Cover Story: Making the Big Screens

Fri, 2012-04-27 00:55 -- batch_migrate

Alumni Rendition of Red Riding Hood hits the big screens

By Deborah Lilly

The Edwards children grew up wanting to be storytellers. They began with puppet shows and then advanced to the tape recorder to create their own version of radio shows. “But when I discovered our Super Eight camera, that became our ultimate storytelling medium,” says Cory BA ’90. “I have to credit my parents [James Edwards BA ’65 MDiv ’70 and Deanna (Monteith) Edwards BA ’65] so much because they really took our creative ambition seriously,” says Katie (Edwards) Hooten BA ’96 “I don’t think a lot of parents take their kids seriously at that age.”

But Deanna drove Cory, Katie, and Todd BA ’94 to the library where they could check out books on filmmaking. When they needed a shot of the bad guy getting away, Deanna would put on a big hat and drive away in the car. When they needed to shoot on location, she took them to the park. Their first film was called Movie Stuff. “There was no real story to it,” says Todd. “We just experimented with the camera and did some special effects kind of things.”

Next they did a superhero movie called Captain Lightning. “Cory directed that one and I played the bad guy,” Todd explains. Then Todd directed Crime Doesn’t Pay, styled after the Laurel and Hardy comedy shows. Then there was the action adventure about a hero named Jack Francisco. “Cory always got to play the hero for some reason,” remembers Todd. “We were all the bad guys.” But they did more than star in their films. They storyboarded the shots, built the sets, designed costumes, recruited neighborhood kids as extras. “It taught us to have patience with a long-term project,” Cory says.

Meanwhile in another part of Ohio, Preston Stutzman BA ’92 and a neighborhood friend planned a movie of their own. They borrowed a camera, created sets from Styrofoam, and recruited their Star Wars action figures as the actors.

“That’s about as far as we got,” says Preston. “I realized later we were like two producers. We had no creative person, nobody with the passion of wanting to tell a specific story.” They blew up the sets with fireworks instead. While Preston didn’t have the passion as a child to study the movie industry, he and his younger sister, Trinda (Stutzman) Cole BA ’94, played around with their parents’ video camera. “We would pretend we were news people or would act out something from a movie,” Preston remembers. Cory, Todd, Katie, and Preston all ended up at Anderson University. Cory and Todd met Preston through Dativus, the sponsor of the infamous “Cheap Thrills” comedy show on campus. Cory and Todd knew they were bound for the film industry. Cory majored in broadcasting and minored in art, and Todd majored in art.

While AU does not have a film studies program, Todd says, “It was actually a good choice because I was able to do a lot that I might not have been able to do at other schools. I got a lot of support from my professors to do film-related projects.”

Cory agrees. “I took classes that really helped me at AU, but “Cheap Thrills” was one of those non-curricular things that probably prepared me as well as anything for what I do now.”

Preston played his part in “Cheap Thrills,” but he never thought he was destined for the film industry. When he came to Anderson University, he majored in marketing and computer science, planning for a career in business. It wasn’t until after graduation while working at Warner Press that he decided to join the movie industry. Todd called him one day from Tulsa, Okla., and said, “We’re thinking about starting a company out here, and we want you to come out and be in charge of marketing.” Preston says, “It was a pretty easy decision.” He left his job at Warner Press and joined Blue Yonder Films along with Cory, Todd, Brad Knull BA ’92, and Rob Yanovitch. Preston’s parents, Dick and Vernane, were skeptical of their son’s sudden move into the film industry, but they were supportive. “They had instilled in me enough self-worth and confidence that I knew I could do it. I knew it was going to work out.”

The beginning of Blue Yonder Films

For several years before Blue Yonder, Cory worked at Stephen Yake Productions in Tulsa making commercials and music videos. Todd joined him after he graduated from college. “We started Blue Yonder initially to get client work as a kind of warm-up to making films,” Todd explains.

