March 5, 2007

Proving Providence

A Lost Journal Is A Team Effort For A Group Of M.F.A. Students

By James Tella

While the weight of a person’s soul may seem to solve the question of faith for a doctor in smallpox-plagued colonial Boston, for a team of production graduate students, the man’s doubt as well as film festival success just may be realized in The Lost Journal of Vice Marceaux.
J.R. Burningham (right) directs Darin Singleton (left)
as Vice Marceaux.

"Between the props, the make up and the sound, this film was insanely ambitious,” said third year J.R. Burningham who wrote and directed the movie, which he based on real-life events. “This physician becomes obsessed with proving the improvable, and I wanted to put him in a world where he would be struggling with his faith for all the right reasons.”

“You try and find a story that you can believe in, especially since you’re going to spend a portion of your life consumed by it,” said second year Tess Ortbals, who along with her classmate Brad Crowe, produced the 12-minute epic. “I was immediately taken by the message of J.R.’s script and the visual imagery he created.”

The auditory signals of Burningham’s words were not only just one of the impressions that stayed with the producer, but also what she remembered on an unrelated visit to the Warner Bros. prop house. Finding old movie scales, she emailed the director pictures of the classic weighing machines via her cell phone.

“Tess also bombarded me with emails the day she read my script,” laughed Burningham. “I was hesitant that we could really make this film, and for the first few days I was afraid to commit, but her enthusiasm was contagious.”

Though the director says his stories tend to fall on the darker side of life with a touch of black comedy, Burningham was drawn to Lost Journal because, although it was ethereal, he “wanted to make a film that really resonated emotionally with audiences in the end.” 
On the set of The Lost Journal of Vice Marceaux.

To accomplish their vision, the producers and Burningham worked with a team of collaborators, which included a plethora of production students consisting of second years Brett Fallentine,  Jared Mark, Beth Spitalny, Claire Sullivan-Tailyour, along with third years Patrick Knipe, Andrew Russo, Sarah Takahashi, and the lone non-USC member Adam Flemming, who, Ortbals said, “we made an honorary Trojan since he was surrounded by us every day.”

“What I love about being behind the camera is that I just have to point everyone in the right direction so we can all get the film made,” added Burningham. “If everyone involved doesn’t feel like this is their movie too, it’s never going to happen.”

Both Burningham and Ortbals note that it was no easy task for their editors to trim the film from its original cut of 24 minutes while still preserving the style and pacing of the story.

Producers Brad Crowe (left)  and Tess Ortbals (right).
“All of us love doing what we do, and we became a close knit family,” said Ortbals, who started her entertainment career acting in commercials when she was 10. Leaving acting behind with a stint in community theater, the former thespian tried her hand at studying history and archaeology before being drawn back into entertainment. “I went from being told stories to discovering them, to realizing that I wanted to be the one telling them.”

“Movies alone can't change the world,” Burningham added. “If filmmakers use their emotional potency correctly, then they can affect people to change.”

Connecting with audiences is what the Salt Lake City native hopes will happen for The Lost
The film's trailer.
Journal of Vice Marceaux
, especially if the film is selected for next year’s Sundance Film Festival. “I’d have so many supporters in my hometown, it would be surreal,” he laughed.

Though knowing that Lost Journal may set their careers in motion, both producer and director remain focused on building a strong team of collaborators who can rely on one another as each makes their mark in the industry.

“Vice risks everything to prove the soul weighs 21 grams,” notes Burningham. “And I thought it was kind of eerie when I ended up with 21 versions of the script and 21 scenes in the final draft.”

“Flip the numbers around and you have the length of the movie,” adds Ortbals. “I don’t know if it means anything, but it makes for another great story.”