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THE CAT'S MEOW: Making a "Vassar" Movie at Catslair

By Larry Hertz
2005 classmates: editor Sophia Betz, screenwriter and co-director Ian Simpson, and co-director Sara Wolkowitz. Action! Actors Ethan Slater and Devin McDuffee get notes on their performances. Catslair provided the perfect backdrop for the film, the directors say. Both Slater and McDuffee are 2014 graduates. Filming outside. Framing the scene. Co-director Wolkowitz guides the action. The directors consult a storyboard that illustrates the scenes in advance. A closer look. Joining this scene is Betsy Aidem, who plays the mother of the main character. Simpson gives his thumb of approval. Betz, foreground, says being on-set helped her to mentally “pre-edit” the scenes. The crew manipulates the shadows in the scene, using a tree branch.

Three alums who majored in film together a decade ago are calling their new movie one of the “most Vassar” films ever made. Screenwriter and co-director Ian Simpson ’05, co-director Sara Wolkowitz ’05, editor Sophia Betz ’05, and a cast and crew of 30 shot Lightning Bugs in a Jar this past summer at Catslair, a bucolic venue for artists and filmmakers on property in upstate New York owned by Vassar alum Purcell Scheu Palmer ’62. The film will have its world premiere at the 68th Festival de Cannes in May 2015. (View the trailer here.)

Simpson, who earned a master’s degree at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, wrote the screenplay in 2011 as he was recovering from a serious illness; the story is of a young man at odds with his mother over an agonizing childhood tragedy. 

When Simpson decided to look for a way to make the film, he began by making some Vassar connections. Wolkowitz and Betz, both of whom are pursuing film and video careers in New York City, signed on to Simpson’s project, but the Vassar connections didn’t stop there. The trio approached Vassar drama professor Gabrielle Cody and asked her to recommend some of her recent students to play two of the leading roles. Two 2014 grads, Ethan Slater and Devin McDuffee, were chosen for the parts, and another alum, Caroline Symons ’13, was hired as art production assistant.

Further, Simpson says, “I was looking for a fellowship to get the project done, and I went on the Vassar website, saw something about Purcell Palmer’s venue and thought it could be the perfect vehicle for this.” The trio applied for a residency at Catslair, part of the Catwalk Artist Residency Program established by Palmer. 

Ethan Slater and Devin McDuffee, both’14, were chosen for leading roles in the film.
Ethan Slater and Devin McDuffee, both’14, were chosen for leading roles in the film.

Wolkowitz says when she and Simpson visited Catslair August 18 of last year to scout locations, she was sold on the location. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is perfect.’ ”

The excitement they shared that day was sustained throughout the shooting of the movie, Wolkowitz says. “You never know exactly how a shoot is going to play out, but all the pieces came together and everyone was totally committed to the project,” she says. “It was magical.”

Simpson agreed. “As I watched it being filmed, I saw people putting a shine on my work that wasn’t there before,” he says. “The camaraderie that comes with being with Vassar alums was fused into the whole work.”

Slater says working with fellow Vassar alums had eased the tension that often accompanies starting a new performance. “Devin and I had never been in a play together at Vassar but we’d known each other since freshman year and always had mutual admiration for each other’s work,” he says. “And it was easy working with Ian and Sara and Sophia because we all knew Professor Cody and [film professor] Ken Robinson, and we could talk about how the townhouses and other parts of the campus had changed over the years.”

McDuffee says the Vassar connection he and the filmmakers shared had also provided him with a level of professional comfort. “It’s kind of a given that if you’ve gone through the Vassar drama or film program, your art is good; it has credibility,” he says.

“This is perfect,” said Wolkowitz and Simpson when they first viewed Catslair.
“This is perfect,” said Wolkowitz and Simpson when they first viewed Catslair.

McDuffee says he loved the script as soon as he read it. “The words jumped out at me,” he says. “It’s a story that could be a full-length feature, but because it’s a shorter film [about 30 minutes], the action is condensed. There’s no dead time, no weak links. Every word counts.”

Betz says she was glad to be able to spend time on the set during the filming, something editors rarely do. “It enabled me to do some pre-editing during the shoot, and it was great being part of such a collaborative effort,” she says. “The whole crew was passionate and committed to the project, and that’s not always the case. It was fun to be able to share this experience with old Vassar friends.”

Symons, who has had a series of theater jobs in New York City since she graduated from Vassar in 2013, assisted the production designer in securing props and costumes and scouting locations. One of her tasks was buying an old car, a 1979 Chevrolet Impala that was used in several scenes. “I drove the car down from Albany, and I’m not sure it belongs on the road,” she quipped.

She says she thoroughly enjoyed working with Vassar alums on the film. “It was fantastic to be working with so many Vassar people while learning a lot about the film industry,” Symons says.

Simpson says he and the other filmmakers always enjoyed seeing Palmer, who would make the short trek from her home for periodic visits to the set. “We all appreciate what Purcell has done for us—she really believed in us,” he says.

Palmer says she was glad to provide a venue for the film. “It was a new experience for us here having so many artists on the property at one time, and I loved visiting the set—I loved seeing the artistry involved in the filming. And it was fun seeing so many Vassar folks come together to do this. We didn’t know if it would work, but it did.”