By Josette Keelor
Stephen French of Edinburg is a go-getter. While other area teenagers are at the pool, at friends' homes or online, he will spend long hours this summer behind a camera shooting his first feature-length film.
It will be a challenge, said Stephen, 14, but he has good reason for finishing the film this summer. A $500 grant he won from the Virginia Film Office is contingent upon the completion of his film. Also, he has another project coming up this fall: directing a feature-length film written by Woodstock resident Lisa Mikitarian. who is also in Stephen's film.
A rising Central High School freshman, Stephen is two weeks into filming his psychological drama suspense about a young widow who follows a friend's advice to stay at a secluded bed and breakfast in the hopes of regaining some of the joy she loses after her husband dies.
But the cabin, about 10 miles from civilization, is not what she expects, and the innkeepers are not who she thinks they are.
"Detached" is scary and suspenseful, Stephen said, but it contains more drama than he's used to.
"It's definitely not as much horror as my previous work," he said.
On a recent morning, he was preparing to film a scene at the Woodstock Café & Shoppes. Sitting in an empty booth with an iced mocha and a cinnamon bun, he didn't look the part of director. But then he started talking about his film, never hesitating to collect his thoughts, never seeming to be uncertain about his motivations.
Since he started writing screenplays at age 8, Stephen has moved away from the ghost-heavy plot lines to focus more on realism.
"It's scarier," he said, "because it could really happen."
Rich Church, who with his wife owns The Market in Woodstock, arrived early for his first day of filming so he could meet the director -- also the film's writer, cameraman, editor and co-composer.
Church introduced himself to fellow actors, Alison Shell, who plays protagonist Jessie Lacey, and Samantha Strong, who plays her best friend Annabelle Thatcher.
They chatted during the few minutes they had available before filming would start for the day. Strong said their clothes were of their own choosing.
"He just said pick an outfit that doesn't have any copyrighted material on it, for obvious reasons," she said.
Shell and Strong have worked together on several projects at Theatre Shenandoah in Edinburg, but Church is relatively new to acting. Still, they all have one thing in common: They're all adults, and Stephen is 14.
After greetings, their first exchanges centered on one general idea: Is this kid all he seems to be?
Strong has been working with Stephen now for over two weeks of filming. She was skeptical when he first approached Theatre Shenandoah looking for actors to be in his film -- but he won her over.
"It's been great," she said. "He's a great director."
Strong, who studied film at Hollins University in Roanoke and at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, has not pursued acting since graduating in May 2012. But she was intrigued by the opportunity Stephen offered her, to be in a horror film.
"I've done horror before, but this is definitely the best one so far," she said.
Shell admitted she was stunned that Stephen wanted her to star in his film.
"I wasn't real sure because he is so young, and honestly I didn't know him that well," she said.
"It turned out better than I could have hoped," she said. "I've been doing [acting] for, I want to say, for 15 years. [Being in a film] has been a lifelong goal of mine."
As for Church, who received his script that morning, "I don't know much about [the character] Roger, except that he's married and mostly in a wheelchair."
Roger Neil is married to innkeeper Leisa, played by Jeanne Russell. Other characters are Dr. Ridger, played by Lisa Mikitarian, and Johnathan -- Jessie's initially comatose husband whose death sets the story going -- played by Evan Benton.
Stephen said his role in Theatre Shenandoah's production of "Carousel" with some of the actors helped his cause.
"You have to find people who are willing to take up their time for free to do this sort of thing."
In the director's notes at www.detachedthemovie.com, Stephen boasts of having produced 300 short films so far, most of them five minutes or shorter.
The idea for "Detached" has been growing in his mind since last year when he visited Lake Placid in upstate New York with his family. While touring secluded lake houses -- "middle of nowhere, detached from anywhere" -- he said the screenplay was born.
But staging a movie in a lake house far from anyone else was too difficult to orchestrate, so instead he opted for his family's cabin in Edinburg, known as French's Cabin.
The first draft was 40 pages, but after running the script by Mikitarian, a fellow writer and filmmaker, he finished at 58 pages. A little over an hour long, the movie is considered feature length, and though deadlines are looming, Stephen said he intends to submit the film to a couple of festivals in August.
"I think I have a better chance at getting recognition at the Virginia Horror Film Festival, just because it's a smaller event," Stephen said.
He's also started planning for a 45-page script for "Tracing a Sparrow," which he wants to film next summer.
The schedule for "Detached" runs from June 17 to July 21.
"Fortunately, the Virginia Film Festival has an extended deadline," he said. He edits film as he goes, importing and color-correcting so after filming ends he'll have time to send the edited version to composer and James Madison University student Ken Pierson, who will score it using a mix of original music and classical tunes Stephen found online at freeplaymusic.com.
Cellist Carolina Williams, another rising freshman at Central High, will perform for the score.
"I composed a small piece for her," said Stephen, who admittedly has limited piano experience. He said he hopes to take lessons this summer, if he can find the time.
Stephen said his screenwriting skills came from "lots and lots of books and websites, and reading and reading and reading. And trial and error and just so much reading."
He's taken workshops through the nonprofit Lighthouse Studio in Charlottesville, and this summer, after taking initiative that surprised even his mother Abby French, he applied to the Virginia Film Office for a grant to help with the filming of "Detached."
"Their goal," his mother said, "is to make Virginia a film industry destination."
"He wrote to them, applied for the grant, wrote an essay," she said. He was 13, and he told them they needed to invest in his film.
Stephen was 7 when his father introduced him to Vincent Price films. Then they moved on to Alfred Hitchcock.
Stephen also studied films like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Others" and Indie film "Absentia" -- all of which contributed to the tone of "Detached."
With "Rosemary's Baby," he said, "I loved how everything was kind of off. ... It was just the feel of it all."
In his film, "Something is off immediately between the two innkeepers." Leisa Neil can go from nice to nasty in no time, and Stephen said Russell "does it really, really, really well."
She wears a plaid house dress and big slippers in most of her scenes, adding to her scare factor. "She's just really dotty," Stephen said.
"'The Others' just really had this sense of extreme isolation," he explained. "Some of these connections I made after writing it."
He also uses music from movie soundtracks to invoke the mindset he needs while writing scenes. "I don't think I could write without that kind of thing helping me."
"What drew me more to drama than horror was a class I took on screenwriting," Stephen said.
Focusing more on drama than on horror has helped him craft better characters, too, he said.
Mikitarian has been a longtime friend of the French family, so she said she gladly offered the young screenwriter guidance when his mother asked her. Then Mikitarian asked Stephen to direct the movie she's writing because of his recent interest in taking on drama.
"It's about two people who do not know one another and they die on the same night," she said of her movie. "They both start going toward that light, that proverbial light. And they have become light themselves. They turn and they see one another and at that exact second they both get turned back to earth."
She said the two characters get a second chance at life and will end up helping each other.
She asked Stephen to direct her film "because when you see his ability and interpretation of film through a story -- I mean when I saw it I guess I should say -- I just immediately knew that he would be able to pull this off and it would be a beautiful product."
But Stephen said he still has a soft spot for horror. A few years ago he and some friends experimented with recreating the film "Alien" in his basement. Homemade horror can be hit and miss, but he said he is willing to give supernatural another shot.
He's even been working on a new character, who suffers from a delusion called Capgras syndrome that makes the character believe a loved on is replaced by a doppelganger.
"[She] is thoroughly convinced that her husband is not her husband," Stephen said.
For more information on the film "Detached," visit www.detachedthemovie.com or email email@example.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org>