Quite a production is made over students' movie

School, businesses pitch in to help with thriller made for class

May 28, 2006|By DAVID P. GREISMAN | DAVID P. GREISMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For a school project, Nick Ruff and Ron Hahn spent eight months traveling on highways and back roads with a serial killer.

Documenting the exploits of a fictional murderer and a prospective victim, filmmakers Ruff and Hahn turned the lens on a suspense-filled road trip through rural Missouri.

The pair directed, edited and starred in September Destination, a feature-length thriller filmed in Carroll County for their video production class at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center.

The movie follows Nate Waters (Ruff) after he picks up hitchhiker Lyle Smith (Hahn).

The pair initially bond over their shared journey, but reports of a serial killer slaughtering area travelers makes each man suspicious of the other.

Meanwhile, FBI agents have started investigating after the discovery of a third victim. The investigation parallels the mystery of the travelers, heightening tension while delaying identification of the killer.

"I knew that there were a lot of other hitchhiker serial-killer movies," said Ruff, 17, a senior at Westminster High School. "I wanted to do something different with having both characters conceal something from each other."

September Destination premiered May 16 at an invitation-only audience of about 250 at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster.

The audience donated $277 to the filmmakers, who used the money to pay for the center's rental and to make DVD copies of the movie for the actors and crew, said David Hutchison, print and video production teacher at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center.

Hutchison played the part of FBI agent Robert Peterson and was executive producer.

"I didn't think it would be as big as it's gotten," said Hahn, 18, a senior at Westminster High. "We were giving autographs" at school.

The premiere was the culmination of more than 700 hours of planning, filming and editing. What began as a two-person independent study expanded into collaborations with local businesses about filming locations and using volunteer actors and crew from Hutchison's classes.

"It started off being something really simple, like a small project, then it exploded," said Jason Roles, 18, a senior at Francis Scott Key High School who worked as an actor and key grip. "It was like a big event. It was our own."

Although Ruff and Hahn had access to $22,000 worth of computers, editing software, cameras and equipment from Hutchison's classroom, the pair also invested $3,000 of their own money on hard drives, digital tapes, an additional camera and other equipment.

"I had a lot of money saved up," said Hahn, who quit his job at a local fast-food restaurant to dedicate more time to the project. "I felt the movie was more important. Now I'm broke."

Working on the film gave them an opportunity to augment their limited experience with short films they had made the previous year in Hutchison's video production class.

Ruff, Hahn and their crew learned while doing.

"I loved being the cameraman," said Derek Miller, 18, a senior at Westminster High. "I didn't always know what I was doing, [but] I figured it out. I learned it; I had help."

During filming, Ruff and Hahn devised solutions for maintaining continuity during the changing seasons, as well as solving the problem of Ruff being cast as the driver but not having a license to legally do so.

"We had to halt shooting for a week for snow," Hahn said. "We mainly filmed inside in winter."

For a majority of the driving scenes, Ruff and Hahn framed the picture to give the illusion that Ruff was behind the wheel.

Although Hahn was driving, his hands remained low on the steering wheel, off-screen. And in most of Ruff's scenes, his arm is extended out of view but not actually grasping anything. By flipping the image, Ruff appears to be sitting on the driver's side with Hahn as his passenger.

Hahn's truck, a 1994 white Toyota pickup, conformed to the film's 1995 setting.

The action occurs in the past because "a lot of today's technology undermines the movie," Hutchison said. "Things happen to you today, you can just pick up your cell phone. If you were hitchhiking [in 1995], you were pretty much on your own."

The hundreds of hours working together produced a partnership. Ruff and Hahn often finished each other's sentences when they were describing how they had made the film. In the fall, both will attend Villa Julie College in Baltimore County.

After their high school graduation June 10, Ruff and Hahn hope to add deleted scenes from the movie, outtakes and a commentary track to their DVD. They also will remove copyrighted music, hoping to submit the movie to contests and film festivals.

"This is probably the biggest and best thing I've ever done in my life," Ruff said. "I was living a boring high school life. When we picked up this project, I was like, `Wow, I've got something to do.'"

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