Entertainment Magazine: Film: Independent Film Convention

Filmmaker Kenneth Stevenson
Makes an Ironic Cheery Point

By Madelyn Ritrosky

Cherry PointCheery Point.  It’s a very ironic title.  And very timely.  This is a film that makes you think seriously about the path down which American society seems to be heading in the 21st century.  And it’s not the yellow brick road.      

With revelations of disturbingly pervasive and secret government intrusiveness, a film like Cheery Point is easily read as a cautionary tale that isn’t so far-fetched.  A not-so-distant dystopian future, imagined by any number of films, gets yet another twist in Cheery Point.

When watching these kinds of films, it’s easy to become engrossed in the fictional universe as “just fiction.”  But next time, like when you get the chance to watch Cheery Point, consider what’s happening in the real world.  Consider what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean to you.

This film delves into desperate times, that require desperate measures, but in the end there’s hope.  It’s a hard-won hope that emerges from taking a stand and taking action.   

Cheery PointThe film’s cinematography really stands out, including interesting shot composition, dynamic camera angles, and the visual cohesiveness of sequences and scenes.  With a very tight budget, money-saving ways to visually suggest the abnormal situation add to the visual bang of the film.

And, it wouldn’t achieve what it does without believable acting and solid directing.  Without giving away the plot, let’s just say the main characters come to realize and feel the narrow, proscribed parameters of their lives. They also realize it’s not easy doing something about it.   

Co-producing filmmakers Kenneth Stevenson and Andrew Bennett participated in a directing panel at the 2013 Indie Film Con.  They have other directing experience and plan to co-direct their next feature.  

Stevenson is the original force behind Cheery Point.  He was head writer, executive producer, director of photography, production designer, and editor.  That’s a lot of hats – and he has a lot to tell us about Cheery Point, an ambitious feature film that gets these young filmmakers dashing out of the gate.   

Kenneth Stevenson (middle) and Andrew  Bennett (right) with Shane Dresch (Assistant Camera)Photo: Kenneth Stevenson (middle) and Andrew Bennett (right) with Shane Dresch (Assistant Camera).

What are the origins of the story and of creating the film?    

The initial concept for Cheery Point came to me while sitting in my dilapidated house in Muncie, Indiana, during my last year at Ball State University.  Things were going fine for me, with no stressors other than seeing a few people I cared about struggle with anxiety and depression.  I had not experienced the loss of a grandparent or pet and had trained myself to forego many of my wants in anticipation of returning to my long-distance girlfriend in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.  I was hanging in Muncie – a town that, sadly, seemed abandoned by many of the industrial giants that had made it “Middletown” America.  

Additionally, there was a sense of unrest around campus in the wake of the Occupy movement and the ongoing question of who was speaking deceitfully in politics – something that, I would venture to say, has only exasperatingly grown and helped the film since then. Lastly, I was not connecting with the more conservative Catholic institutions in Muncie, nor were many of my peers returning to my hometown church.  I was seemingly on the end of a sinking ship.

It was a strange time for me, but out of it came “Cheery Point,” a town in which everyone just exists, without strife or pain.  This was purposefully put in a not-too-far off America, showing how easily our society could be perverted into a citizenry that subjected themselves to oppressive legislation.  More than anything else I wanted to bring closure to the sadness I felt from losing aspects of my friends to depression, and to show the loneliness of a church leader as the last of his kind as this new idol came on the scene – the government-issued drug called Torpase.  

Kenneth Stevenson (left) and Adam Bailey (middle) with actor Richard HackelPhoto: Kenneth Stevenson (left) and Adam Bailey (middle) with actor Richard Hackel

I brought Adam Bailey in to direct so I could ensure the project came to fruition in all other regards. He would ensure it wouldn’t stray too far into politics but be conveyed through character development.  Adam’s love of The Lord of the Rings and ensemble casts gelled with my love of ABC’s LOST series.  Watch for the documentary we will release at the end of the summer.

What is your background in filmmaking?

I describe my background in terms of the entertainment industry, not solely filmmaking.  My grandfather was a magician, my grandmother a touring musician, and the other side of my family was involved in Churchill Downs’s horseracing and the liquor industry back to Prohibition.  My parents’ Family Entertainment Center franchise, Puzzle’s Fun Dome, is where I grew up delivering inflatable carnival equipment, making slideshows for their clients, and learning how to run a small business.

It was not until high school that filmmaking occurred to me.  The tools for making movies had just become democratized, and I looked into computer-generated visual effects as it pertained to filmmaking.  The high school I attended by no means had curricula for film, but it had fostered talent like Tom Maypother – aka Tom Cruise.  My first two mentors, theatre department head Rebecca Reisert and A/V head Brian Mitchel, helped me bridge the departments and allowed me to direct and produce three 90-minute films. So I discovered my love of building teams and relationships for my movies before making the movies themselves.  

The closest degree that resembled film was Ball State University’s digital production program, and I came in knowing I would have to milk that experience to get acquainted with the actual business of film.  Ball State provided me with the playground I needed to experiment.  It was different from film school, where you spend more time studying films and may have more hands-on opportunities in cities like New York or LA.  

