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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 24, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Students struggle to fund musical-comedy thesis film

Jeff trudges down the foreboding prison corridor, nearly comatose with fear. He has wrongly been found guilty of sexual assault, resulting in a five-year sentence. Mere days ago, his life as a successful chiropractor was at its peak when he met his newest client, the reality TV starlet Lydia Von Schmidt.

Now, Jeff must learn to “adjust” to prison life, alongside his cellmate Big, also known as Big Black. He has heard horrible things about Big from the other inmates. Meanwhile, another inmate, Derek, is impelling him to join a white supremacist gang instead. All of this is told through song.

Jeff and Big are the main characters in the musical-comedy student film “The Art of Adjustment,” co-written and directed by senior cinema and photography major Nick Stern and senior television-radio major Jake Witterschein. The film is Stern and Witterschein’s senior thesis project, currently in post-production, and will make its debut at the Roy H. Park School of Communications in mid-December.

Stern said it had been established early on that he and Witterschein would do a musical thesis, a feat seldom done by Park students. The two conceived the idea of creating a musical about a chiropractor during the summer of 2013.

“It started coming to, ‘OK, what are we gonna do this about? Doctors in not very well-respected positions.’ ‘What’s something that other doctors would laugh at?’” Witterschein said. “That led to Nick saying ‘But wait, chiropractors aren’t always necessarily respected, but they do a lot of good.’ People’s lives are changed through chiropractic very often.”

Prior to “The Art of Adjustment,” Stern and Witterschein had worked together on a film called “The ‘It’ Factor,” for their Cinema Production II class. The film was presented at the New Hope Film Festival in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in July 2013. It was at New Hope on July 20 where Stern and Witterschein saw the musical “Until College” and were motivated to begin working on their thesis.

“We wrote the film through songs initially, then we built the story around the rest of the songs,” Stern said. “That’s how we believe a successful musical is done.”

Stern and Witterschein wrote a treatment in September 2013 and contacted Jake Minter, a senior music composition major, to compose the soundtrack for “The Art of Adjustment.” Minter said while Stern and Witterschein mainly wrote the lyrics, he had to take the underlying ideas behind them and express them in a way that made sense, including tweaking various parts so that they would sound more aesthetically pleasing.

“In a way we were satirizing the stereotype of musical theater with a lot of what we did,” said Minter. “It was a very ‘South Park’ approach of [writing] this very traditional Broadway style of music with very non-traditional lyrics and sensibilities. I tried to keep it very simple so the music wouldn’t detract from what was a really terrific lyrical scope.”

Together, Stern, Witterschein and Minter created nine musical numbers for the 40-minute film during the 2013–14 academic year. Song titles include “The Trial,” “Join a Gang” and “The Art of Adjustment.” Witterschein said he and Stern then spent around 48 hours in Stern’s basement during winter break, where they wrote the script.

“After that, it was just tons of pre-production,” Witterschein said. “We had really been working on it for a legitimate year. We probably took it more seriously than our classes for two semesters.”

During pre-production, Stern and Witterschein recruited a cast and crew of around 50 people. While many of the crew, such as sophomore co-producer Alisa Bargeski and senior co-producer Clinton Butler, were students and staff from Ithaca College, several came from distant states, such as lead actors Jeremy Vincent Coman ’13 (Jeff), from California; and Lewis Carlton (Big), an actor from Virginia whom the crew found on Facebook only a few weeks prior to shooting.

On June 11, Stern and Witterschein launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $8,000 for production. Their budget had been structured so that about $4,000 would have been spent on art, design and food, $1,000 to pay the cast and the remaining $3,000 on production and location shooting. By the campaign’s end in August, it had only raised $1,105 with a total of 41 funders. As a result, Stern and Witterschein had to use their own money, totaling the film’s final budget at slightly over $4,000. The crew then ended up having to make sacrifices. They were unable to pay the cast as much as they originally wanted, and had to cut the original idea of paying background actors to make scenes look more believable. The film also saw fewer production resources and craft services.

“We were shooting a scene and had not prepared any props or production design,” Stern said. “So we had to walk all around the building searching for resources to make this scene believable.”

In addition, pre-production almost ran into serious trouble when the crew was unable to find any available prisons to shoot in Ithaca. While some prisons had limitations on allotted time for the producers, some were unavailable because they charged too much for the crew’s limited budget. However, after spending the entire summer searching through over 20 different prisons, the producers finally found the Calaboose Grille in Owego, New York, which used to be a jail and features a still-working cell.

“For a long time, before we ended up finding a jail to shoot in, we were afraid we’d have to build a jail cell,” Stern said. “If that was the case, the majority of what we raised would have gone to that.”

Despite complications, Stern said the project didn’t change much because of the lack of funding. The crew successfully shot all of the footage over eight consecutive days in August. Stern and Witterschein will be spending the fall semester logging, editing and completing the film.

“This ended up being the homework assignment for a class we weren’t even in yet that took up the majority of our time,” Stern said. “It’s not like we were just doing this for a grade. In fact, that means nothing. We just really wanted to make this film the best it could be.”