Following the Muse: AHS Teacher's Film Selected for Festival Circut
By Robbie Patla
“The stories we are trying to tell are the stories that we want to hear more of,” mused Animas High School Humanities teacher Stephen Sellers.
AHS’s own beloved teacher and his crew of filmmaking friends have submitted their short narrative film, To The Muse, to a variety of film festivals this past year. The film is currently screening around the world and in our own backyard at the Durango Independent Film Festival from March 4th to March 8th.
Those who know Stephen well know that he is driven in large part by a creative spirit. As a teacher, he believes there is an art to teaching that comes from working with youth and creating projects alongside them. He worked as Lori Fisher’s student teacher starting back in the strip mall in 2013, and has taught at Animas High School ever since. He describes Animas as “an incubator of creativity.”
Not surprisingly, teaching is just one of Stephen’s creative passions. He has been a working musician for over a decade, including playing bass with Six Dollar String Band and DJing house music around Colorado. And now, Stephen is dabbling in filmmaking.
“Teaching has prepared me to work with things like film in ways I never could have anticipated,’’ he explained. “It’s given me key skills like patience, adaptability, and collaboration.”
Stephen teaches a film studies elective modeled after film classes he took at Texas Tech University. His class is 50% traditional lecture, and 50% analysis and discussion.
Along with teaching film, he is an aspiring filmmaker. In November 2017, Stephen was presented with a rough draft of a script by his long time friend Jake Brooks, a photographer and aspiring filmmaker himself.
Stephen describes the film as a story about a boy who is trying to decide what he wants to do with his life. His desire to pursue music conflicts with what his father would want for him. Stephen instantly
became hooked on this idea due to his own journey as someone stuck between trying to pay his way through life and pursue meaningful creative endeavors. He bought his first location sound recording gear for the film’s production to help out wherever he could in the actual production. Over Spring Break in March 2018, he and a crew of six people traveled to Havana, Cuba to shoot this narrative short.
Stephen explains the film further, stating, “Even though we set out with a very clear narrative structure, in the end there’s not necessarily an intense narrative that drives things. It’s more of a meditation of forgiveness, love, and heartbreak”
To make this film more authentic and real to Cuba, the crew cast young kids that Jacob had met prior to this trip. These kids had no acting experience, but “they just wanted to be a part of something creative.”
They were dedicated to making this dream come true. For the next four days, they shot non-stop, sun- up to sundown and never let hurdles stop them. Stephen recalled a time during filming when he and the crew found a great location near a swamp. His excitement got the best of him, and he ended up getting himself stuck in what he thought at first was quicksand. “It was this horrendous smelling sludge that I had to walk around smelling like for the rest of the day.”
They encountered other problems as well: meetings with local producers that went wrong, not being able to get that perfect shot, limitations due to time, and not being able to speak the language. However, Stephen describes this time as “such a rewarding experience.”
After shooting for a week, Jake and Stephen spent most of the next year in post-production, with Jake editing a 15 minute story from over 16 hours of footage. After much searching, his team lucked out and hired Jared Michael Fry, who worked on the score for It: Chapter Two, to compose the music for their film. Through this process one of the lessons Stephen learned was, “you make a movie three times: first comes the writing stage, then you shoot it, and finally the editing.”
After completing the editing, Jacob decided to title the film To The Muse. This took much thought, but after evaluating the overall message, he felt like this title fit, and Stephen agreed.
After all of the work they have put in, Stephen and his team decided to submit To The Muse into film festivals. They’ve submitted their film to The Orlando Film Festival, Denver Film Festival, The Durango Independent Film Festival, and many more. They’ve been accepted into all of them, and their film is now in the festival circuit, nationally and internationally.
Stephen shared with excitement, “in Oaxaca and Orlando, we made it to the finals for narrative short, and it was a huge honor for our first film.” To his team, it’s not about the money, but about getting their content out to the world.
With their film exceeding their expectations, what’s next for Stephen and his crew? Stephen reflected, “I wonder about what boxes I have painted myself into, and working on creative stuff like this doesn’t necessarily provide an answer but it at least raises some possibilities that I may not have considered.”
Stephen leaked that his team is already in the writing stage of their next project, a full length feature film. They plan to film in Colorado and begin shooting in 2020. They want to take full advantage of the wonderful area they live in. “At the end of the day we’re just trying to tell stories about what’s happening in our backyards and in our lives,” he said.
Stephen’s cinematic journey has just begun, and he plans to grow his filmmaking skills while still spreading his creativity to high schoolers for the time being.