Rock Island-based Fresh Films Works With Kids Nationwide on Learning TV & Movie Biz
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Caval Spearman, Jr., a high school senior in Chicago, has been involved in making short films since he was 14. He even started his own media production company three years ago and a YouTube channel.
So it was natural for the talented, intense teen to join his first Fresh Films experience this past summer, a free program based at Augustana College that gives high schoolers across the country hands-on experience producing TV and film content.
“I think they’re amazing,” Caval said last month at Moline’s Sylvan Island, during a break in shooting for a new feature film, “Ghostland.” “I honestly think they have something really special for students – not just in Chicago or Illinois, but all across the United States and around the world. We need more things like this,
especially for kids who grew up like me, loving this at an early age, understanding what they wanted to do at an early age, and they help guide students in what they want to do.
“This has been amazing – not just for me, but the rest of the students,” he said, noting he’s already planning to earn two master’s degrees, in filmmaking and fine arts. “Overall, I think Fresh Films is doing something spectacular.”
“We’re not just doing one thing. We’re learning everything about the film process,” Caval said. “I learned most just how a film set is conducted. I was committed to a film, to a group and to a goal. That’s something I kind of took for granted before. This program helped me understand exactly what it takes to get to my goal.”
Cornell Franklin, a high school junior from Chicago, worked on audio at the Sylvan Island filming. “I’m getting a lot of on-site experience, which I appreciate. It’s very fun to be part of a crew, and putting it all together,” he said. “It’s very fun, just the actual experience itself.”
He wants to pursue a career behind the camera in the business, and is interested in editing. He’s looking
into film schools for college, and Fresh Films will help on his college application. “It’s an amazing thing to include. There are a lot of people who learn about in classes, but not a lot actually get to be on set, working on it.”
Fresh Films – which moved from Chicago in 2016 to be based at the private Rock Island college — creates films, TV shows and documentaries while training young future filmmakers in all aspects of film. Youth collaborate on-set rotating through every film position – from camera and sound, to editing and effects – gaining technical and workplace skills.
Their productions have been seen on DIRECTV, PBS, IFC, iTunes, Amazon, Redbox, in theatres and in 12 countries. Productions include the AT&T Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab with Reese Witherspoon that brought 20 female filmmakers to Los Angeles to create a documentary about women in film, and “The Stream” starring Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) and Mario Lopez (“Extra”).
Run by the husband-and-wife team of Estlin and Kelli Feigley, Fresh Films also partners to offer an Entertainment & Media program at Augustana, which is now a minor. It provides academic courses in film and TV and gives Augustana students an opportunity to work with Fresh Films all year long in production, editing, marketing and business.
Fresh Films and Augie also collaborate with educators to bring the program into schools as part of interactive assemblies, workshops and grants that expose teens to the many art and STEAM careers in the $720-billion entertainment industry.
Estlin Feigley got his MFA from the University of Iowa in 1997. His first feature was partially shot in the Q-C, called “Toll Bridge to Iowa,” in 1999, and since then, “Ghostland” is his first feature filmed in the Q-C. An Augustana alum, Feigley founded Dreaming Tree Films, which produces corporate videos and commercials, as well as Fresh Films, a 501c3 production company whose mission is to make filmmaking accessible to young people around the country.
Since founding Fresh Films in 2002, Feigley has led more than 110 different teen film-crews in the creation of over 150 shorts, TV shows and feature films. More recently, he directed “The Stream,” a family comedy featuring Mario Lopez from “Extra” and Rainn Wilson from “The Office” that was released in theatres or on DVD in 12 countries.
Feigley also wrote and directed the children’s television show “Moochie Kalala Detectives Club,”
a half-hour series that was nominated for an Emmy award after it debuted on PBS.
Additional directing work includes the film “Alternate Universe,” starring Steve Guttenberg. Feigley teaches courses included in the college’s new entertainment & media industries program as well as continuing to lead student interns on Fresh Films projects.
