Dr. Edwin Epps, a teacher of creative writing and English studies at Spartanburg High, talks about his experience with Expecting Goodness’s Youth Project that gives the opportunity for a class to transform a short literary work into a short film.
When Kari Jackson and Alicia Farley invited my Honors Creative Writing class at Spartanburg High School to become the “youth division” of the 2013 Expecting Goodness Short Film Festival, we were flattered and anxious to plunge right in. How hard could this be? There were a lot of good video cameras now. The school must have some. If not, surely we could borrow some from somebody. And yes, we knew that MacBook Pros were the best computers for editing and producing finished films, and it was true that the school had only a handful and those were in the journalism office; but surely we could borrow some time on one of those, and if not, then pc software must be at least adequate. And no, none of us had ever used the iMovie program before, but we were smart and could learn quickly, so what was the big deal?
Three weeks into the project, we have learned that there were indeed several big deals. For one thing, it took us a week just to pick the inspiration for our film. The Expecting Goodness Short Film Festival invites filmmakers to create films inspired by the stories of local writers, but we thought we would work from a poem by a South Carolina poet instead since we only had three and a half minutes or so to work with. So far so good.
I thought that a James Dickey poem might be a good choice. Dickey after all is the state’s best known twentieth century poet, and I was already reviewing his work in conjunction with an Arthur Vining Davis Foundation grant project I had been invited to participate in along with John Lane, Deno Trakas, David Sykes, and their Wofford students. I brought a half dozen poems by Dickey to class, and we read and discussed them. The students in my class liked “The Heaven of Animals” best, also “Kudzu,” but neither seemed quite right. We widened our search.
I passed out copies of the Kwame Dawes-edited collection of poems by South Carolina Poetry Fellows, and we browsed through those as well as the Hub City Press Still Home anthology and Volume I of The Southern Poetry Anthology, which featured the work of South Carolina poets. In the end we narrowed our choices down to half a dozen titles, then chose two finalists: John Lane’s popular “Sweet Tea”—the poem that John calls “my greatest hit”—and a very clever piece by Debra Daniel titled “The Popeye Tapes.” In a close vote “Sweet Tea” was the winner.
We now had a poem to use as a starting point, but we had already used one week of our roughly one-month production time. What next?
Luckily, Kari and Alicia, the Hub City intern also working on this project, had some suggestions. We could, for instance, bring some of the adult filmmakers working on Expecting Goodness projects to my classroom to share their expertise and help give us some direction. We jumped at the chance. Over a period of about a week and a half we were visited by five experienced filmmakers: Abe Duenas, a California native who has also lived in New York City but is now a resident of Gaffney, where he sculpts in metal as well as makes films; Dr. Shirley Ann Smith and her partner Ron Hagell, who bring their experience as an educational reformer and filmmaker/teacher with extensive international experience to this year’s Festival; and Drew Baron and Jeff Driggers, two Columbia residents supporting their own filmmaking by commercial video production.
We’ve learned a lot from these folks, not only the basics of storyboarding and the importance of thinking visually but also essential techniques like the rule of thirds and the important lesson that every shot will have an effect in the film and upon the viewer and that therefore it is essential to anticipate this effect during production. We’ve also clarified our own vision for the project, talked with John Lane for background, and recruited a diverse corps of actors and readers, ranging from District Seven administrators and colleagues to friends and family members, diners in local restaurants, even a local songwriter who also maintains an online public education blog.
We’ve grabbed the bull by the horns and hit the ground running. We’ve got a week and a half left now and might even finish this thing. Stay tuned…