Drew Brown started working on this essay about his experience winning an Academy Award a couple of weeks ago. We talked as he was about to board the plane to LA, still unaware that he would win the GOLD, and were just as thrilled as anyone alive to learn he had taken the top honor. Join us after the jump for an incredibly personal essay about his journey in making a film that just placed him on the map!
photo by gage preston
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer was always the same.
In turn, I inevitably received a “Magic Kit” from at least one family member every single Christmas of my childhood. You know, the ones that come in a black box and include a deck of “magic” cards and other little tricky trinkets? I remember always wanting to thank my family members for supporting my career choice.
Ten years later, I’m a college student studying filmmaking. I’m staring at words on a computer screen that could quite possibly be spelling out the next chapter of my life.
“What the hell is an ‘Alternative film’?” I asked myself aloud as I skimmed through the website. “There’s Animation, Documentary, Narrative, and then Alternative.” I turned to my best friend, Google, and soon found an answer.
“...dealing with subjects, points-?of-?view, and formal elements not found in the mainstream.”
Interesting. I took a sip of my coffee, let out a deep breath, and stared out the window. I was entering a film into the 41st Annual Student Academy Awards. Not just any film. My senior thesis film. The one piece of work that is supposed to encapsulate everything I’ve learned over the past three years in film school while also defining who I am and what I believe in as an artist. The film that would kickstart my career. Kickstart my life.
I just had no idea what the hell the film was going to be about.
I could enter into any of the four categories, but I realized my gut was getting pulled toward this “Alternative” category over the other three. “...dealing with subjects not found in the mainstream.” What is a subject that is rarely discussed? Something that isn’t represented in film very often or hasn’t been represented in film?
When I was in first grade, my parents put me in painting classes. My third cousin, Judith, was my instructor. She owned a little gallery in the town square where I grew up in Alabama. Throughout elementary school, I would attend my painting lesson every Monday. Eventually, my childhood dreams of growing up to become a magician were shattered by the new idea of becoming an art teacher. Art became such a passion that it was constantly with me everywhere I went. It was like I had opened my eyes for the first time and discovered a new part of me.
photo by gage preston
In sixth grade, I made another discovery. I was gay. Or, at least, I knew I was attracted to guys.
It felt weird. It felt wrong. It felt dark and confusing. So, of course I kept it a secret from the world. I was...trapped? I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t how I felt I “should” be. I actually thought I was the only person in the world like this. What a strange thing for a child to try to understand.
In one of my college Psychology classes, my professor chose to discuss the most interesting of topics. Subjects I actually retained and remembered. One day, while examining the subject of Gender, we discussed something called “Gender Identity Disorder” (a term that is slowly becoming unused and is being replaced with “Transsexualism”). Transexualism refers to a confliction between a person’s assigned physical sex and the gender he or she identifies as. Being born in the wrong body.
The idea interested and concerned me at the same time. I went home, did my research, watched some documentaries on the subject, and then came to class the next week with an even bigger understanding. People assumed I knew everything about transgender folk because I’m gay and apparently that meant I had some sort of default knowledge about the subject, but in reality, I was just as uneducated about it as everyone else in the room. I’ve just always been the type of person to try to expand my horizons.
When I was a child, I wanted to expand my artistic capabilities beyond painting, so I joined the school band. My dad was a trumpet player when he was a kid in the band, but my mom really pushed me to be a percussionist. So I did, and I continued it throughout high school.
As I matured into teenage-?hood, I got into theatre and dancing. Performing was my niche. I became submerged in the art of performance and just creating art. I remember having an epiphany as a teenager and thinking, “Shit, there is no way my future career will not be in the arts.”
“So you’re doing an alternative film, right?” My mentor and film professor, Nadia, asks me.
“You know what you should do? You should do a film that includes all of your artistic talents in it. Like, a film that has painting, dancing, music…”
photo by gage preston
I had a flashback to when I was a senior in high school. I had enrolled in my first TV production class, and I had started gaining a rich understanding of what exactly filmmaking was. I started comprehending how many different aspects of filmmaking there are and the variety of things that can be done with film. It started becoming apparent to me that filmmaking is the one art that can really incorporate all of the arts into it, creating something memorable and experiential, tapping into your psychological senses and allowing you to experience a work of art rather than just view it.
