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The Black Canaries sing

BY NATHANIEL ALDER | AUGUST 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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There are many apt terms to throw around when describing filmmaking.

One such term might be “persistence of vision.” In scientific terms, “persistence of vision” is the after-image that shows up briefly on your retina after you stare at something too bright or for too long. In cinema, the term is used to describe a willpower to fully realize a filmmaker’s mental projection of what a particular film should be.

In layman’s terms, it’s a director with a specific image or scenario burning in her or his mind yearning to be brought to life. A director is like a painter — only he or she knows what the painting will look like; it is her or his job to guide the brush in the right direction.

Jesse Kreitzer’s brush is in the process of its masterstroke. The Iowa City-based, New England-grown filmmaker is getting into the thick of an Odyssean process of creating a new, ambitious short film called “Black Canaries.”

A period piece, “Black Canaries” will be turned in as Kreitzer’s M.F.A. thesis film at the University of Iowa. Set in 1907, the magical-realism coal-mining tale is loosely inspired by the story of his great-grandparents, who were British miners in Albia, Iowa. The story has ruminated in his mind for a great while.

“This film has been sitting with me since I drove out to Iowa,” Kreitzer said. “I was in the U-Haul, and I said I would make a coal-mining film as an ode to my ancestors; it’ll be the impetus for me to explore my heritage.”

Quite fittingly, then, the story is about a family. In the film, the patriarch of the family encounters a rare mineral in a recently collapsed mine. The father discovers the mineral is coveted by other men and capitalizes on that desire by establishing a process in which one distills, liquefies, and ingests the mineral through her or his tear ducts.

Throughout the story, audiences see the father as he becomes consumed by his desire to extract the precious material.

“Black Canaries” is scheduled to start shooting in November. Not only is this a demanding and personal project for Kreitzer, but also, because the short film will be prepared and assessed as a thesis film, that makes the process more difficult but not unachievable.

“It’s a thesis film, so part of it is producing this very ambitious project and then also fitting it into the academic mode,” he said. “Which means, have it produced by mid-December. So it’s been very intensive pre-production.”

Pre-production is the stage that occurs before a single frame of the film is shot. Make no mistake, for any project, pre-production is an extensive process — directors budget, cast, story-board, build sets, etc. — a significant portion of what is seen on screen has been defined by months of work and research.

In order to hit that November starting date, Kreitzer has worked diligently, planning nonstop to ensure everything goes as planned.

“You’re building a castle out of nothing,” he said. “You’re creating the foundations from the get-go.”

He intends on working with non-actors and having a three- to four-week rehearsal with the cast to nail down every moment.

The filmmaker calculates his budget to be around $40,000. That money goes to hiring key crew members (cinematographer, production designer, etc), acquiring props, location fees, transportation, and shooting on 35-mm film. Before he can divvy the funding, the money has to be raised. The film has a financial sponsorship with Central Productions, a nonprofit that provides a tax write-off for the project. Jean-Paul DiSciscio, a board member of Central Productions, was impressed by Kreitzer when they met three years ago.

“It’s really rare; there are the crazy artist types, and then you have the business-minded producer,” DiScioscio said. “Jesse proved he could walk both those lines.”

In order to raise the money, Kreitzer has toured various locations, holding fundraisers for the film. He has hit Cambridge, Massachusetts, Boston, Newton, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and he’s set to hold a fundraiser in Iowa City this weekend. It’s a private event in which Kreitzer will screen a few of his short films, as well as a 13-minute story-board animatic for “Black Canaries,” with hopes of drumming up more funding.

One challenging aspect to the planning element is Kreitzer’s insistence that the film rely on as little dialogue as possible.

“Telling a story through dialogue is easy,” he said. “The real challenge is figuring out how to communicate visually.”

His initial planning for the film was primal, purely visual.

“It starts with the image and what is it telling me,” he said. “Is this an image that services the film and how does it function in the larger story? A lot of times, it’s jigsaw work.”

Indeed, there’s something of a mirror image when it comes to the film’s story in regard to filmmaking.

“There is something in this story that functions as a metaphor for the creative process,” Kreitzer said. “I know that trudging down in the depths, whatever he extracts, whatever it is, it’s keeping him there, he keeps coming back to it. Whether it’s healthy or not, there’s something in that, the spark that keeps you going. Despite how cyclically it may not be serving you, there’s something in that that keeps the drive.”

Michel Moyse is Kreitzer’s mentor. When Kreitzer was 16, he enrolled in Moyse’s filmmaking class in Brattleboro, Vermont. The instructor believes filmmaking success comes from numerous traits.

“You have to be serious in the profession, and work hard at it, and have a little bit of luck,” Moyse said. “But  you must also have a persistence of vision and the ability to make connections. I think Jesse has the whole package. I’m very proud of what he does.”

The purest images burn in our minds for days, months, lifetimes. It is Kreitzer’s mission to craft a story that serves that purpose, hoping for “Black Canaries” to become a smashing cinematic success.

Iowa City residents will find out at the rough-cut screening in December.


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