So where's the next big filmmaker starting out? The Louisiana Film Prize in Shreveport, LA. The festival – a city-wide extravaganza feting a competition among 20 short films by directors from across the country – also includes a Music Prize, Startup Prize and Food Prize. Think: a small-scale SXSW, plus heaps of southern hospitality.
The winner of the Film Prize receives $50,000 and – along with the other four highest judge-and-audience-voted films – gets iTunes distribution once their short is done touring various festivals, which sets them on a path for an even bigger honor: the Academy Award (more on that later). And the Prize plays host to surprising talent: this year, one of my fellow judges was actor Kevin Rahm (who you may know as Ted Chaough from "Mad Men"), and actress Tamzin Merchant – whose directorial debut "American Virgin" placed in the top five – currently stars in "Salem."
After the whirlwind weekend-long festival wrapped, I caught up with some of the Prize's budding talent: Alexander Jeffrey, who helmed this year's outstanding Prize-winning film, "The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy," along with Merchant and fellow top five-placing director Travis Champagne of "Jackdaw," to talk everything from turning the tables on a former teacher to directing Jonathan Bennett (aka Aaron Samuels from "Mean Girls") to (literally) putting a price on virginity to seeking influence from the Coen brothers. Prepare to say you knew all this emerging talent way back when a short film festival in Shreveport placed them on the road to the Oscars.
Watch the trailer for this film and just try not to get goosebumps. I dare you. As fellow judge Kristy Puchko asserts, viewing it with audiences at the Prize was pure magic – the collectively-swelling emotion was palpable. The beautiful, deftly-told story of a man's inspired preparation for an interview is the kind of movie you want to watch on a loop until your heart explodes.
Much of that is due to Stan Brown's stunning performance as Mister Bellamy, which garnered him the Prize's Best Actor award. Turns out, Jeffrey didn't have to look far to find this monster talent for his movie: Brown was the director's former teacher at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In fact, the initial day of production is the first time Jeffrey had seen Brown since his graduation in 2011. "It was crazy, and kind of a weird moment," remembers Jeffrey, who didn't even consider making his teacher audition. "When I was getting ready to cast I realized one of the best actors that I know, and one of the best people that I know, is Stan."
And while the film is fiction, its basis has real-life roots. Growing up, Jeffrey's girlfriend used to watch a gentleman in her hometown collect bottles along a miles-long strip of highway – building upon that inspiration, Jeffrey and writer Paul Petersen toyed with a narrative about a man who creates a bespoke suit. They combined the two ideas and set them where they'd be shooting, in Louisiana, against the backdrop of a true historical event.
"We wanted to look back in time, and 1964 was the integration of the job market [in Louisiana]," says Jeffrey. "So we thought that was the perfect year to set this character who has an amazing sense of optimism and the desire to create, and the world is telling him no." Trust me, one look at Brown's gorgeously emotive face throughout "Bellamy" will make you ugly-cry and give you pause when it comes to American events past and present. It is an acutely relevant, achingly human film.
"American Virgin" follows 17-year-old Allie (Maddie Nichols), who – along with the help of her older cousin Ty (Cam Owen) – attempts to sell her virginity so she can afford to attend a summer program at Juilliard. Like, who HASN'T been there, amirite guys? "It's not any kind of autobiographical story, I swear!" says writer/director Merchant, who shot the movie over the course of a three-day weekend while on Easter break from "Salem," which is also filmed in Shreveport. "Some of the 'Salem' crew, and even our lovely 'Salem' cast member Elise Eberle, actually crewed our set," said Merchant. "And Lucy Lawless was driving unit cars for us and providing food! Stephen Lang bought everybody coffee! ...It felt like being given a huge hug from the 'Salem' production."
You'll also be seeing much more of the film's breakout stars – not only will Nichols and Owen appear in Merchant's planned 2016 follow-up "American Homo" (color us intrigued), but 15-year-old powerhouse talent Nichols has already landed herself a management deal. "We held open casting calls and Maddie was the youngest girl we auditioned," says Merchant. "She just blew us all away. She is super-talented and I can't wait to see what she does next."
In my heart, this film wins the awards for "Best Cupcake Placement on a T-Shirt," "Most Creative Use of a Pinata," and "Most Cringe-Inducing Encounter with a High School Teacher." It's also a great way to get an ab workout in, because HOLY HILARIOUS. Excuse me while I incorporate the phrase, "I'm going to get a macchiato" into my daily vernacular. You'll know what I mean once you see it. *wink emoji*
If you think the trailer's stressful, prepare yourself for the ever-building slow burn that is "Jackdaw," which focuses on Shane (Gary Smith), a man grappling with single fatherhood in the aftermath of his wife's mysterious disappearance. "'No Country for Old Men' was my main inspiration," says Champagne.
And it shows – as does Champagne's less overt influence from the first season of "True Detective." Bluesy tunes, bayou vistas and dark plot lines abound. "I'm not going to say 'True Detective' isn't definitely an inspiration of mine, because I've seen that first season three times and I definitely think about it a lot when I write," says Champagne, of the comparisons his film has garnered. "To even be remotely considered in that realm of TV brilliance is a win."
Prize-goers have come to expect memorable performances out of Champagne's films – "Jackdaw" includes a creepy turn by Ryan Broussard as the main suspect in the unsolved case, along with an impressively imposing showing as chief investigator from Tishuan Scott, and Champagne's 2014 Prize entry "The Out and Out's" starred aforementioned "Mean Girls" actor Bennett, who – coincidentally – was first recommended to Champagne by Gretchen Wieners herself, Lacey Chabert. If you're down with moody, immersive filmmaking, you'll want to keep an eye on Champagne.
So how do top-placing filmmakers at the Prize get a shot at Oscar gold? That's thanks to judge Linda Olszewski, senior acquisitions and programming executive and consultant to ShortsHD, who also happens to be the associate producer for the Oscar Shorts releases. This year, ShortsHD has supported some favorite films and filmmakers in an Oscar-qualifying run to ensure the films can be seen by Academy members for consideration for a nomination. "There's solid talent coming out of the Louisiana Film Prize competition," says Olszewski. "We look forward to supporting this year's Film Prize winner, 'The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy,' and possibly others as well.” ShortsHD will offer many of the Prize-winning films available for sale on the iTunes, Amazon, and Verizon stores in 2016, so keep an eye out!
Are you a filmmaker who wants to get in on the action? A few key things to know: registration begins in mid-January, and your film must be shot solely within the Shreveport/Bossier City area by mid-July. But it's nowhere near as daunting as it seems – the Prize helps filmmakers throughout the process, providing support for locations, equipment, crew, accommodations, and more. For more information, contact filmmaker liaison Chris Lyon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More of an armchair critic? No problem -- the seats at the Film Prize's five screening venues are super comfy. Start planning your trip to the 2016 festival, which will undoubtedly be the best yet, in honor of the Prize's fifth year. It's a truly unique event to participate in, from any angle – it stimulates the local indie film scene, creates economic impact via the filming process and encourages community involvement through screening and voting. Other fests could learn a thing or two from Prize founder Gregory Kallenberg's example. To quote the festival's signature mantra, "Viva la Film Prize!"