Cinematic arts students tackle questions of gender

Unlike in other stories of garage successes and Harvard dropouts, Kadie and Flynn didn’t need to leave USC to pursue their dream of producing their short film “Blackroot.” Rather, late night dorm room discussions and the atmosphere of the B.F.A. in Film and TV Production program have helped them create “Blackroot,” a short film set in 1967 that portrays a transgender Native American teen’s meeting with white hippie hopefuls in the woodlands of Washington.

Neither student is a stranger to the challenges of taking on a larger scale production like “Blackroot,” which was released on Vimeo Sept. 3.

Kadie won Best Youth Filmmaker at the Seattle International Film Festival in fourth grade,  and Flynn has created a number of shorts in collaboration with New York University student Sam Wolff, including a promotion for the online “Emma Magazine.”

Despite their experience, Kadie and Flynn described the production of “Blackroot” as a crazy ride, from its inception during last falls semester as new roommates, to Skype auditions with potential actors, to five days of shooting in the Seattle area in December. The pair jump started the project by raising over $2,600 using popular crowdfunding website Indiegogo and a catchy, bright, well-produced pitch video that provided funders a taste of the work to come.

Paired by a housing questionnaire prior to their freshman year, Kadie and Flynn’s easy rapport is apparent in both the pitch video and in person.

“I googled Ben as soon as he messaged me about being roommates,” said Flynn, who mentioned he always planned on using their rooming situation to foster collaborative projects.

Often building off the other’s ideas and finishing each other’s sentences, the two seem to work seamlessly together.

“Jack’s really good about giving constructive, harsh criticism,” Kadie said.

Inspiration for “Blackroot” came from Kadie’s idea of a film set in 1967 and Flynn’s desire to represent queer characters in an honest way.

Most queer films follow similar patterns, according to Flynn.

“Once you come out everyone gives you a group hug and you go back to singing in your school’s glee club,” he said.

“Blackroot” is an attempt to avoid the tropes that often accompany period pieces detailing the hippie movement, transgender characters and Native American characters, a lofty goal for students with little experience dealing with these delicate topics. For help with accurate representation, Flynn and Kadie reached out to USC English professor and Native American scholar David Treuer.

“He gave us really honest criticism, both as a scholar and just as a storyteller,” Kadie said.

The lead actor is portrayed by a member of the Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre in Seattle. Cast members were also able to provide personal perspectives to their characters and often did, according to Flynn.

Lois Landgrebe, who plays protagonist RT’s grandmother in the film, is a Tulalip storyteller and works to preserve the native language. She added gestures and language to her role that were not scripted, bringing integrity to the storytelling.

Many aspects of the film were collaborative, bringing outside expertise to the process. Wolff, Flynn’s high school collaborator, served as the lead cinematographer, while the third producer, Tyler Brown, is Kadie’s high school friend and a University of Washington student.

“Blackroot” also benefits from an original score by Boston University graduate Dan MacDonald, the creative energy behind ‘60s folk revivalist project Spitzer Space Telescope. Flynn stumbled upon his music online, and found it to be the perfect complement to the feel  of “Blackroot.”

Kadie described a scene using MacDonald’s music in which all the characters are under the influence of mushrooms, and in the background is a “twangy, plucky, psychedelic, bizarre” song that sets the scene perfectly.

“He was awesome to work with,” Kadie said.

Though MacDonald has experience writing songs for independent films, this is his first film score. He said a lot of the music was inspired by the constraints of time and budget, using old song ideas that fit the film’s tone, recording with a single microphone and mixing and mastering through a friend.

“In the end, these parameters gave the final score a very intimate feel with natural sounds, which I think brings a very human quality to the film,” MacDonald said. “The film is really strong and I’m excited to see how it does on the film fest circuit.”

Flynn and Kadie said they gained greater insight into the comprehensive aspects of filmmaking from the experience, from locating a period car for hire, to obtaining filming permits, to using Google Street View to scout locations from afar.

As the whirlwind of creating “Blackroot” comes to an end for the pair, Kadie and Flynn are already looking to the future. Kadie has spent the summer as an intern for di Bonaventura Pictures, producers of films such as the Transformers series, Salt and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. He also works as a freelance effects artist and crew member in his spare time.

Flynn spent half his summer weeks working as a narrative designer at the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts in the World Building Media Lab, home to the interactive multimedia Leviathan project. He spent the rest of his time as an intern at Material Pictures, Tobey Maguire’s production company.

The pair is also working on individual projects for the upcoming year, and though they have no immediate plans for future collaborations, they are definitely not ruling out the possibility.


Editor’s note: this post was updated to state that the lead actor came from the Red Eagle Soaring Youth Theatre.