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lights, camera, action!

The undergraduate film club Nightfall raises its profile after a Spring Break spent shooting on Cape Cod.

By Matthew Callahan, Crimson Staff Writer

A filmmaking club at Harvard. It seems like such a good idea that it is astonishing to learn that the only one currently in existence was started this February. However, it has been a rocky road from being a bright idea to being a functioning club, revealing part of the reason why Nightfall is the only such club to survive so far.

The idea for Nightfall sprang into existence when Cabot House resident Brooks A. Newkirk ’03 found himself unexpectedly alone for a three-day trip over Thanksgiving Break, after his traveling companion got sick and dropped out. Left with a long bus ride during which to think, Newman decided that Harvard needed an outlet for all the creativity that wasn’t being channeled through the Visual and Environmental Sciences (VES) department. He explains: “This is a club for people who don’t study film, but who love to make films. So, we sort of do it by moonlighting. Hence, after night. Hence ‘Nightfall.’”

Newkirk applied to get Nightfall recognized as a student group last October. James Lawler, who also lived in Cabot House, heard about Newkirk’s idea and approached him bearing a screenplay called Angel Walk that he had written over the summer at a Harvard screenwriting workshop. Newkirk accepted the script gratefully and the two waited for approval on the club.

And waited. And waited. The club was finally approved on Feb. 22, three days after the deadline for applying for money from the College. So Nightfall was now Harvard’s only undergraduate filmmaking society, but without any way to make a film. “We needed a camera so that we could makes some films, so we would have something to show people to convince them to give us money so we could get a camera. There were Catch-22s all over the place,” Newkirk says.

Since Nightfall had been born in Cabot House, it was only fitting that the solution should come from there too, in the form of Cabot House Master Jim Ware. Ware generously agreed to put up the money for a Sony VX-2000 Digital Camcorder, which is at the low end of the professional video spectrum. Newkirk himself paid for the computer and editing equipment. And Lawler put up the money for the “Angel Walk” shoot. Out of these acts of charity (and many others), Nightfall was born.

“A lot of people were frustrated with the VES department, because their emphasis is so strongly on nonfiction filmmaking,” says Newkirk, a former VES major himself, who subsequently switched to physics. “It is a club for all people, including VES people, but it was made by non-VES people.” Newkirk found himself doing non-fiction filmmaking again when Ware and Newkirk worked out the conditions for Cabot House to buy the digital camera: 1) It would be for use by Cabot House students only, 2) Cabot House students would have to make three short films a year, and 3) someone would have to make two nonfiction films for Cabot House: a film of the House musical, which is The Wiz this year, and a documentary on senior life in Cabot House, to be presented on May 1 at the Cabot House Senior Dinner. Newkirk put his own screenplays on the back burner and agreed to film both The Wiz and the documentary. The job was complicated by the budget constraints: zero dollars. “I sort of agreed to do the jobs no one else wanted to do,” says Newkirk.

However, in spite of the budgetary constraints, Nightfall still needed some more equipment to begin filming: a tripod and a sound system. The sound equipment came from yet another Cabot House member, George M. Collins ’01. “George was really involved with a lot of VES projects and had some great equipment,” says Newkirk. “He was very helpful to us.” The sound equipment was supplemented by a surprise purchase by one of Newkirk’s roommates. Says Newkirk, “I came back from break and suddenly, hey! There’s a tripod.”

Newkirk then began work gathering footage of Cabot House seniors for the documentary. Over Spring Break, Lawler and a five-person crew went down to Cape Cod to film his screenplay of Angel Walk. They had a cast that included Harvard students and some members of the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG). The Screen Actors’ Guild has what they call a “Student Contract,” which allows student films to pay less than scale for actors. In the case of Angel Walk, this meant paying them nothing, since Lawler was personally responsible for all the costs associated with Angel Walk. He nearly bankrupted himself paying for it, in what became a theme of the early days of Nightfall.

The cast and crew worked for four days on the Cape shooting the film, almost 20 hours each day. “You can’t be going to school and doing that,” says Lawler. One of the SAG members, Carolyn, was playing the part of a mother grieving for the death of her child. “She was great,” says Lawler. In order to prepare for the role, Carol shorted herself on food and sleep, dyed her hair and read several books on the psychology of losing a child. “For free, too,” adds Lawler with a laugh.

In spite of the difficulties of shooting the script, Lawler was overjoyed to finally be finishing his dream. “It’s like having an orgasm for six days,” he says. “I just...I love doing it.” He looks forward eagerly to The Great Givendi, his next fiction film, to be shot over the summer. He is being joined on this project by Catherine Sheehan, the co-writer and producer of Givendi, and Julia Reischel, who is doing the casting for the film.

But as mystically as the equipment had come together for the club, it disappeared. The camera was sitting in the room of one of the members in Cabot House, and the student left to go to the bathroom, believing he had locked his door. He returned to find the camera missing.

Unable to meet the requirement of finishing the Cabot House documentary, and having lost the House’s investment, the future of Nightfall seemed dismal. Fortunately, the student from whose room the camera was stolen was covered by his parents’ home-owner’s insurance, which insured everything as long as it was stolen from him, even if it didn’t belong to him. So, logistical problems with the insurance company aside, the money is forthcoming. Still, even though Cabot House would now be reimbursed for its loss, the House was far from certain that it wished to reinvest its funds in another camera. The first one had been around for about two months, hardly a great stretch of time. There were worries that another investment might disappear similarly. “Of course, we didn’t doubt that we could handle it. But they did. Which makes sense,” says Newkirk. Agreements have been made, however, so that as soon as the insurance money is forthcoming Cabot House will indeed invest in another camera.

Luckily (as lucky as things can be under the circumstances), the camera contained no tapes when it was stolen, so none of the recently-shot Angel Walk was lost. Lawler continues postproduction on it, since in the time between cameras it is the only project on which substantial progress can be made.

This summer, Lawler and Catherine Sheehan, one of the other producers in the club, are going to be shooting their screenplay of The Great Givendi, probably at the end of August. Newkirk will also be in Cambridge this summer, and hopes to shoot a short screenplay of his own.

As for the future of the club, Newkirk and Lawler envision something more communitarian in nature, whereby projects would all be submitted to a central board and then voted on. As it is now, the club is still in a transitional process, as evidenced by the last item on its constitution, which makes the proviso that “Given that this club is new, and similar clubs have failed for organizational problems, the anatomy of the club may be completely reworked to improve efficiency.” Newkirk amplifies the concerns. “That’s where we think the club will go,” he says. “If people want to come out now, they should just show up. It’s not like we’re going to turn anyone away.”

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