Bess O’Brien has been a leader in collaborative, authentic movie making, telling true-life stories personal struggles and challenges through film. This July she and her cast were awarded the 2010 SuAnne Big Crow Human and Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association for work on her film, “Shout It Out.” This film on the major problems high school students is a ground-breaking collaboration between a professional production company and public school students.
O’Brien owns Kingdom County Productions with her husband, Jay Craven, also a producer/director. Their Vermont-based production company is devoted to social issues. Their Web site states that their “mission is to capture the memorable characters, relentless struggles, and resilient spirit of Northern New England.”
O’Brien has produced and directed a number of other award-winning documentary films based on social issues like domestic violence, murder, and addiction. She has also co-produced films with Michael J. Fox (“Where the Rivers Flow North”) and Martin Sheen (“A Stranger in the Kingdom”).
For almost 10 years, O’Brien ran a summer institute called Fledgling Films devoted to educating teenagers interested in film-making and the theater. These students ended up producing more than 50 short narrative and documentary films.
After her NEA award earlier this month, O’Brien consented to the following interview with It’s Just Movies.
It’s Just Movies: Your work with amateur teenagers for “Shout it Out” ended up producing a professional looking film. What was most challenging about this kind of production for you?
Bess O’Brien: We worked on a very small budget of $250,000, which is the donut budget on a Hollywood production. We had a professional crew mixed with film students from film schools. Everyone had to work 14-hour days and seven-day weeks, so everyone was maxed out. But the kids in the film were completely professional and stunned the professional DP, choreographer, assistant director and me with how cooperative, prepared and talented they were in front of the camera. It is a testament to teenagers. Set the bar high and they will go there and do an amazing job!
IJM: I teach at a science, math and technology magnet where we have an award-winning video productions class. The concept of students collaborating in all parts of the production, not just the acting, is just the kind of education our high school principal is urging us to engage in – collaboration with professionals so that we are really providing an authentic, meaningful education for our students. What kind of challenges did you encounter in trying to set this kind of experience up in Vermont? Did the school district help with any part of the funding, materials, staging, etc. of the film version?
O’Brien: The majority of the youth that participated in the film were the actors. We did have some teens that interned with the camera, grip and design departments. They all rose to the occasion and were terrifically helpful and learned a lot about what it takes to make a film. I raised all the money in Vermont from state organizations, foundations and individuals. Mount Mansfield Union High School gave us the high school for free to shoot in over the summer. Local vendors donated some equipment and many parents and community members housed the kids and donated food. It was a community event for sure.
IJM: The script idea is coincidentally similar to “Glee,” but you came up with yours first. Was there any connection? How did you come up with the script idea?
O’Brien: I was initially inspired by the musical “Runaways” which was produced at the Public Theater in NYC about 35 years ago and directed by Elizabeth Swados. She went out onto the streets of NYC and interviewed runaway youth and created an original musical from her interviews with them. I always thought that was just so cool and empowering to youth voice. It’s funny that “Glee” happened after us–but it seems to be a hit!
IJM: I see that you and Abby Paige wrote the script after you received about a thousand written stories from students. What was the writing prompt for the kids and did you get the teachers involved in this project during school time? Were the students prepped on the kind of writing they were doing? Did you choose your 25 script checkers from the students whose work you chose?
O’Brien: The Educational Study Guide that schools now use with the movie has a number of the writing prompts in it. We did many writing prompts in groups and online. We also sent prompts and questions to English and social study teachers to use with kids in schools. We also worked with theater artists, poets, and writers to do writing and improv work around issues that we had heard youth were grappling with. The youth that were chosen to review the script with us came from our statewide advisory board and from teens that volunteered and were interested in the writing process.
IJM: What are three things you’d like viewers of your film to come away with?