“That’s it,” I told her. “That’s perfect.”
I would tell a story through film that illustrates the growth and transformation of an individual’s identity (with this new knowledge I had about transgenderism), using dance, painting, performance, and music as creative factors that would further enhance the story through this variety of artistic outlets.
It was time to get started.
At my school, The Art Institute of Jacksonville, each film student is required to take three separate classes pertaining to the creation of their senior thesis film: Pre-?Production (the writing and planning), Production (the shooting), and Post Production (the editing). Each class takes 11 weeks to complete. I was preoccupied with other projects in my Pre-Production class, so I didn’t really start working on this film until my Production class. The submission deadline for The Student Academy Awards was April 1st, which also happened to be right at the start of the Post-Production quarter. This meant I needed to finish the whole film within that 11-week span of Production.
I was a little nervous to only have about a third of the time I was supposed to have to work on the film, but that’s what made the journey so exciting. It was a risk. It was electrifyingly terrifying.
I am fortunate enough to have an excellent crew of filmmakers by my side that also double as my closest friends in life. We’re quite a peculiar group. My film partner/producer Ramona Ramdeen, for example, is a middle-aged Indian woman, and we get some very interesting stares when we share the fact that we are partners in the industry. I guess we look like such an oddball duo.
I asked my best friend Zane Hall to shoot the film. Zane is the wisest person I have ever met in my life. Though he is only 22, his knowledge of technology is incredible, and he has such an interesting view of the world around him. Maybe it’s his mystical red hair, who knows. I just know that I felt he would be pretty fired up about this film, and after I asked him to be a major part of it, he was totally excited.
My other pal, Orlando Jarquin, a Nicaraguan Washington DC native and amazing cinematographer, wanted to be an Executive Producer on the project after hearing about the concept and what we were hoping to accomplish with it.
And what was that concept exactly?
To spread an awareness of self-?acceptance and self-?love. To tell a story that encompasses the idea of confidence in oneself brought out by one of the most influential ideas known in storytelling—a discovery of identity.
When it comes to filmmaking, I am always most influenced by one thing in particular, and that is music. It has always been a main staple in my life ever since I was a child. Like most other people, I was able to find my way through life by way of music. When I had to make important decisions, I would listen to music to help draw me toward a conclusion or to help me understand how I truly felt about things. Music is able to uncover hidden emotions as well as exemplify them.
After some consideration, I felt like I needed to test my abilities and try to create this music myself. I had a very simple piano melody formulating in my head, and local pianist Zeek Smith allowed us to use the piano at the Atlantic Beach Presbyterian Church to record the melody. After recording the first test, Zane and I looked at one another and just smiled, admitting that we had both gotten goosebumps. I was quite excited to add more to this music later on down the line.
Now that I had this music sample, I was able to better understand the look and feel of the film. I wanted this transgender character to be a dancer. Dancing can do so much communicating without using words. I kept having visuals of this shirtless male character dressed in a brunette wig and a long flowing black skirt, dancing in slow motion in an old, decrepit dance studio with natural light radiating through tall windows. In my mind, the space was so atmospheric and beautiful but also very dilapidated and broken; a direct reflection of this transgender character.
I called upon the talents of my friend, Lee Hamby—a prominent theatre director and event planner in the Jacksonville area. I had a strong feeling Lee could help me find the location I was looking for, and it wasn’t long before we had actually found it with the help of another friend, Elias Hionides. It was located downtown, across from the Florida Theatre, above a bar named Dos Gatos. It was a huge, empty space previously used as a dance studio for the Florida Ballet. Right across the hall from it was a separate space that had been used as a shooting location for the popular film, “Recount” back in 2007. It was humbling to know that we were taking advantage of Jacksonville’s great filming locations like other filmmakers have done in the past, hopefully making something memorable and appealing like they had.
