June 5, 2023
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Life & Culture

Student anchors himself in short film about grief

As a group of 50 crew and cast members work together to get ready for the 12-hour shoot, they find themselves on familiar ground: John Marshall High School, where the carnival finale of the 1978 musical “Grease” was filmed. The historic cinematic landmark now becomes the setting for an intense sports story about overcoming grief.

“Anchor” is a short film directed by Dhananjay Saraswat for his New York Film Academy thesis project, filmed over the course of three days in February 2023. The film follows the bond between a track team when the team captain, Matt, dies after winning a state championship. The four remaining members struggle with working together as a team without their former “anchor” in their lives.

Saraswat had a feature-length script written for “Anchor” and decided to take a small portion of it to turn into a short. Saraswat said that after the post-production process with editing, color grading, music composition and VFX is all complete, he hopes to release the film by July 2023.

“Once the short film is out, my plan is to pitch it to studios with the feature film script,” Saraswat said. “I’m definitely looking forward to making that feature.”

As a major sports fan himself, Saraswat said many sports dramas are typically underdog stories where the team overcomes challenges to win the big game. Instead, “Anchor” aims to follow the aftermath of a team’s victory.

“This story is actually loosely based on my life,” Saraswat said. “A teammate has a very deep impact on you. It’s like you’re out of sync at that moment. No one is beside you in the court at that time. This [story] is relatable with anyone because everybody faces loss.”

Junior Ryan Fogler is currently studying in Los Angeles and has been on the lookout for short films to act in. Fogler said he was immediately interested in “Anchor” after finding out about the film through Backstage, a casting platform for people who do not have an official casting agent. He did a Zoom audition with Saraswat and ended up getting the role of Matt’s best friend, Tyler. The team’s coach tasks Tyler with becoming the new captain.

“It’s all about my character going through grief and trying to live up to being in that position,” Fogler said. “The film deals a lot with remembering the people that were in your lives.”

Michael Jamison, a first-year acting student at California State University, Fullerton, also found out about the film through Backstage. Jamison plays the supporting role of Hugh, one of the track runners. Jamison said he has played sports his entire life and connected with the story through that.

“There have definitely been countless times when our star player or team captain, or someone who is supposed to be good, is not doing their job,” Jamison said. “They just keep failing. It’s coming to terms with that understanding [because] maybe they’re going through something.”

Many students in the Roy H. Park School of Communications move out to Los Angeles with the hopes of creating new connections in the industry. “Anchor” is the first film Fogler has been a part of in Los Angeles, and the first time he has even been to the city.

“When I first walked in and saw all the cameras and huge lights they had, it was an intimidating thing,” Fogler said. “Especially considering how physically demanding the role is. But luckily, I had a great director who was right there with me and made sure that I felt comfortable on set.”

Ranier Acosta, a recent graduate from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy who played Clay, another one of the track members, said Saraswat was a professional director.

“He knew exactly how he wanted everything to be,” Acosta said. “You know a director directs well when he gives you one sentence and you immediately understand how to make that change as an actor instantly. I was very impressed.”

One day while filming outdoors on the track, Jamison said that while everyone was waiting around for the next shot, one of the cast members mentioned that they were in the exact place where the “Grease” finale took place — much to everyone’s surprise. John Marshall High School was also used for filming locations in other popular Hollywood films, like “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and “Pretty in Pink” (1986).

“We were like, ‘What?’” Jamison said. “It was a fun ‘aha’ moment, standing where John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were decades ago. It was just a cool moment to know that we’re working where these legendary actors were.”

Saraswat said that when location scouting and trying to find the perfect track, he immediately knew when seeing John Marshall High School that it was the vibe he wanted — even before knowing it was the same place the “Grease” finale was filmed 45 years ago.

After originally premiering as a Broadway musical in 1972, “Grease” was adapted into the 1978 film and a sequel in 1982, with numerous television specials since. Currently, a prequel film titled “Summer Lovin’” is in development and a television series titled “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” is set to release April 2023.

Fogler said he is a fan of the musical “Grease” and has always wanted to be cast in a theater production of it before getting too old for the parts. While not in a production of the material itself, he was still able to perform in a place important to its history.

“We can all relate to being in high school, going through some of the things the characters went through,” Fogler said. “It’s one of those films that’s just timeless and can constantly reach the younger generation as each decade passes. And my mom loves ‘Grease,’ so she was very excited when she heard about it.”

Matt Minton can be reached at mminton@ithaca.edu