Off-Camera with Five Student Filmmakers

What’s it like to be a student filmmaker at Princeton? This year, five members of the Class of 2014 are making a film for their senior thesis: Nick Ellis (Religion), Jun Kuromiya (Philosophy), Dayna Li (Politics), Christina Maida (Anthropology), and Brady Valashinas (Anthropology). Each is pursuing the film track within the Visual Arts certificate and will submit their film as part of their independent work requirement.

Q: What’s your film about?

Christina: My film is a documentary about an OB/GYN health care practice in Bristol, Pennsylvania – which is a low-income high-unemployment area.

Jun: It’s perhaps too early for me to describe mine. But it’s a film using thermal imaging about an adult fetus.

Nick: My film is a narrative dark comedy about a gay Catholic guy who finds himself aroused by crucifixes, and decides to pray to Satan to become straight.

Brady: Mine’s a documentary about a Cirque du Soleil performer and the duality of him as a person and a performer.

Dayna: And my film is about a secret society and a guy who wants to exploit his girlfriend to get into the society.

Q: How did you get the idea for it?

Brady: Last summer I was in Kenya on a Global Seminar and made an elephant documentary. So for my film thesis I wanted to continue my work and make another documentary about the ivory trade, butit was just complicated and expensive. So I started thinking about the Cirque du Soleil idea, and my neighbor knew somebody who knew somebody. It all worked out.

Nick: My thesis advisor really wanted me to write about myself. And I desperately didn’t want to write about myself. But I was so uncomfortable about it that eventually I just decided to do it. My film is loosely based off some events in my life. I’ve met a person who found himself aroused by Jesus, and I’m really into campy horror films, so that’s all part of it.

Dayna: There are several projects I’ve worked on that have been incorporated into this one: a short story I wrote sophomore year, my final film for the Intro Film class, and my JP script. I was influenced by a lot of the social dynamics and tensions I’ve experienced at Princeton, and themes of elitism, cracking under pressure, and alienation kept coming up. The idea of close relationships that become claustrophobic or dysfunctional was also a big one.

Christina: My mom’s really good friend is one of the physicians at the OB/GYN practice and she contacted me because she knew that I was doing film here and really wanted to tell her patients’ stories. So it kind of fell into my lap, and I’m lucky because it’s hard to get permission to film this kind of subject.

Jun: I just wanted to film with a thermal camera, because the way it sees heat waves versus light waves lets me do a lot of things. For example, it allows me to shoot in complete darkness. So I guess my project developed out of that.

Q: Have you always been interested in film, or was it something you got into once you arrived at Princeton?

Dayna: I made some films in high school, and my best friend in high school was really into films so I helped her a lot. I also really liked acting, so I continued acting when I got here, and that transitioned into film. But I didn’t actually ever imagine doing this when I first came to Princeton.

Nick: The first time I used a camera was in the fall of my junior year, so I’ve only been using a camera for about a year now.

Christina: In high school I was really into photography, but my school didn’t offer any video classes. So I came here and took the intro course for filmmaking and really liked it, and I just kept taking more. I’ve always watched tons of movies and TV and now I can justify it, saying it’s practice and studying.

Jun: When I was a kid I would make cartoon flipbooks, and got really into making movies of that sort. I also got into using a camera and made an adaptation of Catcher in the Rye while I was in high school. So I came in pretty much sure I was going to do film.

Brady: I took a class in high school and fell in love with it. I never thought of it as something I would do seriously or as a career. But when I got here I took a class my freshman fall, and ever since then I’ve tried to take a class every semester. It’s definitely something I want to do once I graduate.

Have you managed to combine your department thesis with the film certificate?

Dayna: I’m doing two separate theses, although there is a connection. My one in politics is focusing on social policies toward trafficked sex workers in Italy and the Netherlands. Without knowing the topic of my politics thesis, my Vis Arts advisor Professor Keith Sanborn pointed out that the themes of exploitation in my script reminded him of sex trafficking, which was kind of funny.

Brady: My documentary’s about how this Cirque du Soleil guy uses his body as a tool to perform, and my Anthropology thesis is about the performativity in everyday life, particularly with regards to sexuality and gender. So I’m using a lot of the interviews that I conduct in the film as a case study for my thesis.

Christina: I’m going to write my Anthropology thesis about the same subject as my film, but it’ll be more influenced by ethnographic and anthropological texts about child birthing practices in America and doctor-patient relationships in women’s health care.

