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Local Short, Big Screen

30 Jun , 2010  

Written by Maddy Kadish | Posted by:

Andrew Wesman’s Harvard University senior thesis film Shelley comes back from the Cannes International Film Festival as it celebrates the importance of small film on the big screen.

With his film Shelley, filmmaker Andrew Wesman honors the short film genre and makes a case for bringing more short films to the theatre. Shelley, 21 minutes in length, juxtaposes violence and innocence to tell the story of a 14-year old girl who murders her parents. The murder is not depicted, but the intense emotion and conflict jump off the screen.

“I want to make movies that play in a theatre. A big image and sound under the control of a film–that’s the experience that I want and yearn to make. Shelley is designed for that. There’s great potential with new media, of course, but you’ll never get that emotional intensity on a small screen,” says Wesman. “A good cathartic drama belongs on the big screen.”

One could argue that he fulfilled his ambition. Shelley screened at the Cannes International Film Festival last May. But the story here is not only with the film, but also with the filmmaker. Harvard student Andrew Wesman wrote and directed Shelley for his senior thesis and submitting it to Cannes wasn’t in his original plan.

Wesman’s senior thesis is an official selection in the Cinéfondation competition for student films. Cinefoundation received over 1,600 entries from film school students around the world and selected thirteen films. Of these, only two of the films are from the United States. And Wesman is the only undergraduate filmmaker in the mix.

“Film was always a gateway for me to understand the world,” Wesman says of his childhood in San Francisco growing up fascinated with film. His crew was all from San Francisco and included his childhood friend Ian Carr, the producer, and his former film teacher from high school Chesley Chen, cinematography. The film was shot at his family’s vacation home in Harwich, where he spent his summers.

Cannes was about one week before his Harvard graduation. “I had to wear a tux, walk on the red carpet. I didn’t think that would happen in my senior year of college,” says Wesman.

He majored in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. “I chose liberal arts (rather than a film school) because I wanted to learn more about the world. I took pre-med classes. I took Mayan Yucatec, electronic music classes. It made me grow as a person — and then the film program focused me.”

He held casting sessions at Harvard and around Boston and selected 14-year-old Stephanie Simonoff for the title role. “Stephanie is the opposite of her character. She’s really bubbly and happy. The first take she did in her audition was all wrong, but I simply explained the character and she completely transformed. She’s amazing.”

The film is tightly woven, a product of the filmmaker’s “perfectionist” ways. He and his cast workshopped every scene, detailing the blocking all day on the set in Cape Cod, while Wesman recorded it on his Panasonic video camera. Then he edited the video all night to show the cast the next day when he had them repeat the scenes.

The result was “a working vision to zone in on what was working and what wasn’t. I had a video storyboard. I could study the story before I shot it. What does this framing tell us about Shelley or Roger? Was the camera in the right place? Then for actual shoot, the story was almost in-grained in us.”

After his Cannes acceptance, Wesman and Carr transferred the film, shot on the Red camera, transferred to 35mm and worked with Skywalker Sound to give it a surround sound mix. “I was working in LA so much that my mom thought I’d never graduate. My thesis instructors were very supportive,” says Wesman.

Of his experience at Cannes, Wesman says, “It was nice to be recognized–for making this little film from Cape Cod. The flashiness was fun. It was good to be part of it, but the greatest part was the other filmmakers. I was surprised by how warm and kind everyone was. I feel like I have friends for life–from around the world.”

Wesman, who has been making films since he was a kid, will be attending film school at UCLA in the fall. Although features are certainly on the horizon, he’ll presumably be making more short films for his classes–and still thinking big.

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