I was forced to build something from the ground up and then create the stories I wanted to tell. I spent much more time on my own endeavors than anything in the classroom, and in time, created my own production company, Versa Studios Media (VSM). An early endeavor was a music video, In MemorIAM, that won a David Letterman Scholarship; soon afterwards I interned for SONY in Las Vegas.  I spoke with Andrew Kramer there, a visual effects artist I idolize and who’s responsible for some of the effects in Super 8, Star Trek I & II, FRINGE, and REVOLUTION.   

I came to the conclusion I was not in a learning environment where I could learn the business of film and 3D concurrently, so I chose producing/directing.  My background suggests there isn’t one way to get into the film industry; entering the fray straight from high-profile arts institutions may not cut it anymore.

How did you finance it?  Cast it?  When and where did you shoot?

This film was a very ambitious project with a very wide scope.  It was financed through three primary streams – a loan taken out by myself with the understanding that I would sacrifice my last year of out-of-state tuition; secondarily from zealous followers at IndieGoGo and KickStarter.  Lastly, locations were chosen where Andrew Bennett and I, as producers, had connections.  We used Andrew’s family’s factory in Illinois and my family’s business often catered.  Cast and crew moved camp to Louisville and Lawrenceburg, KY, Muncie, Alexandria, Anderson, and Waldron, IN, and Aurora, IL.  Most of our crew was fellow students, and assistant directors Kelsey Dennis and Samantha Courter scheduled weekend and holiday shoots.

The casting process emulated a rushed pilot, doing it in 2-3 weeks while adapting the script collaboratively with Adam into the wee hours.  Dropping classes, selling plasma to buy groceries, and buying and returning wardrobe and prop pieces were only a few of the crazy ordeals.  This became more difficult as we brought on two additional writers, James Treakle in Indianapolis and my fiancé Allison Flood in Louisville.  

Adam and I hosted a traditional, impromptu audition session but had limited success.  We felt it was critical to cast individuals outside the physical likeness of “students” and as a result scoured IndianaActors.com and other web-based sources.  We found a number of cast members this way.  

Photo: Tommy Martin as Joshua Barrett (left) and Richard Hackel as Father Albert Camus.

Interestingly, two characters I spent time developing in pre-production were both re-cast during production and marked a turning point for the production’s darker aspects.  

Before any of those casting decisions were made, our lead, Tommy Martin, had reached out to Versa Studios Media after our first short, Submerged.  He had trained in Second City’s troupe and done several independent films.  We gave him a shot and I am so happy we did.  Tommy sustained huge amounts of work, stress, and shooting, but he wants to see projects cross the finish line. He even corralled fellow actors from Chicago.

Could you explain how you headed the production team?

My principal roles were executive producer and director of photography.  I brought on an “advisory board” production team, the most important being the director, Adam Bailey, and also Andrew as associate producer.  Due to how close-to-the-chest the film was to me, it was extremely difficult to forego directing, but it was the best decision I made.  It boiled down to the position of director of photography.  

Tony Bartele as Randy Aiken in dreary Cheery PointPhoto: Tony Bartele as Randy Aiken in dreary Cheery Point.

I struggled to convince cinematographers to commit to the lengthy production; co-cinematographers would vary the film’s look too drastically.  

I had a specific style and color scheme in mind and could shoot-for-the-edit for post-production.  So I took the role.  Shouldering the added responsibility of actor performances would be a disaster waiting to happen.  As executive producer, I retained creative and financial control.

What is the current status of the film with festivals and other screenings?  

Over the next 2-3 months, we will hear back from 14 film festivals, from regional fests to “circuit gems.” The film has had four private screenings, two of which were packed theatrical experiences in Louisville (Apex Theatres) and Muncie (AMC Theatres).  VSM used those as test screenings. The film was accepted in two film conventions near Indianapolis – Indie Film Con in June (Bloomington) and Gen Con in August.  I am currently cutting the film because most distributors and festivals have tight cost/time constraints and don’t want more than 90 minutes.  The independent film distributor I just signed with, ITN, wanted the film cut to that length. For continuing updates, check us out at http://www.facebook.com/cheerypoint

What is your next project?

I look forward to returning to the directing seat for my next film – with Andrew Bennett.  We share similar interests, like JJ Abrams and his Bad Robot Productions and sci-fi, and we’ve talked at length about the best co-directing relationships.  However, the definition of insanity is doing something twice without changing anything, so I’m approaching things cautiously.  I learned so much working on Cheery Point – a precious opportunity for a 22-year-old.  

It will definitely involve more people handling the burden of financing; I simply will not self-finance again. Location and concept are much smaller in scale, and it focuses on one key character.  This next feature will cement Versa Studios Media as a creator of cerebral sci-fi, though there will be horror spice.  The theme will be “alien” in nature and we look to play off of some of the same market trends we identified for Cheery Point in terms of conspiracy and paranoia. Andrew and I have these random rants of excitement about it, literally talking until our phones die.  There is no production timeline yet.

Thank you so much, Kenneth!  What a treat to meet you, Andrew Bennett, watch your film, and gain insight into such thoughtful and thought-provoking filmmaking.

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