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Hollywood cinematographer works with UMPI students on film project

The University of Maine at Presque Isle became a working movie set between Dec. 8 and 14 as students in Cathie Pelletier’s screenwriting class brought their script to life with the help of a Hollywood cinematographer and a cast and crew hailing from Fort Kent to Portland. 

Students in the course Screenwriting and the Filmmaker’s Life, taught by award-winning writer Cathie Pelletier, had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with Zoran Popovic – the cinematographer for the 2008 film War, Inc., which stars John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff and Ben Kingsley. Popovic and Pelletier – who has written nine novels and had two of them turned into movies – had collaborated on a film project in the past, so when Pelletier asked Popovic this fall if he would be interested in coming to Maine and working as a director on a short film with her students, he agreed to make the trip.

Popovic’s visit and the movie project he and Pelletier oversaw helped students to get a first-hand understanding of what it takes to turn a screenplay into a movie. The students, as well as several volunteer crew members, local thespians and actors from both ends of the state, worked long days and many late nights to film all the scenes in their 20-minute-long short film, titled The Proposal.

The comedy is about a young man, played by Jason LeSaldo of Fort Kent, who wants to propose to the girl of his dreams, played by Sara Harvey who is originally from Allagash, in a fancy restaurant, but the waiter, played by Portland-based actor Matt Delameter, gets in the way. Supporting roles were filled by local thespians, and University staff and students, including Cissy Libby, Rod Thompson, Keith Madore, Erin Pelletier and David Dekay.

Most of the filming was done in the basement of the University President’s house, which was transformed into a fancy restaurant, “CafĂ© L’Amour,” for the movie. Set design was overseen by Tom Viorikic, who has worked with Popovic on a past film project. Students and volunteers filled in wherever help was needed: holding lights, assisting the director, fetching props, checking for continuity – everything that needs to be done on a professional movie set. The film schedule was grueling, but students said it gave them a true appreciation of all the work that has to happen to make a movie.

The short film served as the capstone project for Pelletier’s screenwriting class, which also included learning the fundamentals of screenwriting, working on individual screenplays, and speaking by phone with professionals in the movie industry, including actress Lolita Davidovich (Blaze) and producer/director George Stevens, Jr. (Separate But Equal), about how they approach a screenplay.

Pelletier’s class also helped to launch the University’s new Film Studies Program, available for the first time this fall for students who want to study film as an aesthetic art form as well as its commercial, educational and political implications. Professors Richard Zuras and Clifton Boudman are directing the Film Studies program under the English and Art degrees. Officials see the film project as an amazing opportunity for students taking classes in the program to work with movie professionals and get hands-on filmmaking experience.

While the filming and the class are a wrap, there is still much editing work to do to complete The Proposal. And as luck would have it, Pelletier and her class are getting expert help with that part of the project, too: Popovic said he enjoyed working on the UMPI film project so much that he’d like to handle the editing of the film personally.

Once the editing process is complete, the University will host a formal screening of the film in Wieden Auditorium this coming spring.