“This place is awesome,” he said of the Q-C. “It’s amazing.”
For “Ghostland,” he came up with the concept — written by Emmy Award-winning writer Rick Cleveland (House of Cards, Six Feet Under, Mad Men), the family-friendly thriller follows three high-school students as they’re given an assignment to research a mythical “bundle” that gives the holder the power to see the dead. Initially producing a trailer to help attract investors and sponsors, the Fresh Films cast and crew filmed a limited number of scenes last month at Rock Island High School and Moline’s Sylvan Island.
Feigley first showed his concept and outline of a script to Rick Cleveland, a friend from grad school. “Rick has done fabulous – he won an Emmy for ‘The West Wing,’” Feigley said. “Rick has just had a fabulous career and he has been a longtime collaborator in Fresh Films. He’s been a judge, but we haven’t written together. I thought I might pick up one of his junior writers, and he read the script – the point to point – and he said, ‘I’d like to write the script’.”
“So Rick and I wrote the script; it was kind of nice,” he said, noting a “point to point” is more an outline of the script, which Feigley did two years ago, and they originally hoped to film in 2020, but then Covid happened.
“It’s really been fun, since most people have been from the Quad-Cities,” Feigley said. “It’s a great project, and this is a great one for me and
try it out here. It’s been fabulous. We had Quad-City kids on the set…from Rock Island, Davenport Central.”
“Really the film has a ‘Sixth Sense’ vibe to it,” Feigley said. “The ghosts aren’t gruesome, per se. It’s more psychological, kind of a PG-13. It’s going to look like ‘Halloween’ but feel like a teen adventure film. It should be fun.”
Because of Covid, they had to take their regular educational program online in 2020-21, and it worked well, he said. “It’s unbelievable; we had like 200 kids per week in the program. This summer, we had a four-week program, and it was 150 kids a day. It’s been unbelievable. It’s been all over the country – not just Quad-Cities, but East Coast, West Coast, California, Midwest, from Oklahoma. It’s unbelievable.”
Sponsors have stepped up more, with financial support, Feigley said. There will be Fresh Films academies in the Q-C, with existing organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs. “A lot of places can’t get teachers, so what’s nice about it is, we can give them a film program and they don’t have to pay for it,” he said. “That’s been great. We’re in other cities, and that’s picked up. It’s been great.”
Many Q-C organizations have made this program possible, including the Regional Development Authority, Scott County Regional Authority, Quad Cities Community Foundation, United Way Quad Cities, Hubbell-Waterman Foundation, the Bechtel Trusts, HAVLife, Theisen’s Foundation, Rock Island Community Foundation, Moline Foundation, Illinois Arts Council, Illinois Humanities, KWQC, the City of Moline, Rock Island High School and Augustana – which all supported this summer and the year-round Fresh Films program.
“We’ve got an amazing group of local Q-C actors including Jackie McCall, Ian Sodawasser, Sophia Kilburg, Elise Campbell, Dasha Samson, Ben Bergthold, Nicole Terronez, Ian Reed, Anthony Mitchell and Gregory Kerr – who will work with the youth and star in the production,” Kelli Feigley said of “Ghostland” last month. “The crew is also local, with Matt Holmes, Alexis Lotspeich, Sara Wegener, Jay Sushka and Augustana supporting set design, costumes and makeup (and also working with the teens!). The teens also engaged in some Augustana programming to build awareness for college life and are mentored by Augustana student interns and Fresh Films professional staff.”
An Augie alum joined the staff
Kelsey Conley, a 2018 Augustana graduate, majored in communications and sociology and started as a Fresh Films marketing intern in 2017, and moved to the production side. She worked on TV pilots, “Gwen’s World of Weird,” and “Miskits,” and worked with students in
marketing, a social media competition. They didn’t film in the Q-C area, but in Los Angeles and Chicago.
