In the dark of the studio

 Click here to view the Sleepless Cities behind the scenes photo gallery. 

On Saturday, April 14 at approximately 3 p.m., an adult man was killed at one of the university’s learning facilities in cold blood. The suspect was about six-feet-tall, dressed in a vest and pants. The murder occurred in the midst of 20 or so on-lookers, who saw the murderer fight the victim fiercely before the latter was stabbed in the stomach with the suspect’s sword. The victim fell to his knees with a yell and collapsed, lifeless, on the floor. A few seconds later, a man watching the fight from an HDTV on a table a few feet away yelled a three-lettered word, and the onlookers, who up to this moment had been petrified, burst into movement. The victim got up on his feet and conversed with the perpetrator, miming key moments in the fight as the set around them was prepared for another take. 

The man at the HDTV is Steven Hendrix, fresh-faced, easy-going and sporting a tribal graphic T-shirt, jeans and skater shoes. He speaks to his assistant director quietly about the take, lost in intense reflection over what he just saw on-screen and how it connects with the other shots in the film. Once he’s processed the lingering take, he speaks to his actors, makes adjustments, has a word with his director of photography, Ricardo Palomares, and orders action. 

Hendrix is a radio-television-film senior and native Austinite directing “Sleepless Cities,” a short film written by recent RTF graduate Zach Endres and produced by fellow senior Irene Georghiades. The film follows Imogen (Rachel Myhill) in her quest to avenge her murdered father from the fierce Ulysses (Aaron Alexander), who killed him while taking control of Imogen’s land. As a director, Hendrix oversees the creative vision of the entire project, from pre-production to distribution, all the while guiding the actors to preform their roles in a way that works thorughout the entire film. Beyond that, Hendrix takes charge of balancing out all of the problems that, and he says this with confident if not slightly reproachful certitude, “will occur.”

Sleepless Cities is one of 12 undergraduate RTF thesis films being produced this semester, all of which will be screened on May 11, at 2 p.m. in the CMB’s Studio 6A. The thesis class is only offered once every year, in the Spring, and provides the time and resources for student filmmakers to amass a film that will hopefully compile and showcase all that they’ve learned in their time at the university. As the crowning project of a student’s university career, the film serves as a sort of bridge between the student and the professional filmmaking worlds. It becomes a sort of calling card, and as any agent or talent scout or famous producer who may glance upon the film in the festival circuit or elsewhere will tell you, that card better be good.

This is not the first time that the Endres-Georghiades-Hendrix trifecta has made a film. They have collaborated before, first without Hendrix in “The Teleported Man,” which won the Esurance Audience Award at the 2012 Austin Film Festival, and later in a short called “Rough Waters,” which premiered on The Longhorn Network in March earlier this year. 

“The crew members were friends I’ve been working with for years,” Georghiades said in an email. “The difference was the scale of production.”

She refers in part to the temple that sits furtively on the sixth floor of the CMB, that, if viewed from the outside, is merely wood and textured paint and hours and hours and hands upon hands of laborious efforts. Yet from within it’s hard to deny that one is not inside an ancient building corroded by time and grime. 

Though lots of student short films are produced in the RTF program every year, not very many build and furnish massive sets, have their fight sequences choreographed by professionals, or have their own blood effects crew standing by. 

“The scope of ‘Sleepless Cities’ was bigger than anything I’ve produced to date,” Georghiades said. “The size of the crew, script content and location challenges all contributed to the difficulty of production, and at the same time the feeling of accomplishment when we wrapped.”

The producer wasn’t the only one challenged by ‘Sleepless Cities.’ Endres, who had a script go through to the second round of the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition, a coveted accomplishment, also treaded new ground in the project. While usually dealing with a character’s internal struggles, and often writing drama and black comedy, Endres found himself shifting gears for this particular screenplay. 

“This is the first time I’ve had the chance to fully realize an alternate reality, a new world,” Endres said in an email. “And this is the first time I’ve written an ‘action’ film. 

Though “Sleepless Cities” is bountiful in  action sequences, Endres tried to ensurethat these were not gratuitous. He described the film as a conversation between two adversaries that, while sporting a good amount of action, also displays his own tendency toward more cerebral work. 

“Sleepless Cities” incorporates elements from director Hendrix’s past work. The combination of heavy dramatic moments, dark humor and the fantasy/adventure tale complete with fighting and blood are things he’s used to and builds on in his thesis. Thinking of the projects he’s made since starting the RTF program, and even on some of his commercial work, he sees a pattern. 

“I love creating content and bringing fresh ideas to life,” Hendrix said by email. “Of course, once you start making movies it stays in your blood forever. Now if anybody will ever watch them, that’s a different story.”

Here, Hendrix arrives at the point that many RTF students often find themselves fighting. In the information age, it is much easier to distribute fresh work to eager eyes. But how to reach the right crowd, the one that will appreciate the film the most, and maybe even the crowd that will help monetize it and future projects, remains a mystery. The sets, the effort, the time; none of it comes cheap. Crowdsourcing has helped a great amount of filmmakers foot the bill in recent years. “Sleepless Cities” raised $3,080.00 On Indiegogo. But a clear path toward professional fiction filmmaking remains elusive. 

This doesn’t faze Hendrix too much, at least for now. 

“In the end, if I did my job right, you’re thinking a little bit,” Hendrix said. “Questioning what you watched as well.” 

And in the controlled darkness of the set, as the next take unfurled following a cry for action, the film had found its first audience.

Check out the trailer here

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Correction: The first version of this article mentioned that Endres, Georghiades and Hendrix had worked together on "The Teleported Man", which is not true. Only Endres and Georghiades worked on that film. The article has been corrected for accuracy.