Nick: I’m a Religion major, and they were open to me combining my thesis. Religion has actually given me funding for my thesis, and there are a lot of Religion & Film classes offered at Princeton, so it’s been really interdisciplinary. But I’ve decided to separate them because I wanted more creative freedom, so I’m doing a full religion thesis in addition to my film.

Jun: I’m also doing a separate philosophy thesis from my film stuff. But I prefer it that way, actually.

Q: How do you go about finding the crew for your projects? For people who are making narratives, did you write your own scripts?

 Nick: Yes, I’m on my third or fourth iteration of the script. I probably won’t start shooting until February.

 Christina: I would have these guys help me film, but it’s in a women’s environment. So I’ll probably have some friends of mine who aren’t males and aren’t filmmakers assist me.

Dayna: I spammed as many listservs as possible and talked to people who I thought might be interested, especially friends who I went with on the Global Seminar in Kenya. I wrote my own script, which I started at the beginning of the year and finished during fall break. I’m still making edits as I go, though.

 Nick: I’m also specifically reaching out to people I’ve seen in performances who I think would fit roles. So in my head I already have a couple actors in mind. But I don’t want to tell them until I know my thesis advisor is okay with a finalized version of my script.

Q: What are some of the challenges of being a student filmmaker at Princeton?

Brady: Money.

 Christina: And setting.

Brady: The Lewis Center’s pretty good – we get $500 right off the bat, and we get $250 if we need more. But after that, it can be hard.

Christina: Not just finding money, but also finding people. You have a specific age demographic here and that’s about it. And unless you want to have Gothic architecture and dorm rooms in your film then you have to leave campus. That to me is the hardest part, and why I’ve never really wanted to do anything here.

Brady: And I’m on the soccer team, so I couldn’t do anything till this weekend.

Christina: Me neither – I’m a member of the varsity field hockey team.

Q: So working around other students’ schedules must also be an issue…

Nick: And making sure you have time to revise. If you don’t pay attention to those two things, you just put off shooting, and then you don’t have time to edit.

Christina: There are really only two places you can edit on campus – Lewis and J-Street – which is pretty annoying, but it’s life.

 Jun: Princeton is also just a lot of work, so it can be a hard place to be creative. High school’s easy. I’d get my work done and have time to do whatever I wanted with my camera or with writing.

 Christina: Any art certificate in particular requires so much time outside of the classroom, deep into the night where you’re just being anal-retentive about one specific thing for hours. And that’s the nature of art, I think.

 Dayna: It’s hard to spend hours constructing shots or working on nuances in acting. I think even if I devoted every moment of my day to rehearsals, planning, and shoots, I would still find many things I missed or could improve on.

So how many people usually do a film thesis?

Nick: Last year there were only two – one was experimental and one was narrative.

Brady: I think this is the most they’ve ever had.

Q: Do you have any favorite directors, or has your thesis been inspired by any particular director’s work?

Dayna: Yes, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for A Dream and Black Swan. I find a lot of the same themes relating to alienation, pressure, and psychological unraveling in his work.

Nick: I was surprised how much influence Sam Raimi [director of the cult horror film The Evil Dead] had on my script. When people see his horror films, they often don’t know how to react – should they be laughing at the scene or should they be terrified? One thing I really like is audience confusion.

Brady: The movie that made me really want to go into film when I was younger was Peter Jackson’s King Kong. I was 13 when it came out, and I just remember being more entranced with figuring out how they made it than with actually watching the movie. I remember going home after the movie and YouTubing it, researching it – and that’s when I really started making stuff in my backyard, and always doing video projects for school projects.

Jun: That’s interesting too, because Peter Jackson was inspired to go into film by the original King Kong.

Brady: Yeah, I think he’s one of the most amazing directors in terms of using the environment as a character.


Q: Do you have any idea how long your projects will end up being?

Dayna: At this point the film will probably be around 40 minutes.

Nick: Mine will probably be around 10-12.

Brady: Mine will probably be 15.

Jun: I might actually do two films. Both may be 15 minutes.

Q: And will there be an opportunity to see your films once they’re finished?

Nick: This is really cool, we’re going to try and get all of our films shown in the Garden [the Garden Theater on Nassau Street]. So hopefully we’ll get a popcorn-and-soda special for the students, sometime in mid-April.

Thanks to Brady, Christina, Dayna, Jun and Nick for participating, and make sure to stay tuned for details on the April screening!

Jessica Welsh is a senior in the English Department.