They tried to get as many views as possible for the trailers, effective social posts and platforms, and Conley gave a prize for the best promoter. “It was really great to see them all coming together and working on it to promote it,” she said. The first production project she worked on after graduation was the AT&T Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab in summer of 2018, in L.A., where they brought 20 young women from around the country to L.A.
“It was a really exciting project. We interviewed women who worked in Hollywood – set designers, directors and designers, and we capped it off by interviewing Reese Witherspoon, which was a big deal,” she said. That summer, there were 1,300 applications for the 20 girls in the program, and the goal was to empower women, Conley said.
She was in L.A. for that as production coordinator, over 10 days. They produced a deeply inspiring 15-minute short (available on AT&T’s streaming service). Fresh Films did the program again in 2019, and hoped to do it in 2020 (canceled by Covid). In 2019, there were 700
applications for 20 slots, Conley said, noting none came from the Q-C in either year. She was part of the selection process for teenage female students.
“The whole experience for me wasn’t necessarily about the women we interviewed,” Conley said. “That was very exciting and they were very accomplished women in the industry, which was inspiring in its own way. But just being a part of the project was more impactful to me than the people we interviewed. It was a really great opportunity to celebrate women in general – both the young women who came on set and the women that we interviewed. We had an all-female crew, so it was really an empowered type of environment.”
“There was a big set with a lot of moving parts, so it was a great experience for me, in terms of producing because it was one of my first projects,” she said. “It really gave me a crash course in producing and it really set me up for success on the other projects we’ve worked on.”
Chloe Zhao made history at the Academy Awards this past April. The director of “Nomadland” was just the second woman to win the best directing award in nearly 100 years, and also the first woman of color to win the award.
Women directed twice as many of the top films in 2019 year compared to 2018. But just 20 percent of all
directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers on the top 100 grossing films of 2019 were women, according to the Celluloid Ceiling report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
Witherspoon has become a producing force in Hollywood – with 29 producer credits, on everything from the movies “Wild” and “Gone Girl” to series “Big Little Lies,” “Little Fires Everywhere” and “The Morning Show” to the upcoming film “Legally Blonde 3.”
Conley signed on full-time with Fresh Films after graduating; there are eight staff members now, including five full-time. It’s grown a lot in the number of interns over the years, with high school and college students, in paid internship. This summer, there were over 50 interns on projects all over the country, including working virtually, she said.
“That doesn’t include the students who are going through the program,” Conley said. “The virtual environment has been a blessing in disguise in some ways, because it really allowed us to reach more people than we ever had before. I think we had 200 students in our virtual
summer program. Because of the number of students we had, we needed more interns to work with them.”
All interns come from Augustana or past Fresh Films participants, she said, noting the number of interns have increased dramatically. The first year she started, there were about 10 interns over an entire year.
“We’re doing pretty well. The pandemic has been a blessing in disguise; we thought it was going to shut everything down for us,” Conley said. “We pivoted to this virtual program, which allowed us to continue engaging students and really providing them an opportunity to learn and be connected with other people, at a time where you didn’t have the opportunity to do that.”
One parent said, a lot of students in virtual school were very passive – asked to listen, but Fresh Films reversed that, expecting them to talk and engage and collaborate, Conley said. “It was really a kind of haven for those students, an opportunity. A lot of funders are excited by the fact that we’ve been able to smoothly transition into virtual programs.”
While most students couldn’t work hands-on with professional equipment, they tried to make it collaborative. Estlin Feigley taught online lessons, and the students formed teams of 12-15, led by an instructor to put together a video project over four to six weeks. That includes storyboarding, filming and editing, and they do it all virtually, Conley said. When filming, most students used mobile devices like phones and tablets, and they used mobile editing platforms.
“Really, all they needed was a phone and an Internet connection,” she said, noting one student was from rural Oklahoma. 2021 has been entirely virtual, with students from all over the country.
