KANSAS CITY, Mo.-Mary Pruitt knew something was up the day she went down to the basement and found her husband Steve knocking holes in the walls of his office with a sledgehammer.
At an age when some men buy sports cars or change careers, Steve Pruitt had a different kind of mid-life crisis. After years as Chair of Business Economics and Finance at the University of Missouri (Kansas City), Steve wanted to resuscitate guitar-playing skills that had been rusting since his college days and shoot his own music video. In the process of researching the kind of equipment he would need to make this happen, he realized that during the decades he had been busy raising his two daughters and growing his career, professional moviemaking equipment had become not only accessible, but affordable enough for a moviemaker wannabe. Steve was instantly hooked, impulsively changing course and announcing his plans to make not a music video, but a feature length movie. This despite the fact that neither he nor Mary had so much as set foot on a movie set, much less turned on a movie camera before. This was the innocuous beginning of what Mary called Steve's "Cuban missile crisis of mid-life crises" and of their newly minted film company, Never2Late Studios, a name that is more than apropos for this energetic 53-year-old professor-turned-indie-filmmaker and his Jane Seymour look-alike wife of 28 years.
Never2Late Production's full-length feature film, Works in Progress, a romantic comedy based in the Kansas City art community, started out as a play the Pruitts wrote a decade ago called Painters. Rewritten to film in 2006, it follows the story of two art school graduates who take a summer internship in Kansas City, Mo., and two mid-20s professional women whom they befriend. Humorously, yet poignantly exploring the question, Will I ever find my true love?, the Pruitts intend the movie to be a "wonderfully wholesome date movie."
Like most independent filmmakers, the Pruitts entered several film festivals in order to garner attention for the film. The process, from DVD submission to final judging, is highly competitive and often takes months. Smaller festivals review many hundreds of films; large festivals review thousands. For a small film made by newbie filmmakers, acceptance is both an honor and a huge step toward a wider distribution of the movie. Works in Progress was accepted by several festivals including the International Family Film Festival, the Kansas City FilmFest, and the Memphis International Film Festival, with the possibility of more acceptances during the fall festival circuit-which kicked off Sept. 9 internationally with the opening of the Toronto Film Festival.
So far, audience and critic feedback is encouraging: "Inspired by Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, [Works in Progress] represents a dream-come-true, damn-the-naysayers leap of faith for first-time filmmakers Mary and Stephen Pruitt," said critic John Beifuss after the Memphis festival. After several standing-room-only showings in Kansas City, Never2Late Studios is making the film available to select screens across the country. Additionally, the Pruitts just signed an on-demand DVD distribution deal with Seminal Films of Hollywood with a release date near Thanksgiving. They hope these successes will help them obtain the funding for other films.
Driven by their desire to create and help others create what they describe as "redemptive, thought-provoking, beautiful works of art," over the course of two years, the Pruitts learned the ropes of independent filmmaking: screenplay writing, casting, directing, cinematography, lighting, filming, and audio. Steve researched what equipment to buy, scanning online forums at every stage and asking literally hundreds of questions before purchasing two RED one 4K digital cinema cameras to the tune of $40,000 each. Other expenses-actors' pay, location rent, food bills, etc.-made filmmaking an expensive undertaking. With Works in Progress being their first movie, the Pruitts turned to their church family and other small investors to help finance the film, and spent over $300,000 of their own money on the venture.
While Steve was busy researching equipment, Mary continued tightening the screenplay, closing gaps in the storyline and making space for the cameras, booms, jibs, mannequin pieces, a steadycam, lights, and 12 feet of dolly track that would become fixtures in her living room for the next two years. She ascribes to the "I write too much before I write just enough" school of screenwriting thought: "At least half of writing a good script is deleting the parts that would make a bad script."
For her, deleting was a major part of the process as a first-time screenwriter, as was adding "zingers"-important dialogue lines that end a scene.
Part room mother, part crew therapist, part short-order cook, Mary filled every gap the moviemaking crew had. "Giving birth was easier," she says. From writing the script to the final edits, co-producing as a couple took its toll. The Pruitts say the single most difficult part of making a movie together was working through issues as husband and wife in full view of their cast and crew, most of whom were single. "Paul and Barnabas thought they had it tough preaching," says Steve. "They should have tried making a movie together."
