When Jeffrey Crane Graham lost his friend Peggy in high school, he had a difficult time processing his emotions.
Graham took an unconventional approach to dealing with his grief: He wrote and directed a movie akin to his experience, which will be released on digital retailers Nov. 28.
“I had a very hard and long emotional journey trying to understand my friend’s death just because she was so young,” Graham said. “ I had a very smart friend watch it and say, ‘I think it’s so cool that the five characters you populated the movie with all represent the five stages of grief,’ which is not at all what my intention was … but I was like, ‘That's exactly what I meant to do.’”
The film, “Always, Lola,” follows five best friends who reunite on a camping trip after their high school friend Lola dies. As they try to memorialize her, they unravel secrets surrounding her death, building tension among the friends.
Graham, who graduated from Miami University in 2013 with a high school English education degree, chose to shoot some of the film in Oxford, filming at locations like Kofenya, Steinkeller and the Oxford police station. Graham also hired two Miami peers from his graduating class as actors: Sheldon White, a marketing major, Stage Left alum and fourth-generation Miamian who plays Riggs; and Collin Campana, a theatre major who plays Trey.
The actors even brought some of their knowledge from Miami to the independent film’s shoot.
“Miami taught me specifically a really strong work ethic in terms of budgeting my time, prioritizing things,” Campana said. “I don’t know how the theatre department runs now, but when I was there, it was run as if you were in a professional show, and the teachers in classes would be honest with you.”
Graham became friends with White and Campana in college and thought of the two when making the movie, recruiting them for acting and also using them for creative feedback.
“I wrote the parts for them, and at least specifically picturing them as I wrote,” Graham said. “... They’re great actors, but they’re also great story brains.”
White and Campana said they were interested in the script for the movie but also just wanted to take the opportunity to work together.
“I just think making a movie with your best friends is still fun,” White said. “If you have the opportunity to do it in your life, do it.”
Graham compared the process of creating a film to being an entrepreneur, taking finances and other considerations into account. Graham estimated that 80% of the film’s budget came from his own savings, and the rest came from producers like Keven Undergaro, producer for AfterBuzz TV.
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Still, Graham, who didn’t even think he’d go into filmmaking, said the sacrifice was worth it, adding the film to the growing list of microbudget, do-it-yourself films.
“We [had] two very hard choices,” Graham said. “One of them [was] to not make the movie and be 90 years old in a nursing home, talking about the movie we never made. And the other choice [was] to just try to do it and see what happens, and they both sound really hard, but I think the first one actually sounds a lot harder.”
Before the film found a distributor, Graham brought “Always, Lola” to multiple film festivals where it won awards like best feature at the Marina del Rey Film Festival or best ensemble and director at other festivals.
Graham said that after these screenings, the film got a number of deals, and he picked the one that was best for this movie. With the film’s release, the world will get to see his tribute to his friend, with whom he shared a love for movies.
“It’s kind of cool that there’s this artifact in the world that will always exist, that sort of love letter to her, which is kind of special,” Graham said. “And I think she would have liked it too.”