The actors would not have much interaction, and as a result, shots would be simpler to set up and social distancing would be easier to achieve.

Gilbert and his classmates formed the Buy a Toaster Studios team, which included director Matteo Zavaglia, and Logan Mann, and Abby Johler, as cinematographers. A reference to the 1990 Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen movie “The Rookie,” Buy A Toaster Studios was formed by the four young filmmakers in November 2019. They have made several short films for fun and competitions, but “Spoon River” is the team’s first full-length feature film. The 71-minute movie was presented on the streaming service Broadway on Demand from Dec. 3-6. 

Discussions began over the summer to make plans for a film. “When school started, we jumped in,” said Johler. 

The opening scene had to be ready by Oct. 15, with Oct. 31 as the deadline for the entire production to be filmed. 

The editing process followed and took all the way up until the Dec. 2 deadline for the Dec. 3-6 airing.

The students were involved in all aspects from pre-production to editing. And though they had big titles and responsibilities, they wore many hats throughout the process, even tackling elements like sound design and creative direction.

Butz met with the actors and handled scripts and read-throughs, allowing the four students to focus on production. 

“I trusted that they would know their lines,” said Zavaglia. “I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about that.”

Gilbert said the biggest challenge for him was the scope of the project. 

“I had to keep up with the actors, the microphones, the lenses … pretty much everything,” he said. “I got a free Masterclass (in movie production). I was new to this level of professionalism.”

“His job was making sure the movie got made,” Mann said.

Zavaglia said the pressure and expectations weighed heavy on him. 

“It was all in our hands,” he said.

Johler felt the number of people involved proved to a big learning curve for her. There were 20-plus actors and chorus members, along with several other teachers and audio/visual people to coordinate and manage.

During the process, many lessons were learned by the student team.

“Planning is important, and organization really helps,” said Johler. 

Zavaglia said he learned the importance of chemistry. “Figuring out how we work together, where people shine …” he explained. 

Mann and Gilbert agreed that good communication is key.

Johler estimates that she logged more than 300 hours working on the film. 

“We don’t need to worry about senior service hours!” joked Zavaglia. 

He said many students thanked them for providing the opportunity to perform despite the pandemic. 

“Everyone worked so hard and was so respectful,” said Gilbert. “We are blessed with the resources that we have at Westminster.”

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