Expanding to 20 cities nationwide
In the last few years, Fresh Films has held programs in Chicago, L.A., the Twin Cities, and New York City. This year, they will be in 20 locations nationwide, Conley said. The year-round program runs October to May, meeting once a week, and the summer program is four weeks, weekdays a couple hours a day. Fresh Films is entirely free for students to participate.
“Our goal is to eliminate those barriers to access, particularly for those youth from under-resourced areas,” Conley said. “They don’t have a
film program at their school; they don’t have a news station at their school. They can still participate and learn.”
The number of funders also has grown in recent years, she said. “We started getting awarded more grants, and we’ve really been able to sustain the growth that way.”
The Augie entertainment and media program began in 2018 as a certificate program, and in 2019, it became a minor (with 11 current students declaring as a minor). “There’s a lot of people interested in film, so the program has kind of blown up. It also allows us to create relationships with more students. So we always strive to bring those students in as interns and a lot of them are entertainment/media studies minors, or in the certificate program.”
The Feigleys also are working to expand the Augie faculty in the program. “Ghostland” was
supposed to start in 2020, but many of the teen filmmakers in August were part of the Fresh Films virtual program.
The project kicked off this past April, and they weren’t sure if it could still proceed, Conley said. They’re filming a trailer, to promote it later this fall, with plans to film a full feature next summer. The trailer (one 2-3 minutes and a 30-second teaser) will be used to attract investors, she said. The full script has been written, Conley said.
The last in-person filmed project was early March 2020, with the Allstate Foundation and Morgan Park High School in Chicago. They did a volunteer project, and Allstate funded it. Fresh Films documented that volunteer work, with five students from the school, Conley said. “It was almost like a PSA, like a two-minute film that highlighted the project and the Allstate Foundation.
The last Fresh Films feature was “Alternate Universe: A Rescue Mission,” filmed in the Chicago suburbs in 2015, featuring Steve Guttenberg.
Because they’re producing the feature in the Q-C and set in the Q-C, they felt it was important to bring “as much Quad-City talent on board as possible – rather than bringing in people from Chicago to work on it,” Conley said. “We thought, the Quad-Cities has a great theater community. There’s a lot of talent here, and we’ve tried really hard to make sure we hired actors and crew members from the area.”
There are about 35 on the cast and crew – including 15 high school students, eight students are from the Q-C.
Feigley is the director and an adult friend worked as cinematographer, but the students were empowered to operate everything else, under the adults’ supervision and guidance. “They run audio; they’re calling ‘Action,’ and slating it, doing everything,” Conley said.
In mid-August, they spent two days filming at Rock Island High School (with the Q-C crew), and the next weekend, two days on Sylvan Island in Moline (led by the Chicago students).
At Rocky, those scenes were where the three leads were showing the bundle to their teacher, and showing her how it works. The person holding the bundle can see ghosts, and that was done in the school, the first time they see a ghost. On the island, they did a big fight scene, between one of the ghosts and a lead character.
“It was a little scary, but it’s fun,” Conley said. “It was the climax of the story, where they’re finally figuring out how to get rid of the ghosts.” They also filmed where one ghost moves on to
the afterlife, she said. Even though they filmed during the day on Sylvan Island, they used fog machines to add a spooky atmosphere.
“It’s a family-friendly ghost movie, so we try to walk the line,” she said.
There are three actors who played ghosts – Jackie McCall, who’s Brunner Theatre outreach coordinator at Augustana College; Ian Sodawasser, a frequent community theater actor, and Ben Bergthold, a 10-year-old who’s already signed with talent agencies in Chicago and L.A. The three leads are Sophia Kilburg, Elise Campbell and Anthony Quinn Mitchell, who are all college-age or just past, who can pass for teenagers.
“I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating. There’s a lot of anticipation,” Conley said of waiting to shoot and produce the complete film. “It’s kind of fun in some ways – if we had filmed the whole movie this summer, we likely wouldn’t see it for a couple years. So it’s nice to film part of it and be able to see parts of it coming to life gradually. I’m very excited to see the footage. It’s fun to watch it all being filmed. It’s all separate scenes, and you see what’s happening behind the camera, and then when you watch it come together, it’s awesome.”
