BROOKSVILLE — One morning in mid-September, a pair of teenagers sat at a computer in a classroom at Nature Coast Technical High School and punched in a Skype call. The screen was projected on the wall, and the rest of the small class watched as the face of a tousle-haired young man appeared.
He was one of nearly 300 actors who had responded to a casting call for the eight teenagers’ next film.
The students at the computer, director Ashlyn Aupperlee and producer Drew Halek, introduced themselves and explained the film. Dismal State of Mind would follow a young man grappling with loss. The students would shoot and edit it in New York City over the course of 56 hours as part of the All American High School Film Festival, which begins Oct. 9.
The actor read a monologue from the Amy Herzog play 4,000 Miles, and he and Aupperlee exchanged dialogue from the script for Dismal State of Mind, which the students wrote in August. They were done within a few minutes, and as his face flickered off the screen, the rest of the room exhaled.
“Oh man,” said Adrian Ochoa, the film’s camera operator. “That was pretty good.”
“He was so good,” Halek said.
Ian Wald, who teaches this digital video production class, had a different thought. While his class had watched the actor, Wald had been watching the class. He appreciated that they were taking the auditions seriously, he told them, but they needed to loosen up some.
“You’re trying to be too professional," he said. “You’re 17-year-old kids. They know that.”
“Sixteen,” Aupperlee corrected him.
He nodded. “Sixteen.”
This year marks Nature Coast’s fourth straight appearance in the selective competition. According to the festival’s website, it invites no more than 50 schools each year. The class has to re-apply each year, said Wald, who’s taught each of those classes.
Wald “kind of fell backwards” into the job teaching Nature Coast’s video production classes a decade ago, he said. He’d taught himself video editing in high school and pondered a future in film, but studied medicine instead. After graduating from the University of South Florida, he pitched a sports medicine class to Nature Coast. The school turned down the idea, but it needed a video production teacher.
He’s taken a more hands-off approach each year, he said, letting his senior students show what they’ve learned in their first three years of classes and allowing them to take risks and learn from failure. Much of his job during competition time consists of making sure everyone has enough to eat. He talks about the significance of a group of kids from Hernando County working on such a large stage.
“For a group of kids from a small town, doing that for our local community, to have that sort of impact is mind-blowing,” he said. In the class’s first year at the competition, it won a $2,500 award for producing the festival’s most emotional film.
The 10 weeks leading up to filming are loaded with pre-production — writing, casting, location scouting. The students carry scripts marked up with more notes than lines of dialogue. They spend nights chipping away at a detailed shot list.
Wald’s classes in the lower grades have as many as 40 students, but only the most serious ones make the senior-year class, the one competing in New York. They aspire to careers in video and film — marketing, working at production companies, creating Hollywood films. Several of Wald’s past students have gone on to careers and schooling in film and media, including promotions for professional athletics, digital design and screenwriting.
“I don’t know what else in the world I can do but this,” said Ochoa, who’s done some local commercial work, but dreams of being “maybe like a Quentin Tarantino.”
When Wald looks back at his own life, he said, he pushed film to the side and studied medicine because other people told him it would be a good idea. He wasn’t listening to his own voice. He hopes his class gives students a license to listen to theirs.
They had more auditions to do, and a half-hour after the first actor disappeared, a new face appeared on screen. She read for the short film’s lead female role, running through a monologue and a scene from the screenplay.
This time, though, the students’ mood was lighter.
They peppered the audition with small talk. They got the actress to giggle. She wasn’t quite right for the role, they’d later agree, but the audition was a success from Wald’s perspective.
Standing at the edge of the room as the actress’s face disappeared from the screen, he silently and dramatically pumped his fist.