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February 24, 2014

ODU Entrepreneurial Film Project to Produce Feature-length Psychological Thriller

feature1-lg"The Ballerina" movie poster
feature1-lgBSteve Pullen
By Jon Cawley

"The Ballerina" is the story of a desperate father's struggle to rescue his daughter from the torment of nightmarish apparitions. In March, production begins at Old Dominion on the feature-length movie, which represents an "unprecedented" entrepreneurial collaboration between film industry professionals and faculty, staff and students.

The ODU faculty-led project is centered on Steve Pullen, an associate professor and chair of the College of Arts and Letters' Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, who wrote the script and will direct the film, which is currently in the fundraising stage. ODU has provided about half of the production's budget and Pullen aims to raise the rest through a crowdsourcing campaign at Indiegogo.com - which has less than two weeks remaining - so production can move forward as planned without having to be scaled back.

"There is a sense of urgency to get the word out," Pullen said, of the fundraising effort. "The big challenge is to get the message out. We'd like the ODU community to see the project, get excited and spread the word."

Pullen said "The Ballerina" has an effective budget of $1 million, but will actually cost a fraction of that due to contributions of time and talent by faculty and staff, including Mark Hieronimus, an adjunct professor of film at ODU and the project's producer; Amanda Kinzer, an associate professor and ODU Dance Program director; and David Mallin, an assistant professor and director of ODU's film program. In addition, the project will use a state-of-the-art soundstage at ODU's Goode Theatre to shoot the film's interior scenes over a 24-day period next month. The student crew is composed of volunteers with varying commitments to the movie and others who are enrolled in feature film production and cinematography classes and will be required to work 12-hour days on set for at least 10 days of the production.

"We're going to run them ragged," Pullen said, of production requirements that will mirror the demands students, who pursue film careers, will experience after graduation.

Pullen ultimately hopes to sell distribution rights to the finished film in order to fund future projects that will serve as the foundation of a burgeoning film school at ODU.

"This is unprecedented," he said. "Students will get to have the opportunity to work side by side with professionals. That doesn't happen at the best film schools. Usually they shoot films with all-student crews. We're not throwing them into the deep end, so they will learn a lot more."

In "The Ballerina," the father, Glenn, is determined to rescue his young daughter, Sophia, from frightening and tormenting apparitions. Pullen describes it as a psychological thriller, with a twist ending akin to "The Sixth Sense."

"Reeling from a devastating personal tragedy, he struggles to stitch the pieces of their lives back together in a homeless tent-village deep in the Appalachian woods," according to a film synopsis. "For Sophia, this tragedy brings upon severe night terrors and hallucinations of ghostly figures and Glenn is at his wit's end as to how to help her. He turns in every possible direction: psychiatry, hypnosis, priests and séances, even mediums to help her. But it isn't until he is brought face to face with himself and his own catastrophic mistakes, that he finds the solution to his little girl's nightmares."

Pullen says the movie is meant to be scary, but will ultimately break viewers' hearts.

"It's not just about the scare factor," he said. "We wanted to make a movie with real heart."

And real actors.

Pitches have been made to several well-known actors, offering small parts that could be filmed in a single day at ODU in order to bring Hollywood clout to the production while keeping associated costs down. While the pitches have garnered "big interest," a marquee actor has yet to be locked in.

Securing a big-name actor for the film would be "huge" and likely a key ingredient for acceptance into the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, Pullen said. "But even if we don't get any Hollywood names, we're moving forward. We think it's really cool."

Pullen is not alone in that sentiment, as a number of film industry professionals from Virginia and elsewhere have joined the effort that has snowballed since talk of making "The Ballerina" began three years ago.

Key among the film's professional crew is Scott Senechal, who this month was named associate producer. He is a Hollywood veteran with a lengthy resumé, and is best known for his work on box office hits that include "Rain Man," "Natural Born Killers" and "Thelma and Louise." To learn more about Senechal's background, visit his biography page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).

"The associate producer is so critical," Pullen said, of Senechal. "We're so lucky we got him. The stars have kind of just aligned."

After production is complete, Pullen's team plans to take a rough cut of "The Ballerina" to the Cannes Film Festival marketplace in May to shop it around to film distributors for possible release.

"It's not unheard of for pictures to get picked up like this," Pullen said. "This project took a lot of maneuvering to get this budget. We're hoping we can sell it for a figure that would be enough to fund another project next year. We hope to do it every year with a different story."

To learn more about "The Ballerina," visit the project's Facebook page and go to Indiegogo for more information about the fundraising effort and to view a trailer of the film.

feature1-lg01A screenshot from the trailer for "The Ballerina" shows the main character, Sophia, during a frightening nighttime visit from a ghostly apparition.