Scenarios USA, a national nonprofit with an educational mandate, teams its annual writing contest winner with a working filmmaker to collaborate on a short with cultural and educational relevance.
“I had heard about Scenarios USA through a number of New York filmmaker friends who had worked on some Scenarios short films in the past,” said Susan Seidelman, director of Smithereens, Desperately Seeking Susan and She-Devil, about her recent decision to volunteer with the education-focused nonprofit on a two-day film shoot in Brooklyn.
“I thought it would be a fun and interesting challenge to get back in touch with my early, no-frills indie filmmaking roots and work on a low-budget short film with a tight shooting schedule, especially on a project that had a lot of emotional integrity,” she said.
Scenarios USA began making shorts in 1999, the first having been written by a group of four teenagers from Washington Heights, New York, who were paired with director Doug Liman and actress Rosario Dawson. Twenty-nine films and 30 directors later, Scenarios alumni include major directing talents such as Michael Apted, Karyn Kusama, David Frankel and Joel Schumacher.
Since 2006, Scenarios has had a deal with Showtime Networks to begin broadcasting the shorts once they are completed. Scenarios Director of Media Production and Distribution Robert York described the network as a “huge supporter” whose engagement has helped “bring our youths’ voices to millions.” Each short stays on the network for approximately two years and is broadcast several times a month.
Seidelman was paired with 17-year-old Brooklyn student Leen Shumman, screenwriter of a 16-minute short called “Cut in Half” that focuses on an Arab-American teenager, Sareen (Déa Julien), who is negotiating the pitfalls of everyday teen life when she’s broadsided by an unexpected recurrence of leukemia in her elder sister, Layla (Ajna Jai).
Almost all of the budget for Scenarios films (around $40K for each film) goes toward raw materials, travel expenses and feeding everyone on set. Despite these unglamorous working conditions there has been no shortage of industry talent willing to volunteer. York proudly notes that “we’ve even had a couple of Academy Award-winners, such as cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who shot one of our shorts, ‘Toothpaste.’”
One of the shoot’s most rewarding features for Seidelman was “watching the enthusiasm of the young filmmakers and watching Leen see her vision coming to life.” Seidelman added that an unexpected bonus of the experience was the opportunity to work on a more gender-balanced film set than a female director in Hollywood could reasonably have expected to in years past.
“I thought it was very cool to see the large number of female crew members,” she said. “When I started out several years ago it was rare that you’d find many—if any—women working in the camera, grip and electric departments. I was excited to see how much things have changed.” MM
Visit scenariosusa.org for more information. Photographs by Nicolas Negron.