Fresh Films often works with Augie interns on the editing process, she said. “Part of it is because editing is a very long process. And it’s also not the most exciting process,” Conley said. “We like to give them a taste of the editing, without necessarily having the full responsibility.”
Local actors treasure the experience
Jackie McCall (Augie coordinator Brunner Theatre) for spread the word about “Ghostland” auditioning among Augie theater students and then threw her hat in the ring, becoming Cora the wraith, or ghost. “I thought it would be fun to audition and meet people,” she said. “Let’s face it, there hasn’t been many auditions in recent times, for anything. I stopped by and a couple days later, they asked, ‘Would you be Cora
Her last pre-Covid acting job was at the Old Creamery Theatre in late 2019, in the play “The Unexpected Guest.” Playing a ghost was “super fun,” McCall said. “She is pretty vengeful; we’re only shooting a couple scenes for this now. But her back story is that she is vengeful because of the death of her son, shortly after the Civil War. She is a puppet master of sorts.’
“She appears to them as other people, so they think they’re with the person they are missing in life,” she said. “But it’s really her playing mind games and stuff. In other scenes we haven’t filmed, I think there will be other actors who stand in for them, so you can see from their perspective, of who they’re seeing. A lot of what they’ve been working on for these are getting the right kind of point of view shots, so because only certain characters can see the dead people.
“If you’re holding the sacred bundle, you can see dead people,” McCall said
She worked with Fresh Films over the past year at Augie, when the theater department needed to film and stream some of its shows (even ones where they had live audiences). “That was a great experience, so a few of the people I’m working with now had worked on that,” McCall said. “This is my first time on camera with them.”
She’s grateful she had the opportunity to be part of “Ghostland,” since she can now talk about Fresh Films to prospective students who are interested in studying film.
“I will have more to tell them, first-hand, about what the program is like and how awesome the people are,” McCall said.
Alexis Lotspeich, a Q-C theater costume designer, outfitted the Fresh Films actors, and said there are different challenges in both theater and film.
“In theater, you have the benefit of having the 20-foot rule – where if it looks OK from like 20 feet, you’re probably fine, but with film, you have closeups. You gotta make sure it’s the same in each shot, and have to look at duplicates of things, because if someone gets dirty or whatever.”
It was also challenging getting clothes to reflect different time periods, Lotspeich said. She got McCall’s long 19th-century style black dress from Augustana’s costume shop. Q-C theater veteran Sara Wegener (a professional hair stylist) did the makeup for actors.
Ian Sodwasser (who’s Lotspeich’s boyfriend and played Snoopy this summer at Spotlight Theatre) got his first filming with the project. “I was very game for everything,” the actor said. “It was a really great time. Alexis was costume designer. Maybe I’ll throw my hat in the ring. They happened to need a bearded man. They were looking for a ginger, and I didn’t shave after ‘Charlie Brown.’”
His character, the bearded man, also is a ghost, and the three wraiths stalk the main trio of kids. “They have died of anger at some point in their lives and they are trapped in purgatory,” Sodawasser said. “They are attached to this bundle. We pop up to whoever is holding the bundle, I was mainly there to be a menace to the main trio of kids. The scenes I was in were creepy and scary.”
He got to be in a big sword fight scene, which was fun.
“I had done a little bit of sword combat in ‘Hunchback’ and ‘My Favorite Year,’ nothing too extensive,” Sodawasser. “I was relatively
inexperienced with the combat, but the director Estlin was really great. It was very supportive.”
Though they filmed at Sylvan on sunny, super hot days, the atmosphere still fit the scary aura, he said, noting Lotspeich also played a ghost.
“It was super creepy, looked like a place you wouldn’t want to be in,” Sodawasser said. “It’s pretty easy to imagine the scares, there was a bonfire pit there, there was broken glass; it was a pretty sketchy area. It had graffiti. It was kind of cool, they filmed in an area that used to be a factory, with wall remnants, the graffiti already there, and they had a fog machine.”
