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Student Blog: How Three Theatre Students Turned a Class Project into an Award Winning Film

'I'm excited to tell all the stories of what it means to be black.' - director and writer, Leon Jones.

Student Blog: How Three Theatre Students Turned a Class Project into an Award Winning Film Can you turn a required class project into an award winning film? According to Leon Jones, Rhett Goldman, and Caleb Mosely, the answer is yes. Their film, Through My Mind, recently earned the award for Best Independent Film, Best Actor (Caleb Mosely), and Audience Favorite at the Mainstreet Short Film Festival. Jones, Goldman, and Mosely are first year theatre students at Southern Methodist University. The transition from high school to college theatre is highly anticipated, as it usually brings new opportunities to perform and collaborate. However with Covid-19 restrictions, performance opportunities are scarce and collaboration, if not on zoom, is six feet apart and masked. We found the one hour when we were all not busy being theatre majors and met on zoom.

First, tell me about this school assignment that started it all?

Rhett:

For context the assignment was to make a collaborative project and they just put us into groups. So we had to have a piece that had dancers, a composition, and music performance majors, vocal performance majors, actors, directors and filmmakers. So it's just to create collaborative art projects.

What class is that?

Rhett:

The first year arts and community engagement course.

Is that a required class?

Rhett:

Yes.

So you are put into a group to create this mysterious project. How did that conversation start?

Caleb:

Oh, I'll say this because it's a funny story. So the very first Zoom, Leon was like, okay I'm going to go take the trash out. And he goes, takes the trash out, and he does not come back. Basically, he locked himself out of his room. We were just talking about ideas. Just random funny ideas. And then finally Leon comes back and he says he wants to do something more meaningful, something powerful. We started just brainstorming ideas and then the topic came up about black mental health and we started discussing more, and then we had all these crazy ideas, like the dancers representing his mind and all of that. We were figuring out Malcolm's story. The next time we met up, Leon had the entire script. We had this thing down. It was beautiful and it was just amazing.

Leon:

Yeah, that was beautiful. And I think the other thing that really came out of that conversation was how to bridge our ideas to a single story. Representing multiple themes and representing multiple stories. When we talk about pieces like The Hate You Give, The Black Messiah, oh God, so many pieces. There are so many things in the black community that when it's representing themes or attributes of the community, we try to ground them in a story. So that doesn't seem like it's this big abstract thing that people can attach to, but they can attach this to Malcolm. However, Malcolm's story resonates with so many people out there in the world.

I think after creating that script, it grounded us in the story of Malcolm and just really honed us into the mission and vision of creating a piece through my mind. And now it's over two thousand views on YouTube and winning awards at festivals.

Leon, what does the writing process look like for you?

Leon:

I have kind of like a writing ritual. Whenever I sit down as a writer and I sort of just allow myself to step into the space, the space of the piece because I'm an actor first. So a lot of what I am going to write and how I go into direct is coming from the standpoint of if I was the actor, if I had to tell this story, me letting that character take over me to write.

What wove everything together?

Leon:

Once I got to actually writing it, I think the biggest thing was making sure things connected. So, for example, we had the original painting you see that Malcolm created. Another visual artist made that, so I had to find a way to connect it. So I was like, ok we're going to make Malcolm be a student. He's going to be in the visual arts and he makes the painting. So it was the balance of letting the characters take over to tell the story that needed to be told, but also connecting what was needed for the project. And the project had to get done, but also to make it a unique story.

Police brutality is nothing new to the world. I think in my personal opinion, it's overshared on social media. However, I think what we did with our story and what I asked when writing is, "what's different about Malcolm?" This connection to his father and him seeing his father at such a young age being gunned down. And how does that play into him now. Then also specifically him being a visual art student. Folks can say the same thing about theater, about when BIPOC folks are part of an art form that is generally seen for white people or for a wealthy audience, which generally comes from a specific background of people. Needless to say, there are so many generalizations to major aspects that are woven into society, like police brutality, and I think that one thing I wanted to focus on was, what is specific to us? And what can we add to the story that already has a specific idea in people's minds.

Did you find the project and its requirements to be more limiting or more freeing? Did it give you a container to create in, or just stress?

Rhett:

I don't think it was a limitation at all. I think it gave like a lot of direction to the project and where to go. What was limiting was that, since it was a school project, we had zero budget. We were hauling lamps out of our room to take to the studio. We had one day to shoot the entire dreamscape scene. It was like a 10 hour shoot. And then I was using all my own equipment. Honestly, there was so much freedom and getting to use so many different forms of art.

Caleb:

I'll add to that. Another issue was also covid. We had to wear masks we couldn't touch. But even though there were limitations, I feel like that really expanded our creativity even more. The dancing between me and the dancer Sebastian, when we're replicating the police officer encounter but we're doing it without touching. That was Leon. He's so genius. And I just think I don't know if this would have come out if it wasn't covid. I feel like maybe it would have been more touching. But without the touching, it made it so much more beautiful and so much more powerful.

Rhett:

Quick side note, Caleb won best actor at the film festival, even though he is wearing a mask for the entire film!

Yes! Caleb, your performance is so captivating, I forgot about the mask. How did you approach this role as an actor?

Caleb:

The very first thing that I started doing was focus on PTSD. And so I did a lot of research into that and how that affected the mind and body. Physical things happen when there's an attack or a panic attack. One of my biggest inspirations is Cicely Tyson. And one huge thing about Cicely Tyson that I really enjoy is how she acts with her eyes. And I don't think a lot of actors do that. I remember going in my car with a mask, looking at myself in the mirror, and doing that entire monologue trying to figure out what I can do to just use my eyes. It was a fun process.

How do you hope to continue making art like this in the three years ahead of you at SMU?

Rhett:

I think this project marks the very beginning of the type of work this class is going to be doing. I think we want to collaborate. This is the type of work we're seeing from literally every single person directing a project right now in our class. One thing too, I don't know if you guys remember, but the Breonna Taylor ruling came out two days before we filmed.

How did that effect the process?

Leon:

The ruling came two days before going in the film. Like you said, we were in the height of it. Just being black during covid in 2020 when everyone wanted to condense our problems down to one year, when it goes beyond just 2020. I'm now in a mode where I want to honor the trauma, but also show the joy. I think that I and other fellow artists of color want to see art where we're not being gunned down because it's overshared in social media. So for me as an artist, I'm excited to tell all the stories of what it means to be black.

Anything you want readers to know about Through My Mind like behind the scenes or an inside scoop?

Leon:

One thing I do want to share that I got questions about: Malcolm does flip the painting over at the end of the film. First of all, the choice was a last minute decision. I was in Meadows [the arts building] sleeping on the couch and they were shooting the ending. I wake up and I'm looking at the painting and I go, "Caleb, flip over the painting." And then we were like, boom that's how we're going to end it. The idea of making the black people first like having it being a black lead and telling his story about his father and switching the painting so that it's not a cop over him, but in a way that he's lifting, even though is suppressed and down, that there's a way of resilience against it in a way, and just sort of kind of like a father to son moment within that as well.

You can watch Through My Mind by clicking on the link below.

https://youtu.be/J9mLDzyUokA


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