Celluloid Dogs

CGS students clean up at the Redstone Film Festival.

At o’dark in the morning, the skipper and his crew of two are making repairs to the boat. They set out onto the blue-gray ocean under a blue-gray sky, the occasional glimmer of bright yellow sunlight sparkling on the waves and the salty spray. In waterproof overalls, the weathered fishermen, one with a thin cigar clenched between his teeth, pilot the boat, place dying fish in cages and drop them into the ocean, take radar readings and jot notes in pencil, break for lunch, return to spots to drag up cages now filled with lobsters, toss the tiny ones back, stack the saleable ones in tubs of water, brush-wash the boat’s interior, pull into dock, and hand off crates of clawed crustaceans to waiting delivery trucks as the sun sets.

The men hardly speak. Practically the only sounds are the hum of the boat’s motor, the cry of the seagulls that follow the boat around hoping for a nibble of bait, the soft roar of the ocean—and the classic rock sounds of Bowie, Zeppelin, Wings, and Warren Zevon crackling across the harbor from WZLX.

This is the working life of three fishermen from Winthrop, Massachusetts, as captured by Zack McGeehan (CGS’09, COM’11) and Dimitri Kouri (CGS’09, COM’11).

Their short documentary, Salty Dogs, took first prize at the 2011 Redstone Film Festival, Boston University’s answer to the Oscars. McGeehan was the cinematographer, and Kouri the sound engineer and editor. The win netted them $2,000, as well as industry notice.

Furthermore, Kouri, McGeehan, and director Steve Ohl (CGS’09, COM’11), along with writer Michael Nusbaum (COM’11), took third prize in the L.A. edition of the festival, Redstone West, with ¿Qué? The black comedy about Hispanic day laborers and the murderous suburbanite who hires them was also a finalist in the Boston festival. (There were six final films in all.)

On top of that, Ohl served as assistant director and Kouri worked as sound editor for Your Way Home, which took second prize on both coasts, and Ohl acted in September, another Boston finalist. That means CGS alums were creative forces in two thirds of the 2011 Redstone films.

The long-running festival is sponsored by Viacom Chair Sumner Redstone (Hon.’94). In Boston and L.A., the entries are judged by film biz veterans. Past winners include Bourne Identity producer Richard Gladstein (CGS’81, COM’83).

Working hard, working together

When Ohl was a freshman, his skills caught the eye of Natalie McKnight, a professor and the chair of CGS’s humanities division.

“He was producing films for the oral report assignments I gave,” McKnight recalls. “Fantastic, well-crafted, really thoughtful, very high production-value films, particularly for a humanities ethics class, not a film class.” And this was well before Ohl had access to the facilities at COM.

McKnight decided to start the CGS Film Festival (which continues today) and urged Ohl to enter. He submitted a film, as did Kouri, both winning awards. Sophomore year, Ohl won the Best Director title.

“CGS was huge for me,” says Ohl. “Because I wasn’t even entirely sure that I was going to go the film route when I entered college.”

Ohl, Kouri, McGeehan, and classmate Jonathan Zielske (CGS’09, COM’11) all enrolled in COM junior year. They had been friendly with one another at CGS, and they soon began working together in their COM courses.

“We were like-minded people and we all had similar tastes and interests,” says Ohl.

McGeehan adds, “We wanted to make sure that we were working with people who were going to work hard, and that we were comfortable with each other’s work and wouldn’t have to work out any kinks in terms of getting along and playing our roles,” as each student discovered his particular strength.

The four CGS alumni, along with a few other film students, formed 18% Productions with the aim of making films that are “as non-‘student’ as possible,” says McGeehan. The members of 18% Productions (a reference to a camera-calibration technique) have since collaborated to produce a variety of thrillers and other short films. Salty Dogs and ¿Qué? have garnered the most attention thus far.

Laconic lobstermen

McGeehan found the subjects for the narrative documentary Salty Dogs late last fall at the Boston Harbor Marina, in East Boston. The skipper agreed to take him and Kouri out on a few trips, with the understanding that if they got seasick, he wasn’t turning back to shore for their sake. “It’s a 12-hour commitment,” says Kouri.

“There isn’t a lot of dialogue, because they really didn’t say much,” says McGeehan of the film’s protagonists.

“But that turned out to be one of the most interesting parts,” adds Kouri, who knew even when he was recording the sound that the boat’s real-life soundtrack of classic-rock radio would work well. “Beautifully photographed and expertly edited,” as one Redstone judge put it, the drab-gray scenes of lonely, monotonous work are lent poignancy by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” (“Ground control to Major Tom….”) It’s a song you’ve heard a million times before, but over these images, its first-listen power returns and these fishermen seem adrift, on a mission far from home. “They get pretty far out there,” says Kouri. “We couldn’t see Boston.”

In a few months, the film has been viewed 29,000 times on 18% Productions’ Vimeo site, and viewers have left glowing praise in the comments section. An early commenter (“Great job, Dimitri! And wow, you picked lobstermen and lobsters of all things!”) was Kari Lavalli, Kouri’s CGS science professor—and an expert on lobsters. “That made my day,” says Kouri.

Works well with others

Two aspects of CGS help foster creative collaboration, says McKnight. First, teamwork. “One of the great things about CGS is that students are put on teams, and they take a lot of classes together throughout the year and get to know and bond with one another. And if you are a filmmaker and have group projects to do, it helps to have a pool of people you’ve established relationships with, who can be actors, et cetera, in your film production.”

Second, creative assignments. “We all try to get students to do creative work in addition to papers. I’ll ask them to dramatize ethics in my class,” McKnight continues.

Not to mention, CGS hosts regular film screenings followed by lectures. “They show a lot of films—a lot of good films,” remembers Ohl.

What’s next?

Postgraduation plans for the members of 18% Productions, as for most college seniors, are murky. At the least, they say, when one of them gets work on a film, video, or commercial, he will try to bring the others on board. But the students realize the limitations of prognostications. “We’re all super young,” says Ohl, “and even when I talk about where I want to go with film, I know that next year my perspective could be completely different. We’re constantly changing, and we’re still too early in development to know where this thing will go.”

Nevertheless, Kouri tells Collegian, “I’m optimistic there will be a feature film with ‘18% Productions’ on it within the next five years.”

Two weeks later, Kouri calls back with the news that the future is already here: 18% Productions begins work on a full-length feature film this summer.

Follow 18% Productions’ projects at www.vimeo.com/eighteenpercent.

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