In the beginning, Blue Yonder Films was an idea run out of an apartment in Tulsa. While their first jobs were commercials, they never lost sight of the fact that they wanted to be filmmakers. In 1996, they took out a $25,000 loan and spent eight days shooting a six-minute short called “Swanky Nights.” In January 1997, they flew to Los Angeles and began showing it around. “We killed ourselves to make it,” says Cory.

“The reason we did,” adds Preston, “is we didn’t want to go out to L.A. with only a script. We didn’t want to be viewed as just writers. We wanted to show that we had directors and producers. We had a company.” “We had quite a bit of success with that little tape as far as getting attention,” says Todd. “We got our foot into a lot of doors that we wouldn’t have otherwise.” Eventually, “Swanky Nights” got them an agent. In 1997, Blue Yonder Films created its first feature-length movie, Chillicothe. Written and directed by Todd, the movie is about six friends facing life after college. The film was successful enough to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999.

“I thought getting into Sundance would mean things would take off for us. It didn’t,” says Todd. They had a few more years of growing pains before another opportunity as big as Sundance would come along.

Taking her own leap of faith

In the meantime, Katie was earning her own place in the film industry. As a college student at AU, Katie was interested in the film industry but questioned what was realistic as a future career. She finally settled on a major in secondary education with an emphasis on drama. She learned all aspects of the theatre but found that her love was acting.

For her first job after college, she managed the Phillippe Performing Arts Center at Indiana Wesleyan University. At the same time, she earned her master’s degree at Ball State University in community education with an emphasis on the arts. Then she took a leap of faith. With the full support of her husband, Tim Hooten BA ’95, MDiv ’98, she moved to Los Angeles. “I told myself that I was going to give it five years without even asking if I’m doing the right thing,” Katie says. “I’m so glad I made that promise to myself.”

As much as she loved acting, her passion is storytelling. “I quickly realized out here that actors don’t get to make the artistic decisions. They are not involved in the process unless they are playing a dual role of an actor and director or an actor and producer.”

Katie freelanced for a while and then found a job with Disney Studios and worked there for three years. She started as an assistant in post-production, was promoted to a coordinator, and then to assistant production manager. Her biggest project at Disney was managing the animation for a brand new song for the Lion King DVD when it came out four years ago. She then joined Blue Yonder Films on its production of Hoodwinked in 2003 as an associate producer, which led to a partnership with Blue Yonder Films in 2005. “I had hoped that I would work with my brothers someday,” Katie says. But she never wanted to work with them simply because she was their sister. “I knew it would take awhile for me to earn the experience and to have something to offer them.” The skills she learned at Disney lent to the production of Hoodwinked.

A fairytale challenge

Cory, Todd, and Preston, the remaining partners of Blue Yonder Films, moved to Los Angeles in 1999 after two years of making monthly trips from Tulsa to Los Angeles. To make ends meet, Cory worked as a stand-up comic, Todd sold some of his paintings, and he and Preston worked a stint as editors for the Game Show Network. Occasionally Blue Yonder Films would shoot a commercial for a client. “But most of my effort was put into developing film projects and chasing lead after lead for funding,” Todd says. “It was kind of like not getting paid to do a full-time job. And this was after having a film at Sundance.”

Then they met Maurice Kanbar. Kanbar is an inventor and also a great supporter of the arts, especially the independent film industry. He saw Blue Yonder’s direct-to-DVD Christmas animated story Wobots and agreed to meet with the Blue Yonder partners. They came to Kanbar with ideas for live-action films, but Kanbar, a fan of animation, was so impressed with Wobots he challenged Blue Yonder to take a fairy tale, put a twist on it, turn it into an animated movie script, and meet back with him in a month. If he liked it, he would finance the project.

It wasn’t what they had planned. “But we decided let’s just do it and make it the best it can be and make it something we would want to watch and be proud of,” says Todd.

For the first time, Todd and Cory were partnered with each other as writers. They checked every Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale out of the library. They finally settled on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but they needed a twist.

