The sun beats down on the prairie landscape as men dressed in World War II uniforms dart from one ditch to another to escape enemy gunfire. Tanks roll past, sending dust into the air, and loaded machine guns appear behind barbed wire fences as the army advances its attack. The scene, in grayscale, appears to be straight out of newsreel footage from the 1940s, but it is actually a World War II reenactment in Austin, Texas. In addition to the Texans flocking to see this reenactment by 30 young men, for budding filmmaker and College of William and Mary student Caitlin Clements ’11, it is the ideal setting for a scene in her honors thesis film “Rough Draft,” premiering this Friday at the Kimball Theater.
“The whole film community here has been so great and so supportive, so it has all worked out really well,” Clements, a Murray Scholar from Oklahoma City, said, beaming. “At first I felt kind of funny saying, ‘Yeah, I’m a film studies major studying at William and Mary at this liberal arts college in Colonial Williamsburg, but I potentially want to go into film production someday, and I could have gone to Los Angeles, but I wanted to come here instead.’ It’s nice that this is really a culminating moment where a lot of it really makes sense and it has come together.”
Filmed primarily over three weeks in August 2010, “Rough Draft” follows classic film fan Charlotte as she and a used-bookstore employee uncover the story of Tom Montgomery, a fictional screenwriter who died in battle during World War II. Combining flashback montages with present-day scenes, the film not only depicts Charlotte’s discovery of a long-lost classic era filmmaker, but also her own growth as a screenwriter.
While the script itself was a project for her independent study in fall 2009, Clements found inspiration from her study of history and the tale of Ernest Hemingway’s lost manuscripts.
“It came from a lot of what we studied of Hollywood’s involvement in World War II and how different people from Hollywood [in] that era got drawn into the conflict,” she said. “[The film] even started with a story that I heard of Hemingway and [how] some of his stories were lost on this train. At first I started maybe wanting to do a ‘What If? What Had Happened?’ to these lost stories of Hemingway.”
The plot change turned out for the better. In the many months that she has spent working on the project, she has met people whom she now calls good friends, including Thuraya Masri of Richmond, who plays the leading role of Charlotte. She also enlisted the help of fellow College students, including Zan Gilles ’09, who worked as the film’s director of photography. The total effort of five full-time College crew members and five primary cast members led to a fun and rewarding experience.
The best part of being the director, producer and screenwriter, however, was her opportunity to cast the film’s characters. Since the majority of characters could not be performed by College students, she posted notices on Craigslist and casting websites, hoping to draw different people from the Tidewater community.
“That whole process was so much fun,” Clements said. “Primarily for seeing kind of the characters coming to life and having that moment when someone would come in and you say, ‘Yes! You’re X character! You’re perfect!’”
Casting Charlotte’s character was the most memorable of these serendipitous moments, since the chosen actress, Masri, only submitted her audition tape on the last day before callbacks.
“Going into [the process] I really thought that Charlotte could quite possibly have been a William and Mary performer just because that was the one role where [the college student] age was really appropriate,” she said. “And then this actress, Thuraya, came in from Richmond and it was just one of those amazing moments. It was sort of like a lightbulb went off. You always hear those funny stories of like ‘Oh, the one
who came in last was the one who just nailed it.’ And it was so cliche-sounding, but it really worked out that
Clements furthermore enjoyed the “crazy moments” spent on site in Richmond, where she and her crew often filmed scenes at Black Swan Books until 2 a.m.. They still reminisce about the day they frantically protected their equipment from a spontaneous “monsoon” rainstorm, and when they changed the letters on a Norfolk marquee sign with an ominous thunderstorm looming in the distance.
But how did this Frank Capra fan, Classic Film Club founder and future graduate film school student get her start? Put simply, she has always loved American and foreign cinema, and throughout her childhood produced short-length films that were screened in her family’s backyard or at high school film competitions.
“Present-day films have such a way of really sending a powerful message on a really mass scale, and you’re in a very privileged position when you are a filmmaker and you are beginning to make these films,” she said.
“I think in terms of our further appreciation of classic film, I think there is so much to be seen there too, just about history, about time periods … It’s amazing to see how, when done well and done right, films can really catch people’s interest and instruct in a lot of different things.”
Clements hopes that “Rough Draft,” although a small production, achieves this goal.
“I do hope that [the film] will give pause to think,” she said. “While it’s not really teaching a history lesson per se, because it is very much a fiction film, it definitely harkens back to a time period. There’s this overall message of being mindful of history in a lot of different forms. … [The film’s] sharing of stories could key people in to something in their own lives.”