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Teens on the big screen

North Junior High students learn filmmaking from one of their own


Filmmaker Michael Gough has never had much patience for stodgy, conventional book-learning. Eschewing the sometimes stifling—and always expensive—rigors of film school, he has learned his craft with DIY gumption and on-the-job training with the likes of PBS and local production company Priddy Brothers. So how is it that this 25-year-old "street-educated" filmmaker found himself starting 2009 back in school at North Junior High, his tender-years alma mater? You can blame Steven Spielberg for that.

"I used to study biographies on Steven Spielberg," Gough says. "How when he was in high school his family rented a movie theater to show his [films] at. I always thought that was awesome."

Gough's vision of big-screen consummation was realized in 2006 when the Egyptian Theatre screened his independent feature, Autumn Angel, to a sold-out house. It's a high point he was hoping to provide for other young filmmakers.

"I really wanted to do a program where kids will have an opportunity to write, shoot and edit and then be able to actually show their movie at a movie theater," he says.

When North teacher Warren Hull asked Gough to volunteer to provide a two-week crash course in filmmaking for his 9th grade video broadcasting students, Gough eagerly jumped back into the public education system.

Gough says it was the perfect opportunity to take all the ideas he's had over the last four years and put them into a program.

"I found very quickly that the ideas he had were identical to what I was hoping ..." Hull says. "He wanted to and was willing to and had everything in line. It just worked perfectly."

Using Gough's high-tech equipment, the three class periods were each assigned to create a short film. Every student took a different production role, from high-profile jobs such as actor and director to behind-the-scenes work in sound editing and wardrobe. One reluctant student even signed on as a caterer. With a timeline of only eight days, the young filmmakers learned to make the 45-minute periods count. Actors slyly studied script revisions between takes while assistant directors shooed non-participating students out of shots.

"[W]e were more pressured to produce something good, do it right the first time," says assistant director Kathryn, age 15 (school administration asked that the students' last names not be used). "So actually I think having a strict time frame helped."

What emerged from the project were three ambitious shorts, dealing with such youthful hot topics as paranormal investigation, teenage female vanity, vampires and shadowed abduction. On Sunday, these fruits of their labor will debut at the inaugural and possibly annual North Junior High Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre. As part of the full festival experience, the students will hold a question-and-answer session following the screenings and be judged for awards: Five of the students will be offered internships for Gough's new film, Famous Motel Cowboys, about the life of local country music legend Pinto Bennett, set to begin production in 2010.

"We were more excited about this project because it was going to be shown at the Egyptian ..." says screenwriter Teresa, age 14. "But also because it was more professional than just little handheld cameras, Mac computers and tripods."

The students have cultivated a level of professionalism since participating in the program. This can be seen in assistant director MacKenzie's emphasis on pre-production and in cameraman Jake's evaluation of ergonomic technique. Their gripes mirror those of any studio bigwig.

"I enjoyed the project itself," says 15-year-old MacKenzie. "But the only thing that I really didn't like was the time frame. If [we would have] had more time, I think we could have made it a lot better."

"There's ups and downs to writing," Teresa says knowingly. "It's really fun to write the script, but then seeing your thing be handled by other people ... [is] kind of scary but exciting."

Experiencing the necessary division of labor on the set has created a new appreciation for the complexities of filmmaking.

"[It] made me realize that when I go to watch my two-hour movie ... so much is put into it," says Kathryn. "It made me value what I was going to see from now on in the movies."

Just two weeks after Gough matriculated back into the real world, his philosophy of experimentation and invention is carried on in the halls of North Junior High.

"They now have a better idea of what they want to do," says Hull. "They [are] doing things and trying things—shots, angles and cuts—that they wouldn't have done first semester. It's so gratifying to see that."

And Gough? He's just grateful he can use his gifts to inspire part of a new generation of filmmakers.

"I think back to when I was in junior high and how much I would have given to have an experience like that," he says. "I'm in a position to give back, even though it's just a little bit ... When you're able to give something back, it's a rewarding thing to do."

Sunday, Feb. 8, 2 p.m., $5. Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St., 208-387-1273,