‘Welcome to the Project’

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September 19, 2008

12:20 PM

Atop boards of plywood and bulky tumbling matts along the side of the room, a portable stereo pounded out all kinds of rock — punk, pop and alternative — the gymnastics room in William and Mary Hall was pulsing with energy on Thursday, Sept. 11 at 9 p.m.

A poster on one wall read “Pursue your dreams.” Around the room, leotard-clad girls with chalk up and down their arms performed a number of strenuous feats: balance beam and vault exercises, stretches, flips, homework. A couple of guys were hanging out, too. One performed impossible flip sequence after impossible flip sequence, over and over, off of a trampoline onto a soft pit in the floor. Overall, it was a typical night in the gymnastics room — that is, until a small group of people carrying camera equipment and scripts came to claim their space, beginning one of many training sessions for the upcoming full-length student film “Sergeant Cheerleader.”

A word with the writer

It all began when Matt Pinsker ’09 decided to sit down this past winter break to write about ROTC and male cheerleading — topics with which he has a great deal of personal experience.

“One of the former cadets recruited me to join the cheerleading squad,” Pinsker said. “There was a lot of commentary about being in two seemingly polar activities, … I just had some ideas that there could be a story behind this.”

After writing a little more than 200 pages, his idea of the project’s potential took a new turn.

“I kept thinking this would be great for a movie,” he said. “I could see it happening so clearly in my head while I was writing.”

But, in order for the project to get off the ground, Pinsker would need a great deal of help. He found it here at the College, in the office of theater professor Fonkijom Fusi. With Fusi’s guidance, Pinsker eventually turned his manuscript into a screenplay. Things were then set in motion for production this fall, a task that has been by no means easy for Pinsker and his crew.

The crew, which came together in July, includes director Tom Baumgardner ’09, director’s assistant and make-up artist Annie Lewis ’09 and producer Charles Hixon ’11. Finding an able team was a big priority for Pinsker.

“I was lucky that the first person I asked [to direct] accepted, and he’s very talented and experienced,” Pinsker said. “Other people have expressed interest too: crew positions, musical scoring. It’s great to see so many people on campus and in the community just come together.”

But the team wasn’t complete without actors; this is, after all, a full-length movie. Auditions for the film took place in August and, according to Pinsker, were fantastic.

“Forty-six people auditioned,” he said. “We were hoping that we’d be able to scrape together at least 15 people. The quantity was amazing … and the talent pool we had to choose from was spectacular.”

According to Pinsker, the film’s budget is fairly low. The campus provides the natural setting, which reduces spending significantly. Dr. Fusi also loaned the crew a professional-quality camera and sound system.

“There’re no special effects, there’s nothing ‘Star Wars’ about it that would make it cost-prohibitive or expensive,” he said.

The tentative date for the movie’s release is shortly before fall exams, but that won’t be the ending point for the movie or for Pinsker. He hopes to keep the story alive with a short sequel the following semester. He also plans to enter “Sergeant Cheerleader” into a film festival.

When asked what he hopes audiences will gain from watching his film, Pinsker’s answer is simple: “I’m not out to sell any morals, I’m not out to recruit people for anything or convince anyone of any particular point of view or ideology. I just hope [the audience has] a good time, and I think they will.”

The director’s angle

Baumgardner, the director, has already produced another film on campus, “Right Hand Man,” as an independent study project last semester. He made his goal for “Sergeant Cheerleader” clear from the start.

“I want it to change their lives forever,” he said with gravitas, referring to the film’s audience.
Behind Baumgardner’s sense of humor lies a dedicated artist. When asked why he wanted to take on the role of director, he attributed his decision to an inflated ego, before quickly offering a more genuine answer. All it took was a single e-mail from Pinsker over the summer.

“I was immediately very flattered, because I always am when people ask me to do things like that,” Baumgardner said. “If I hear about a project, I don’t care what it is. I get excited, and I start thinking of ideas for it.”

While Baumgardner hoped the project will be an excellent learning experience, part of that experience has included learning how to collaborate with a writer.

“Matt and I are very different people,” Baumgardner said. “It has been kind of difficult because we both have different views of where the movie’s going to go, but that’s the reality of doing stuff like this. We have a lot of back and forth. He had really good ideas, and I had really good ideas, and that’s why the script, I think, is in such a good place right now.”

