'Digs' wins Theatre and Film screenplay competition

Theater and film student Aaron Nix (left) receives instructions from camera assistant Bob Heine during filming of the first Carson film.
Theater and film student Aaron Nix (left) receives instructions from camera assistant Bob Heine during filming of the first Carson film.

The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film has announced the winners of the Screenplay Competition for the second film in the Carson School Film Series.

Pre-production begins immediately on “Digs” by Michael Harthen of St. Clair Shores, Mich. Harthen will receive $1,000 as the grand prize-winner of the screenplay competition. Harthen is a former student of assistant professor Ian Borden.

“Digs” is a romantic comedy involving a volunteer campus cop who attempts to solve a crime and somehow ends up with the girl. Pre-production will continue through May 2012 when principal photography will begin.

The Carson School Screenplay Contest received 40 script submissions from three of the four University of Nebraska campuses and four faculty-sponsored entries from external sources.

The scripts “Town Clowns and One With a Badge” by Natalie Covault, who received her B.F.A. in Film and New Media at UNL in May 2011 and is now pursuing a career in the film industry in Los Angeles; and “Committed to the Gag” by Michael Harper, a junior in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, and Alexander Lucier, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, will each receive $500 as runners-up.

“While students wrote most of the scripts, we were happy to receive scripts written by faculty and staff,” said Associate Professor of Theatre and Film Richard Endacott. “Now that the Grand Prize script has been selected, we are eager to begin work on pre-production for 'Digs'.”

This will initially involve faculty and students of the Johnny Carson School, but as the project proceeds, it will draw upon the talents of all three units of the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, as well as Nebraska Educational Telecommunications. Over the next two semesters, crew positions will be selected, roles cast, locations scouted and sets constructed, Endacott said.

For the screenwriting contest, every script was assigned a number and the name of the author was removed so the readers had no way of knowing whose script they were reading.

“We wanted to make sure there was an objective evaluation in the process to give everyone the chance to succeed,” said Paul Steger, director of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.

All of the scripts received at least two separate readings and evaluations. Students in the Johnny Carson School did all the readings.

“Each time a reader reviewed a script, they completed a summary and evaluation sheet that allowed the script to be judged on a wide range of criteria and scored,” Endacott said. “The top 10-scored scripts were given a second reading by new readers, and the selection of the three finalists was made based on these detailed evaluations.”

Over the summer, all three authors participated in Skype video chat sessions with Hollywood film writer/director Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza, Miss Congeniality, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Grumpy Old Men, Welcome to Mooseport) to get his advice and suggestions on how to improve the scripts. Petrie also corresponded with the writers via email.

The three revised scripts were re-submitted Sept. 19. Faculty members of the Carson School, with input from Petrie, selected the sponsored entry “Digs” as the grand prize winning script.

One of the primary goals of the Carson Film Series is to integrate the production of films like “Digs” into existing curriculum in the College. Assistant professor Sandy Veneziano is already incorporating the production requirements for “Digs” into the Production Design for Film and Television course she is currently teaching. Other faculty will integrate aspects of the film into courses on directing, editing, music scoring and audio production.

The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and film is committed to the philosophy that prospective practitioners of theater, film and new media must be provided with thorough education, training and practical skills for employment in industry and educational settings.

“These unique projects involve a select number of film industry professionals, teaming with students and faculty from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, the School of Music, the Department of Art and Art History, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications and Nebraska Educational Telecommunications to create a 25- to 30-minute short film. The project uses the creative resources of all of the units in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and supplements these resources with industry professionals and technology currently used in professional digital cinema production,” Steger said.

The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film's objective has been to provide students with an opportunity to work directly with faculty and outside professionals to create a professional production that is larger and broader in scope than can reasonably be expected of students working independently.

“The industry professionals work closely with faculty and students in a mentoring environment that provides the students a hands-on learning experience from teacher/mentors over the course of two years to create a professional product. The Carson School Film Series is the only one like it in the United States, blending curricular projects with a creative product that will be submitted to film competitions and festivals around the country," Steger said.

At least a dozen professionals are expected to work with faculty and students from across the college during the project.

“These students, faculty and staff are coordinating and implementing all aspects of production including location scouting, production design, scenic and costume design and construction, camera operators, lighting and grip, graphics, composing the score, working on contracts, travel and housing for outside professionals, budgeting, shooting schedules, etc.-all the aspects of production found on professional film projects,” Endacott said.

In addition to the film itself, a select group of students will be working on a "Making of" documentary throughout the production process, Steger said.

The Carson School Film Series is funded through a grant from the Program Enhancement Fund through the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and the Johnny Carson Theatre and Film Endowment.

The first film in the Carson Film Series, “Vipers in the Grass,” a crime thriller about a killing in a small Nebraska town, premiered in November 2010.