Students shoot movie, bad guys
Miami University senior Robert Horn steps out of a stunningly white 2013 Porsche 911 Carrera S and picks up a matte black assault rifle. There is blood on his hands. He begins pulling countless firearms from the back of a BMW and passing them out to his crew. This is First Punch Productions, and the COM 414 students have just called a wrap on the filming of "Aqua."
First Punch Productions operates in conjunction with Capstone Pictures, a separate entity loosely tied to Miami's department of media, journalism & film, according to publicity director, junior Jessica Ball.
"Aqua," a modern-day film noir, is Horn's brainchild. The action film follows rival drug-running mobs and the chaos left in their colliding wakes.
"I wanted [to follow] a dark character who would come back for revenge," Horn said. "The film 'Payback' was a big inspiration, which also inspired me to read the book, 'The Hunter,' which inspired the film."
Miami alumnus A.J. Rickert-Epstein plays a dark character, appropriately named Hunter. In 2005, Rickert-Epstein moved at age 20 to Los Angeles, where he now works as a cinematographer, director of photography and actor. While acting a lead, he also coaches the 'Aqua's director of photography, senior Francesco Filice.
"I've been coming back [to Oxford] from L.A. pretty regularly to do supplemental instruction with COM 414 as well as a new J-term class this past January," Rickert-Epstein said. "["Aqua's" script] had a flavor of 'Payback' and other '80s action movies I grew up with; I love that stuff."
Rickert-Epstein, like all other actors involved, is unpaid save a small stipend to cover travel costs. Michiel Schuitemaker plays Carter Fairfax, "Aqua's" silver-haired, silver-tongued bad guy.
"I turn around businesses for a living," Schuitemaker said. "So, I guess I'm an actor by profession, but to make money, I do other things."
Indeed, Schuitemaker is a remarkably successful businessperson. It was in one of Schuitemaker's Porsches that Horn took his joyride.
"I think Rob [Horn] did a great job, as well as everybody else in the crew," Schuitemaker said. "I think it was really well done, the script is great. Everybody was so professional, right on the money, getting things done."
First Punch Productions hired Rickert-Epstein and Schuitemaker after a casting held in Cincinnati. According to Ball, professors organized these casting calls with Horn. With the exception of one Miami student, all actors in "Aqua," as with most Capstone Pictures, are professionals.
The majority of scenes in "Aqua" were filmed in Eaton, Ohio, according to Ball.
"We partnered with the city," Ball said. "They have an amazing carriage house and let us close off entire streets."
According to Media, Journalism & Film Associate Professor and Capstone Pictures executive producer David Sholle, the City of Eaton was very receptive to their project.
"We shot at the 230 bar in town and they just let us use it: they let us break glasses, Sholle said. "I walked down the street to go get some coffee and they said, 'Oh, you're on that film? It's free!'"
The bloody final scenes were shot outside of town in the great room of Gina Melling's beautiful home. Melling, an Eaton High School math teacher, had Horn in class several years ago. She and her husband are Miami alumni and their son is a first-year student.
"It's neat to see everything that goes into it behind the scenes: the prep work, how long it takes to shoot a scene," Melling said. "It's been very interesting."
Sholle said Horn is the first in his memory to both write and direct a film.
"The script was written by Rob, but several of the other students worked on revising it, contributing to scenes," Sholle said. "This is about education. It's about putting students in a situation where they have to be really self-motivated and learn how to work together as a team."
Since 2005, Miami has offered the capstone class once a year.
"This year, we did it in the fall and the spring as an experiment," Sholle said. "I think we're going to go back to once a year. There are time, weather and scheduling issues with the fall term."
Sholle said Miami's program is unique, and has found success at independent film festivals past.
"We'll enter ["Aqua"], for sure, into the Rochester International Festival, which one of our films won several years ago," Sholle said. "There are no 'awards,' just getting in is an award."
Filming an action movie does not come cheap, according to Ball, who said "Aqua" employed an arsenal of firearms worth roughly $30,000.
"Our department has money that comes in from a grant a long time ago and we raise money through indiegogo," Sholle said. "This year, we only got about $1,000, but we raised an additional $2,000 or more just from individual donors who cut checks."
Indiegogo is, simplistically, Kickstarter for independent films: a website on which filmmakers can solicit donations for projects. Sholle added the Parents' Fund has given money in the past and students try to raise half the money they spend.
Sholle and Ball also emphasized the generosity of Midwest Grip and Lighting, who provided booms, cameras, lighting and other equipment.
"They're almost like a charity to us," Sholle said. "They probably give us $50,000 worth of equipment and charge us $2,000."
Midwest also lent the team a gaffer, Sholle said, who acts as a teacher, guiding students through the nuances of professional equipment.
While the blood was mostly corn syrup and the gun was a prop, the Porsche was very authentic.
"It was ... awesome," Horn said.
"Aqua" premiers May, 11 at the Wilks Theater in the Armstrong Student Center.
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