He didn’t know high school students would be doing the film crew.
“That was a really neat learning experience for everyone involve,” Sodawasser said. “It was a unique experience for everyone. I would love to do the entire thing — it’s a very good script. The writer is pretty prolific. It would be very exciting to do the whole thing.”
Kylen Brozovich, a Rock Island sophomore, enjoyed working on the behind-the-scenes aspect.
“I switched around a lot, with camera, audio, behind-the-scenes work. It was pretty cool to be there, at school when no one else was,” he said. “We filmed for two days at Rocky — one day on the weekend, the other day was during school.”
“It was a pretty good experience, getting to know everything they were doing,” Kylen said of Fresh Films. “It takes a lot of work – more than I thought — to film all of it and put everything together. I am looking into the film business, to see what it’s really like. I think it would be something I’m interested in. I have done theater through Center for Living Arts, been three or four years. I like performing and just acting, all that. I like getting experience on both sides.”
Sophia Kilburg, a University of Iowa junior majoring in theater, had a lead role in Countryside’s musical “Newsies” this summer, and she’s a lead in “Ghostland.” It was also her first film project, and found out about it through her work with Rock Island-based SK Models.
“With the pandemic, things have been few and far between. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities,” Kilburg said. For “Ghostland,” she plays a skeptical high schooler who has to
work together with the other kids to handle this sacred artifact.
“They’re faced with a lot of supernatural happenings, coming into contacts with wraiths, malicious spirits,” she said. “They have to keep the bundle safe. There’s a lot of running around their town, digging up things, going through clues, information, asking around.”
When the kids see the ghosts, they’re shocked, and they really don’t know what they’re up against, Kilburg said. “They have a very scary appearance, very ghostly, very dead looking.”
She previously worked with Elise Campbell in “Newsies,” and had a great time with her again in filming “Ghostland.”
“It’s always fun to work with the same people, see them use their different strengths,” Kilburg said. “It was really, really cool. I’d done theater and stage acting. It was interesting to experience kind of a different aspect of acting.”
“The biggest difference, in theater, you have one shot on stage to get it right,” she said. “In film, you can fall back on multiple takes. I suppose it’s less nerve wracking, but you have less prep time. We had two rehearsals and were thrown into it. Filming is a very different thing. It was really great; it created a very open, welcoming environment. We were all learning together on set, which is really cool.”
Proud of Penguin Project
Feigley also is proud of a new Fresh Films documentary he directed in 2019, “I AM Able,” produced in partnership with the Penguin Project of the Quad Cities.
The feature-length documentary follows the stories of 12 young people with disabilities – ranging from bipolar disorder to autism and cystic fibrosis – and how they and their families triumph through challenge. “Talented. Inspiring. Capable. We hope the documentary will engage the community in raising awareness of the challenges of people with disabilities while reducing the stigma and misunderstandings,” according to https://freshfilms.org/watch-our-films/iamable/.
“We’re getting it finalized,” Feigley said. “We really just finished it. It’s been crazy. It was shot with the Penguin Project. They’re asking, ‘When can we see the movie?’ Guys, it doesn’t happen
The aims of Penguin Project (which is nationwide) are:
- To provide an opportunity for children with special needs to develop creative skills related to the theater arts.
- To provide an opportunity for children with special needs to participate in a community theater experience.
- To facilitate interaction between children with special needs and their age-level peers through joint participation in a community theater experience.
- To facilitate an appreciation of the challenges faced by children with special needs and their families.
- To identify the impact of a community theater experience on the communication skills, socialization, and self-confidence of children with special needs.
- To facilitate interaction among medical, developmental, educational, and theater professionals through participation in a common community project.
- To provide a forum for support and interaction for families of children with special needs.
For more information on Fresh Films program offerings, visit freshfilms.org.