The room itself was absolutely beautiful, but so incredibly dirty. My art director Julia Baker and I took a couple of hours to fully scrub down the hardwood floors, revealing a bit more beauty from beneath the thick layer of dust that had made the ground its home for the past God-knows-how-many years.
Keisha Burr, a fashion student at The Art Institute of Jacksonville, was thrilled to be on crew as the wardrobe stylist for this transgender character. I brought her onto the crew to help find clothes for the character that were believable; a person who is making such a huge transition of identity would be wearing clothes more appropriately addressing their current situation rather than a character who was not experiencing something like this. In layman’s terms, a man transitioning into a woman would be wearing something a bit different than just an ordinary woman would.
I am a total thrift-?shopper. You can find the best clothes for the best prices. It’s really like a treasure hunt. That’s what makes it exciting. We managed to find great clothes that really exemplified the character’s current stage of transitioning. Keisha was so intellectual with her choices of clothes and accessories, and she even helped in the choosing of the wig, which was later styled by the amazing Summer Jackson.
The audition process was...interesting. Many male actors/dancers expressed their interest in auditioning, and it got me really excited. I was looking for guys who were more dancing-?oriented rather than acting-?oriented. As a director, I can influence and help improve an actor’s performance, but dancing is another story. It’s much harder to tweak the level of ability in dance than it is in acting, especially when I wanted this character to have a strong dancing aptitude.
I called upon a friend, local dance instructor Samantha Strickland, to be my right hand woman when it came to the dance. She promised to choreograph an audition routine and also the actual dance that would be seen through the film. Samantha, like myself, is an emotional artist, so I knew she would be able to understand the emotional expression I wanted to create within the film through this dancing.
As the auditions grew closer, my guys started bailing out one by one for different reasons: family emergencies, trips out of town, a sudden cease of contact for some reason (didn’t really quite understand that one). Soon, I was down to zero guys. It was ridiculous. I was pretty irritated that the whole thing had fallen through that I think I even wrote a bitchy Facebook status about it.
I was seriously screwed. But I could do it myself if I really needed to.
“No way,” I kept telling myself. I’m no ‘Ben Affleck’. I’ve directed and acted in pieces before, but nothing to this type of extreme (and of this much importance). I think I was mostly afraid of screwing it up. It would just be difficult to act in a shot and then have to waste time having to go watch what we shot to see if we needed to do it again. I would have much rather just directed from behind the camera.
“There’s no one to do it but you,” my mentor Nadia would tell me.
I was stuck. The shooting dates were approaching quickly and I had to make a decision. I supposed the time I would be running over to the camera to see what we had shot would be balanced out with the fact that, for a majority of the film, I would be saving my breath by not having to direct another individual verbally. I would be directing myself, so all decisions would be made internally.
“Gimme that wig…”
I began one-?on-?one sessions with Samantha in the studio that she works in Orange Park, FL. The routine she had created was beautifully moving and so dramatic. I got goosebumps every time I rehearsed it.
Production had arrived, and we were more than ready. It was fantastic to see everything come together. Our rental camera, a Sony FS700, was shipped in from Nashville, and Zane learned it quite quickly. Associate Producer Victoria Lover was on set everyday with Ramona, making sure everything was running smoothly. Our make-?up artist Hillary Warren, an old friend of mine, sat down with me every morning and transformed me into a transitioning female. Our art department impressed me so much. Our props and locations fit descriptions perfectly. We had a fantastic gaffer (head lighting guy), Kyle Anderson, who is an incredibly multitalented filmmaker. Other crew members during production included Robert Villalobos, Corey Brooks, and Ericka Comer, all of whom were assets to the team.
We shot the whole film in about 4.5 days for about $1100. It went by in the blink of an eye. We were exhausted, but we were so proud of ourselves and pleased with how it turned out. I felt very confident moving into the editing stage. The deadline for The Student Academy Awards was approaching, so I spent every day working on the film.