“I thought, ‘What would Quentin Tarantino do?’” Todd remembers. And then he came up with the twist: treat Little Red Riding Hood as if it were a crime drama and retell the story from the perspective of each of the characters — Little Red Riding Hood, Granny, the Wolf, and the Woodsman. Production for Hoodwinked began in an apartment, with the voices being read by their friends. But as it went along, the scope of the project grew. Blue Yonder Films found an animation team in Manila to generate the images. Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who recently developed their own company, agreed to distribute the film. Actors Glenn Close, Anne Hathaway, Andy Dick, Patrick Warburton, Jim Belushi, and David Ogden Stiers signed on to do the voices. Hoodwinked will be released mid January.

Hoodwinked was a three-year project in the making. The Blue Yonder partners say the project took twice as long as they planned, but the finished film is also twice as good. Besides writing the script, Cory was the director and Todd was a co-director for the film. Todd also wrote nine original songs for Hoodwinked and reads the voices for two of the film’s minor characters. Cory is the voice of Twitchy the Squirrel, the Wolfe’s excitable sidekick. Preston is a producer and does one of the voices for the pig cops. Katie is an associate producer for the movie. Tye Edwards BA ’95, a cousin to the Edwards siblings, does the voice of Dolph, one of the bad guys, and Benjy Gaither BA ’92 is the voice for Japeth the singing mountain goat.

After 10 years, the Blue Yonder partners have seen the advantages of working together rather than independently. “We are really tough on each other as far as the quality of our work,” Cory says. “We are fully invested in making each other better. I think I would have settled for a lot less by this time if I hadn’t had these guys to challenge me.”

Now that they’ve hit screens across the nation, Todd and Cory hope to be able to work on their own individual projects simultaneously. “We’re individual visionaries,” says Cory. “We’re not a brother team. We co-wrote and directed together on this project because of the unique opportunity. But Todd can easily spearhead his own ideas and I can easily spearhead my own ideas. And that gives Preston and Katie the opportunity to start regulating new development, possibly bringing in other filmmakers or other writers. That’s why we’re Blue Yonder.”

For right now, Cory, Todd, Preston, and Katie are excited about where they’re at in their careers in the film industry. “Here I am 34 years old and I’m doing what I pictured myself doing as a kid,” says Todd. “I might not be as far along as I thought I would be, but it’s all happening. It’s just a great feeling.”

Gaither gives voice to singing mountain goat

Among focus groups, one of the favorite Hoodwinked characters is Japeth the singing goat, voiced by Benjy Gaither BA ’92. In the story, Japeth takes Red Riding Hood, who is lost, on a dangerous roller coaster ride to Grandma’s house.

“I just sang like I thought a goat would sing,” Gaither says. “It takes a lot of energy to sing like a goat.”

Benjy, a songwriter, musician, and CEO of Livebait Entertainment, is a childhood friend of the Edwardses. “My family had one of the first video cameras,” Benjy remembers. “Todd and Cory would come over for a week at a time during the summer, and we would make movies.”

By the time he came to Anderson University, Benjy was more interested in the music side of the entertainment industry. He traveled with his band on weekends during college and by graduation had signed on with a record label.

Benjy recorded and traveled for six years. It was the traveling that ultimately prompted him to give up performing. “It just eats so much time out of your life,” says Benjy. He would spend hours on the bus thinking, “I could be doing something else.” Benjy left the road to form Livebait Entertainment, a company that produces animated programs for kids, including the “Homecoming Kids” and the “Gaithers Pond” series. Livebait also produced and did the animation for Wobots, the made-for-DVD Christmas program written and directed by Cory that prompted Maurice Kanbar to fund a Blue Yonder project.

Benjy has big dreams for Livebait Entertainment. “Ultimately, we want to do film,” he explains. His company is looking for funding for a couple of movie projects and has been talking to networks about series ideas. “I see Livebait being a mini Dreamworks at some point.”

In the meantime, he’s a favorite among kids who see Hoodwinked and enjoy the antics of a dancing and singing mountain goat.