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Miami students produce amateur film

At 1:00 am on a Saturday, when most students were either at the bars, a house party or hanging out with friends, Miami's Capstone Pictures team was outside in below-freezing weather entering their thirteenth hour of filming.

As a part of MAC414, Capstone Pictures produces a film each spring semester with twenty students filling every role of the filmmaking process. Previous Capstone Pictures films have won three awards and one honorable mention from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the organization which gives the Emmy awards, and have been featured in the Rochester Film Festival.

Students must apply to be in MAC414 and submit a sample of their work, whether it be a script or a film reel. Designed to be an interdisciplinary class, students from any major can apply for a position. Once chosen to be in the class, students petition for their job title. The film requires everything from a director, assistant directors and producers, to writers, editors, makeup artists and much more.

This spring's student film, entitled "Suicide Man," focuses on mental health with a unique twist. The main character, David, has struggled with depression his entire life. He finds comfort in leading a local support group for suicide and depression, but begins to feel as though he is failing at that as well. He attempts suicide, and discovers something shocking: he cannot die.

David quickly becomes the focus of the media's attention, and goes from an average Joe to a viral sensation. The film looks at David as he struggles with his newfound fame and what it means for the members of the support group he left.

Senior Miami student Andrew Koury, who wrote the script for "Suicide Man," said the story began as he pondered how illogical mental illness can be, and wanted to portray it in a unique way.

"I wanted to make it about taking it one day at a time, as opposed to solving mental illness," said Koury.

With a topic as sensitive as suicide, students made sure to be cautious when editing the script.

"I think a lot of my classmates were hesitant to pick it," said Leah Veltri, the director of the film. "A lot of people were concerned about doing this film because suicide is a touchy topic, but I think that makes it more important because if nobody talks about it those people who struggle with it feel alone."

Vince Hobart Smith, who plays David, felt an immediate connection to the script.

"Once I saw that script, I knew it was a special thing," said Smith. "I wanted to do anything to help make that film happen."

Smith, a Miami alum, says filming certain scenes have been difficult and emotional.

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"It's a little uncomfortable, but I feel like it serves the purpose of encouraging people to think about mental health and depression, and what it means to deal with that or to help somebody," said Smith. "It's interesting that it uses a fantastic premise to kind of soften the idea a little bit, to look at it without having to deal with all of it head on."

The students are led by professors Sam Ribbler and David Sholle who have been teaching the class together since 2011. Both professors bring years of professional filmmaking experience and help the students get the closest experience to a real-life production experience as possible.

"For us to make it a good educational experience for students we kind of have to be a million places at once," said Ribbler. "So we're teaching students, we're evaluating students and trying to keep everyone safe at the same time."

The class is extremely demanding as only 20 students take on every role of producing a professional film.

"If you look at the credits at the end of the movie, it's a lot of people. We essentially try to do all of that with only 20 people," said Sholle.

Alum AJ Rickert Epstein, who is now a professional filmmaker in Los Angeles, often comes back to Oxford to help the students with their film each year. He gives the students guidance and advice, but lets the students make their own final decisions.

Students operate on an extremely low budget, getting most of their funding through an Indiegogo campaign. They also applied for and were granted the Parent's Fund Grant, and are currently the most funded capstone class at Miami.

According to Veltri, the small budget is not an issue for this innovative team.

"Considering that it is a small budget, like low to no budget student film, everyone is doing really well," said Veltri.

Co-producer Alyssa Vitolo agreed that, for the most part, the process was going rather smoothly.

"To be honest I don't think we've had any big challenges," said Vitolo. "We've run into some small problems, but they were solved real quick."

While the crew consists entirely of Miami students, most of the cast are not. The capstone team holds open auditions in Cincinnati and Oxford, advertising as far and wide as possible through email, flyers, social media and more.

The experience of producing a professional film is invaluable to students interested in pursuing a career in media or film.

"I think it's very real life," said Vitolo. "Obviously real life is much more intense, but I think this is the closest we're gonna get, and for not being a film school I feel like we match it pretty well."

Ni Suo, co-producer along with Vitolo, says that while it is demanding she has thoroughly enjoyed her time in the class.

Students have one more weekend of filming ahead before beginning the challenge of post-production. The film is set to premiere the week before finals. Veltri hopes the film will have a positive effect on anyone who has struggled with mental health issues.

"I hope people can connect to it; and know they do matter and their actions matter and people care about them," said Veltri.