Zane and I finished recording the other parts of the music with cellist Andre Washington, violinist Joseph Henderson, and vocalist Jordan Rutter. I spent a couple of days scoring the film and placing the music where it felt right, really developing an expressive track of music out of it all. Our sound engineer, Marc Mangra, beautifully mixed the song and our motion graphics designer, Taylor McCloud, successfully finished his part of the film process as well. Zane colored the final product, enhancing the look of each of the shots and creating a more interesting visual for the screen. Everything was coming together quite nicely.
I was spending so much time on the film that my schedule at work was getting quite spotty. Granted, we could make up our own hours, and if we missed work or something one day, we just had to make it up later that week. I was so appreciative that my boss did not fire me for coming in to work at weird hours those last two crucial weeks of post-production.
After the film was completed, we needed to export it and put it onto DVD to send to The Academy. It was March 29th, and The Academy needed it in their hands by April 1st. We had to hurry in order to send it to them in enough time. Of course, we ran into dozens of technical issues that weekend, from transcoding issues to coloring problems to exporting malfunctions. Many hours of sleep were lost and a lot of hair was ripped out and teeth grinded and fists banged on tables and too much coffee was ingested and then suddenly...everything worked on Sunday night.
Early Monday morning, I woke up and immediately went to FedEx to ship the submission off to The Academy. I was so excited! I was mostly excited to be able to return to reality for a while. I could focus on my other classes and more-?so, work. That first week of April was my spring break, so I would be able to come into work every single day that week and catch up on my projects and still be able to complete them by their deadlines. I put a smile on my face, got in my car, and drove to work, relieved to finally have the film done.
I walked into the office and was immediately fired on the spot. Funny how things work out, right?
Fast forward a month and a half and I’m on the phone, paying my monthly school loan payment. I receive an incoming call from Beverly Hills and my heart drops.
"Hello, this is Shawn from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Is this Drew?"
"Yes! This is me, how's it going?"
"It's going pretty good. I was just calling because I had a question of clarification about your film."
"Okay, sure! What's up?"
"Well I was just wondering if you'd be able to come to Los Angeles for the first week of June because you just won an Academy Award...."
I broke down into tears in the middle of my school’s lobby and people were ?looking at me like someone just died. I told him, “You just made my life!”
And it was totally true.
Drew Brown and Rita Manyette
I spent a whole week in Los Angeles meeting and talking to prominent writers, directors, cinematographers, and Academy board members from all different backgrounds. I was fortunate enough to have a large group of friends accompany me at the awards show, where my Student Oscar was presented to me by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck & Peter Del Vecho, the writers/directors of Disney’s
“Frozen”. It was quite an overwhelming experience.
I met so many amazing filmmakers; professional, as well as the fellow student winners. Everyone had so much insight to give about the industry and also about life itself. At 21, I was the youngest winner out of the other filmmakers, most of whom were graduate students. They took me in as a younger brother and taught me so much.
I don’t know where life will take me. I don’t know where I will end up. I don’t know if I will move to Los Angeles or New York or Atlanta or Australia or Brazil or Germany. I just know that I love what I’ve learned along the way and cannot wait to continue creating for years to come.
And now, I’m sitting on an airplane back to Florida writing this essay about the process of making the film and I’m realizing that it really was quite…magical.
Fifteen student filmmakers from around the world received Academy Awards on Saturday night at the 41st Student Academy Awards ceremony.
The event at the Directors Guild of America featured gold, silver and bronze medals presented by actors Adrian Grenier, Nate Parker and Demian Bichir.
The Oscar-winning directing/producing team from the animated feature Frozen — Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and Peter Del Vecho — were also on hand to give awards.
The Student Academy Awards were started in 1972 to support and encourage excellence in filmmaking at the collegiate level.
Past winners have gone onto receive 46 Oscar nominations and have won or shared eight awards — including John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Robert Zemeckis, Trey Parker and Spike Lee.
The 2014 Student Academy Award winners are:
Gold Medal: Person, Drew Brown, The Art Institute of Jacksonville, Fla.