O’Brien: To LISTEN to youth, to take them seriously, to realize that being a teen has many joys, but the struggles that many youth go through in adolescence are tough and need to be dealt with, especially bullying. Also, that the ARTS are transformative and should be used in educational settings to create more projects like “Shout It Out” because they create imagination, purpose and voice!
IJM: What are three things you learned from making this production?
O’Brien: That youth are capable of anything.
That the arts continue to enrich and empower people’s souls.
That telling the truth can create change.
IJM: What kind of follow-ups has occurred after a screening?
O’Brien: Many schools do follow up with the whole school using the study guide. One community, after watching the film, started their own teen center. As far as our follow-up, we get feedback from teachers and administrators and kids on a regular basis on how it has affected their lives.
IJM: What kind of effects did participating in this film have on the participants and on you?
O’Brien: The teens involved with “Shout It Out” became ambassadors for youth voice. They were proud to be able to tell their peers’ stories and to engage with audience members after each show. Many actors in the film were approached after a screening by kids who said that they related to their story in the film. They said “thank you for telling my story.” Actors in the film were also given the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to be in a REAL film and see it distributed across the USA. For me, just joy and pride in what these kids were able to create together.
IJM: What kinds of feedback have you gotten from viewers?
O’Brien: Viewers are for the most part very thankful, especially adults who want to know more about what is really going on in their teen’s life. This film let’s them start a conversation with their teen. For youth, they are thrilled to see themselves represented in a real way, not a “Disneyized” way. See the reviews on our website. If you go to the “Shout It Out” page you’ll see that they are all very positive.
IJM: Have you got any follow-up projects in mind?
O’Brien: We are about to publish the original Voices Project script and score so schools across the country can perform it in their own schools!
IJM: Are you interested in doing this kind of project again in different school districts?
O’Brien: Sure. I’d love to duplicate this project across the country. I’d be glad to work with school districts and drama teachers on how to create original scripts, theater pieces, and films based on youth stories.
IJM: What are you working on now?
O’Brien: I am currently working on a documentary film on foster care youth.
. . .
Bess O’Brien has forged some ground-breaking paths in education and public awareness. At the NEA Conference where over 10,000 members gathered, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, presented the SuAnne Crow award to not only O’Brien but two representative cast members, Annalise Shelmandine and Ryan Howland.
Van Roekel announced that the entire cast of “Shout It Out” deserves recognition “for its work in this production, especially for helping students who may be faced with similar challenges understanding their own lives. Schools should be safe zones—places where students should feel safe and comfortable being themselves and expressing their ideas. And, as educators we intend to do our part to implement programs to address bullying and harassment at school.”
Bess O’Brien’s new documentary on foster care in Vermont called, “Ask Us Who We Are,” has received funding support from the Vermont NEA and is due to be released in 2011.
For educational package go to www.kingdomcounty.com or call 802-592-3190.
“Shout It Out” Web site: www.fledglingfilms.com/our_films/shout_it_out.php
Director and Producer: Bess O’Brien
Producer: Jay Craven and Morgan Faust
Writers: Bess O’Brien and Abby Paige
Editor: Carrie Sterr
Choreographer: Rainey Lacey
Cast: Bruce Bearman, Nathaniel Beliveau, Wade Besaw, Kylie Billings, Kathryn Bloom, Caroline Bright, Max Cohn, Dayna Coiusins, Jyoti Daniere, Rusty DeWees, Beth Esmond, Anna Harissis, Ruby Hover, Ryan Howland, Dawn Kearon, Audrey Kiely, Ssophia LaPaglia, Jaci Laroque, Beth Lewis, Josie Lewis, Sam Lewis, Andrew McDuff, Devon Mendicino, Jordan Mitchell-Love, James Murphy, Mark Nash, Meredith Noseworthy, Robert Nuner, Tara O’Reilly, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Jonathan Reid, Ty Robinson, Annalise Shelmandine, Will Stamp, Fran Stoddard, Robert Toms
. . .
Follow It’s Just Movies on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ItsJustMovies.