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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Jul 21, 2022
After two years of most work being handled remotely, the Wex Film/Video Studio is back to a full schedule of working with artists primarily in-person on their postproduction needs. This summer's residency artists include two Southern Ohio natives, Hannah Blair and Ben Evory.
Formerly classmates in the film program at Wright State University, the filmmakers may be familiar to fans of the Wex's Ohio Shorts program; they co-produced the 2019 selection My Home, The Promised Land and the 2021 selection Slushie. Now, they're working to complete Sheltered, a digital series about a young man who withdraws from his Protestant faith while he and his father prepare for a church mission trip to Honduras. In addition to Film/Video Studio support, the project has received funding from the Ohio Arts Council through an Individual Excellence Award for Evory in screenwriting.
For each of these projects, Evory has handled writing and directing, and he's made the completed works available to view at benevory.com. His work in the field also includes time as an assistant to Oscar-winning filmmakers and Wex friends Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert.
While holed up in a small workspace in the Studio earlier this month, Evory and Blair answered some questions about their project, their working relationship, the lessons they've learned so far, and the unique space they hope Sheltered will fill in onscreen narratives about religion.
How did you get into film and filmmaking?
Ben Evory: The short answer for me is Wright State. I grew up in Southeast Ohio and then when it came time to find a college, I knew I was interested in film and Wright State offered state tuition and a film program, and that's one of the few options that had both of those things going for it. So that drew me in. And then when I got there, they just kind of hooked me with their theory, their production. I grew up making little things all the time, just being creative with friends. And it was a good outlet living in a small town, but the honing of it and the pursuit of it as a career really took off with Wright State.
Hannah Blair: Very similar for me too. I grew up making little films with friends and my brother, and going to the movies was always big in my family, so I knew filmmaking was what I was interested in. And then I had heard of Wright State by reputation, that they had a really good film program, so it was always my intention to go there and do film. And then pretty much everything that I've gone on to do has come from connections I made at Wright State—professors, people I've met, worked on their projects, and stuff like that.
What role are each of you taking with your project in progress, Sheltered?
HB: I was the cinematographer and also the editor, and we co-produced it with another producer as well. (Jennifer Prewitt and Olga Wagner)
BE: And then I wrote and directed the project. We like to think of it on a timeline. We've done this now for a couple projects, where I'll write something and really work heavy on the front end and then we'll meet in the middle for pre-production and production. And then on the post side, Hannah takes over with editing. So we each get a stab at the story on either side of the filmmaking process. Then we come back together and really finely hone things to get it where it needs to be.
Are there any particular filmmakers that are really meaningful to you? Anyone who you’ve thought about as you've started trying to build a career for yourself?
BE: It's kind of funny, because as we're in this room [in the Film/Video Studio], we have storage boxes around us that have the names of Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes on them, as well as Kelly Reichardt. They were inspirations on how to create independent American cinema—Kelly Reichardt with this project. particularly. It’s pretty spare, and the inspirations were heavily from her. Another really early inspiration would be Robert Bresson. Way back, just stylistically, what we were looking at.
Also for me, a filmmaker I really appreciate is Alfonso Cuarón. When the pandemic hit, one of the things I was doing was watching auteur filmmakers from their first film to their last. Some of them were terrible, some were great, and he had just a really great perspective. I'm paraphrasing, but he said early in his career that he would just try to get one shot right, and then he'd try to get one scene right, and then one sequence, and then one film. Just seeing his early work, that's really true in some parts—where this worked, this didn’t—and [I appreciate] seeing how in the longevity of a career, you can experiment and find your path. You don't have to have it right away,
You've made three short films and now you're working on something significantly more ambitious. Why did you decide to kind of make that jump at this time?
BE: This was our first project where we're not students anymore, where we were kind of wanting to tackle something bigger.
January 2020 was when writing and research started but then, of course, the pandemic hit and like many people, I was consuming a lot of TV. And the episodic nature of things was both comforting and just enjoyable in a different way.
