As part of our Faculty in the Summer Series, film professor Toddy Burton gets a movie made.
By Jo Kadlecek
In between teaching her film and video productions classes this past academic year, Toddy Burton, assistant professor of communication arts, plotted a screenplay. News of the trapped Chilean miners had gripped her attention, and as is often the case with art, real life began shaping a story in the mind of Gordon’s award-winning filmmaker.
The result not only earned Burton a Faculty Development Grant from the College, but brought together a film crew of both alumni and current Gordon students. Burton cast an adjunct instructor as her lead actor, turned a fellow professor’s Beverly Farms’ home into a set, and in three 12-hour days (July 29–31, 2011), she shot what she calls “a short dramatic comedy” entitled The Miners.
“The story is about a guy who’s clinically depressed but also obsessed with the miners while his teenage daughter is dealing with her own obsession of a boy,” Burton said. “I wondered how the feeling of being trapped would play out in other ways—in other parts of our lives—so, like a lot of my movies, there’s both comedy and drama as the story explores that theme.”
For almost 15 years Burton has been making short films that reflect that tension. Her last one, The Aviatrix—“an action-adventure intergalactic comedy romance about a super heroine battling cancer”—played at over 30 international film festivals, aired on PBS and became the #1 featured film when it was premiered on the YouTube Screening Room. Her full-length screenplays have also won her awards, acclaim and a reputation for merging an artist’s eye with comedic stories.
But The Miners was her first project since moving to the North Shore from Austin, Texas, in 2009 to join the communication arts faculty at Gordon. Though she’d been reworking the screenplay during the 2010–2011 academic year, she was concerned that producing a movie in a new environment might be difficult.
“In Austin I had a community of resources and support for projects, but I wasn’t sure what would happen here,” she said. “Honestly, I was terrified of the process, especially after our first attempt had been delayed because of the challenge of organizing so many people and places in the midst of a busy school year. But I’m amazed at how many Gordon connections came through to make this work.”
Dave Ells ’07 worked closely with Burton as her director of photography, helping plan each shot and sequence. Ericka Nelson ’06, a graduate student in film at Emerson College, was the producer; while Isaac Seeland ’12 was Burton’s camera assistant and will assist in post-production this fall. Rebekah Frangipane ’11 operated the second camera and worked with Bekah Jordan ’12 on casting. Amber Primm ’04, Barrington Center for the Arts building manager, designed both the production set and the wardrobe; while Jon Ramey ’11 was the sound producer. Elan Sablich ’11, Kyle Gordon ’11 and Carissa Gerber ’11 pitched in as production assistants.
John Sarrouf, adjunct professor of communication arts, plays Lyle, the lead character, and Brian Glenney, assistant professor of philosophy, offered his home as the film’s primary set. Burton, Ells and Nelson held auditions for young actors through NewEnglandFilm.com and the YMCA theatre organization.
“It’s been so fulfilling to go through this process and flex these creative muscles again,” Burton said. “Not only was this the first film I’ve shot digitally (as opposed to on 16 or 35 mm film) with new cameras our students use, but it was a great stepping stone for these students and alumni as they transition to bigger projects.”
The Miners will premiere February 10, 2012, at The L’Abri Conference in Minnesota, and at Gordon in the spring. Burton will also submit The Miners to dozens of film festivals throughout the country.
“Festivals are a great way to get people excited about your work and to meet other filmmakers,” Burton said. “But The Miners really is a community effort. And though making a movie can feel like moving a mountain sometimes, part of the fun is being able to work with so many great collaborators like we had on this film.”