When asked about any future career in directing, Baumgardner responded without hesitation.

“I’d like to go to Hollywood and direct just about anything.”

“Welcome to the project”

The evening of Sunday, Sept. 7 found many an actor flustered, breathing heavily after climbing four flights of stairs as they arrived for the first script read-through in the attic of Old Dominion Hall. The first thing anyone said to each other was, “God, those stairs!” But, after catching their breaths, everyone introduced themselves as they sat down around a large coffee table cluttered with scripts. It was time to begin the read-through for the film, which promised to make for a very long night.

The two-and-a-half hour read-through, however, ran surprisingly smoothly. Halfway through the reading everyone became a little slap-happy, shooting out bad pun after bad pun. There were a few rowdy laughs especially during lines with any sexual innuendos, such as “Now, squat, thrust and explode!” A certain line by one of the supporting actors received a similar reaction: “Why do you think I joined the army? To get girls and blow stuff up.”

The two big troopers of the night were the two lead actors, Francesca Chilcote ’11 and Chris Manitius ’09, who, during the first read-through, rarely found a chance to tear their eyes away from the script.

A chat with the leads

Outside the Daily Grind after the read-through, Chilcote and Manitius finally unwound a bit. When asked about how the cast interacted, Chilcote gave a somewhat expected answer.

“Everybody is great!” she said.

Manitius responded in kind: “Yeah, there are a lot of girls.”

Chilcote went on to comment on how much she liked the script, and Manitius noded in agreement. It seemed as though both actors were pleased at this point, but they admitted that acting on ilm was very different from acting on stage.

“Normally [in theater] it’s ‘These are the lines, because Shakespeare wrote them,’ as opposed to just being as real as you can in front of the camera,” Chilcote said.

“Which is cool,” Manitius added, “because beyond anything else, I don’t want to lie to the camera. It’s cool working with writers that understand that and are willing to accept minor changes. I feel like it’s going to be a pretty comfortable process.”

Chilcote, a theater major, had some previous experience working film. However, Manitius is a chemistry major and lacks a thorough theater background.

“Acting, for me, is a great way to learn about other people and other ways of living, and it’s a great way of evolving and growing as a person,” Manitius said. “It’s a way of seeing how another person functions and why people do things we don’t do.”

Manitius expressed particular interest in revealing the true nature of cheerleading to the public, even though he, himself, said that he would never consider becoming a cheerleader.

“The truth is most people don’t understand what it’s like to be a male cheerleader,” he said. “They make fun of them without really knowing what it’s like. I want people to understand why [my character] joined the squad. I want them to think about male cheerleading just a bit differently, regardless of whether they want to be cheerleaders.”

Chilcote was eager about her role as a romantic interest.

“I usually play really somber, dramatic love relationships,” she said. “I really wanted to play something that’s light and casual, but definitely going somewhere. Something that has a strong dynamic, but it’s not so bogged down with all the weight that people get when they’re in relationships for a really long time. I’m excited about it.”

When asked how they feel about the love interest between their characters, Manitius responded casually.

“Well, there’s just lots of sexual tension,” he said laughing. “It should be fun.”
Both actors realize that filming won’t be all fun and games. Manitius, particularly, had rough training sessions ahead of him.

“I have some pretty difficult things to learn,” he said. “Lifting girls and being able to hold them up — it’s not as easy as cheerleaders make it look. I think I’ll be able to handle it, but it is pretty tough, so I have a lot to learn and practice.”

Back to basics

Back in the gymnastics room, Manitius lived up to those very words. By this point, someone had turned down the music, and only a few gymnasts remained. Baumgardner fervently directed Chilcote and Manitius as they practiced the “girl falls into guy’s arms” scene. For some reason, something just wasn’t clicking the way it needed to, and Baumgardner, defeated, flopped down belly-first on a nearby tumbling mat. Someone rushed over to calm him, while the actors interpreted his collapse as an unspoken break. Manitius shimmied up a large rope hanging from the ceiling, getting out some steam as Chilcote chatted with the other girls.

Everyone involved in “Sergeant Cheerleader” — actors, crew members, writer and director alike — seemed to feel that no matter how frustrating the work was, all of it would pay off, even if they had to rehearse the falling scene a dozen times a night.

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