We didn’t feel ready to make a feature, and we're still not ready yet. We will be one day. But we could make five short films, and that's what we saw this as. We can treat this like five short films and it felt like the perfect amount of pressure. And the project now is totaling 45 minutes, which is a true half of a movie.
HB: Right. And as the story developed, it lent itself to being something that was longer formed, because we were kind of looking at something that gradually evolves over time. But also, it was something that it wasn't going to happen all at once, and so a format that takes these little moments where things are actually changing over the course of the story, it sort of was a case of both developing to fit the format we were thinking about, but then also, in the end, the story lent itself to the format as well.
BE: So it's a story about—it's not a loss of faith, because I think from episode one, the loss of this Christianity is there in this protagonist. Sometimes I talk about it like when you come out as gay, but instead, it's when you come out of the faith closet, right? How does that process work? It takes a lot of micro beats, a lot of internal processing, and individual talking to people. And we're kind of excited by telling a story about losing your faith but keeping your family, and what that looks like, and not having to do it in a 10-minute format, but to show micro changes across the summer, which is Sheltered.
Still, Sheltered; image courtesy of the filmmakers
So, it follows one character through a crisis or evolution of relationship in their faith?
BE: Yeah. Specifically, it's set in Appalachian Ohio, where I grew up, and it's a young man returning home from college for the first time after a year who rejoins back into his Methodist community, and they're preparing to go on a missionary trip to Honduras. And just these flags that [appeared] for me, personally, during my first year of college and for many who, if you grew up in a rural place or being somewhat more isolated or sheltered. When you come back, there's a big mental change in terms of how you process or see your own world, and how the people around you—parents, siblings—still see their world, and especially when it comes to faith. At the time we were writing this, the Pew Research Center found, I believe for the first time in American history, that the majority of people in their poll just did not ascribe to a religion at all.
What it really comes down to saying is, more than ever, the parents who are still religious have kids who are not. It just felt like something I had gone through and something that felt timely to look at, and to look at it with little bits of—I keep going back to little bits of time, but really it's an unraveling.
One of the things that I really liked about your short Slushie is that it does take faith seriously, but it doesn't necessarily take itself seriously.
Religion and faith in general can be a third rail to some, just a very difficult subject to tackle. What was your thought process in terms of representing all sides of that, of staying with your family though they may feel differently than you feel?
BE: I know for me, it came down in the writing process to a lot of research. My dad is actually a pastor, which helped for that first connection, but there was also another pastor who read the script early on and gave notes on the religious perspective of it. So for a lot of story, the plot revolves around the short-term mission trip to Honduras, and there's a whole lot of... Controversy's not the right word, but a whole lot of polarization outside of and even within the church, around the political, economic, and cultural implications of taking a group of Christians somewhere else. Not only the colonialism, but the use of expenses on such a thing. Is it useful for anyone? Is it more harm?
A lot of those conversations are happening within the churches themselves. But on the outside, it's generally just frowned upon, I think. So I got in touch with somebody who studies mission trips and has done a lot of field work in it. He also did a pass at reading through the script, just looking at whether this portrayal of preparing for a mission trip is authentic. Which we always joke about—we've got to be one of the few, if only, web series that have depicted mission trip planning meetings in a narrative format. This one scene where a character's reading a fundraising letter and we're like, this is not maybe traditional cinema. But yeah, just talking to people who are "experts" or religious figures, and then also people who have left the faith, too.
HB: And even beyond accuracy in terms of the story, I think it was important to us to depict it both critically as someone who has maybe distanced themselves from it, but also with compassion as someone who, at least for me personally, has a lot of good qualities and memories that I can attribute to being brought up in a religious household. And I think that also, that's where our protagonist is coming from. He's not necessarily just angry and totally wanting to burn it all down. He's different than he used to be, and he needs people to be able to see that and acknowledge him and love him through that. But this is part of his history. And so depicting not only just church activities, but also church people as human and tender and real, sometimes strange to an outside perspective but also, for the most part, coming from this authentic place, was really important to us.
Ben, how did working with Julia and Steve impact your viewpoint about the work you want to do? Was there a strong lesson you took away from that?