Problems-from actors leaving town and going back to school, to explaining to the neighbors the trailer in their driveway and nightly unloading of equipment-plagued production. Although the cliché in the moviemaking world is that "all mistakes are made in pre-production," the Pruitts found that potentially fatal mistakes could happen at any point in the process. While observers may think of moviemaking as standing behind a camera, Steve says that shooting great scenes was the least of their worries. A film with a great script, great actors, and great camera work is easily botched with bad sound or bad editing. According to him, "You're really never out of the woods until you're finished."
Working with a skeleton crew of about a dozen people, the Pruitts were forced, during certain scenes, to use Sam Kane (who plays the movie's villain, Frederick Kane, and is also a friend from Sunday school) to man the boom. Crises were the norm. It was so hot outside as they shot a scene in which the lead and his friend are saying goodbye to each other that they left cars running and reimbursed the actors for gas so they could sit in an air-conditioning between takes. "It was our low-rent version of a trailer," says Mary. She said she also put ice bags on the cameras to keep them cool enough to work.
Christ Community Church, the Pruitts' home church in Leawood, Kan., played an integral part in the movie. Several cast and crew members, including many extras, were friends from church. Half of the film company's outside funding came from church friends. Most of the music used in the movie was created by their church's worship leaders, Randy Bonidield, Patrick Largen, and Tim Seeley. Sara Groves, a Christian artist, allowed them to use two of her songs after they met her at a concert at their church. It was "the body of Christ at work," Mary says. Both Pruitts love the gallery scenes in the movie because most of the people milling around are extras from their church. Each scene was shot on a different night. Each person had to show up each time. "Imagine walking around in circles and not drinking your faux glass of wine for four hours," says Mary. "There's a special place in heaven for those folks."
The leads in Works in Progress had never appeared in a movie before. Greg Brostrom, the male lead who plays John Weatherford, was recommended by one of the Pruitts' daughters who knew him at Wheaton College. They found the female lead, Christina Blodgett, who plays Abbey Sanderson, through a local audition. Ben Jeffery plays Patrick O'Reilly, "the heart and soul" of the film. He was not what the Pruitts initially had in mind for the lead's best friend, but, after hearing him read for the part, they found him perfect for the role. Kate Bartholomew, who plays Abbey's best friend, also didn't fit the Pruitts' initial concept of the character, but soon won them over with her comedic portrayal of Margo. Seasoned filmmakers told them to go with the best actors they could find, so even though they picked actors and actresses who sometimes challenged their expectations, the Pruitts don't regret their decisions.
With no thinly veiled sermon, Works in Progress parts ways with Christian films like Fireproof or Facing the Giants. Steve says he feels that film is not an effective evangelistic medium, referring to a book by Paul Marshall (Heaven is Not My Home), which notes that most people who watch Christian movies are, well, Christians. Those who aren't, are either unaware these movies exist or hate them. According to Marshall, a good film is "always allusive, suggestive, and alluring; it hints, it frames, and it touches. It does not come right out and state the case; it does not argue."
Christian movies often follow an evangelistic formula because, as Marshall says, "We are impatient with the allusion, the gesture, the suggested, and latent. We want the straightforward sermon, not the implied question."
Works in Progress attempts to present its themes of integrity and responding to the prodding of the Holy Spirit with subtlety and humor, says Steve.
And rather than avoiding exposure to and critique from the secular film community, where cinematic expectations are high and the critics less likely to be forgiving of a novice's work, Steve is eager for the challenge of going head-to-head with Hollywood standards. Comparing his film only to other Christian movies is "the cinematic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel," he says, and being judged according to secular expectations forces him to hone his moviemaking skills and produce higher-quality art.
Hard as it might be to compete in a biased environment like Hollywood, what he doesn't want to produce is "the kind of movie where patrons walk away disappointed, saying, 'Well, at least there was a good message,'" he says. For the Pruitts, this means emphasizing excellence in their artistic efforts and being honest with themselves when things aren't up to standard. And that means long days, long nights, and lots of retaping. The effort is worth it. "Most of the key players on our team would rather lose on a large, level playing field than win on a small, tilted one," Steve says.
The Pruitts and their Never2Late crew are working on their second project, a film called Terminal, a dark PG-13 drama about a district attorney dying from a brain tumor and a street-savvy woman with a terrible secret. Drawn from events in the Pruitts' own lives, the film has been emotional to write, the story coming to Steve while he was driving around the terminal at the Kansas City International Airport, he says. But with some experience, work on Terminal is smoother than Works in Progress. The Pruitts hope that these and other films-movies made by Christians rather than Christian movies-will break away from Hollywood formulas that rely heavily on the demands of the market, as well as from Christian formulas, where faith in God solves every problem and bad people always get what they deserve.