BE: I could talk for days about Steven and Julia. I worked as their assistant for two years and I learned so much from them.
I worked with them at the tail end of American Factory, the post-production of 9to5, and through all of the Chappelle work; my last day actually was the Radio City Hall premiere of the Chappelle doc. But to give some specific examples, Julia is just relentless when it comes to perseverance—they both. She loves using the word "scrappy," being scrappy and resourceful. Like, we'll just figure it out. We'll figure out how to do this in a healthy, safe way. And we learn lessons in hindsight about how we can do this in a better way, with the mindset of, How can we do this in a cost efficient way, in a way that stays true to our intentions, that respects people and characters?
So maybe one way to put it is, when I went to college, I learned how to make art, but when I was with Steven and Julia, I learned the business of art, how to sustain yourself. And I mean, we're now in our post-production/distribution phase, and being here was thought of a year and a half, two years ago. I don't know, if I hadn't worked for Steven and Julia, if I'd even have the hindsight to be like, Who's your community?
For instance, the Wexner Center. I don't know if I would have introduced myself to [Film/Video Studio Curator] Jennifer Lange during the Slushie premiere if I hadn't been like, OK, there are residencies, and developed an understanding that there are resources that you can strive for and to find your people.
A bit of a ramble, but they had a huge influence. Also just on making stuff that matters, right? Everything they do is drenched with importance. If I'm going to spend at this point, what? Two years, three? We started in January 2020 and it'll be three years by the time this has seen the world. If you're going to spend that much time doing something, make it worth it to not just yourself, but to other people.
HB: I remember a conversation with you while we were still developing this, where you brought up that very thing, and it spawned into this idea of, we would love to take Sheltered on a church tour, to basically show to people that maybe are in similar situations—parents of faith, children not of faith—to start conversations. But the idea to not only make something that mattered, but then take it to the people that it might matter to as well...
BE: Yeah, that's a very Julia and Steve-inspired notion, because at the time they were doing community screenings with 9to5; they were virtual because of the pandemic, but a lot of small groups saw it. Back in the '70s, when Julia was showing Growing Up Female, these were called consciousness raising groups. It's kind of a similar idea here.
It hasn't been finalized, but we're talking to at least one church organization that's interested in stories about reconciling with parents and children, and loss of faith and queerness, and how do we let families stay together and not split apart because of issues such as what's presented in the film, which is all that stuff. That's always been our target audience.
HB: Ultimately, yeah.
BE: Hopefully as many people see it as possible, but really, it's the people who have either left Christianity or are thinking about it, or who had a kid who's left Christianity.
Where are you at now in post production, and what are you hoping to do with the film next?
HB: We are finishing up the sound mix. That's what we have been doing mostly here at the Wexner. Paul [Hill, a Film/Video Studio editor] has been fantastic with our sound mix. We're super, super happy with it. So by the time we leave here, that will be complete. Then we will have a colorist go through. By the end of August, we should have it completely done. And then the first thing is some festivals that now have episodic competitions. We will probably submit to a handful of those, especially the ones that we think would be specifically interested in the story, whether it's regionally specific or some of the themes. Then after that, hopefully this church tour in some form, be it digital or physical, over next summer. And then probably by the end of next summer, early fall, it'll ultimately be online for people to access. Ultimately, it's a web series and its final resting place will be online.
BE: One of the things with short films, we've been raised to go the festival circuit route, which is great, but there would be such long turnarounds before you'd ever get to show people the film. And I think we were both a little bit anxious—Like, let's release something.
HB: Speed it up a little bit.
BE: So we're excited about not waiting seven years before it sees the light of day.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
BE: It's an Appalachian story. I'm proud to be from Southeast Ohio. I didn't realize what it meant to me until moving. And I think, not only have we talked about doing justice to the religious community, but also justice to the portrayal of Appalachia is important to us. And I think we feel proud of how we captured it.
Top of page: Hannah Blair and Ben Evory in the Wex Film/Video Studio; photo: Melissa Starker