Livermore teen heads to Cannes

Sarah Whalen's thriller screens at famed film festival

Students, producers and chaperones from the Young Artists' Theatre Camp traveled to the Cannes Film Festival this spring. From left to right: Caryn Thomason, Reed Wylie-Chaney, Sarah Whalen, John Ainsworth, Lauren Monaco, Jeremy Pitzer, Marguerite Williamson and Monica Jeon. (Photo by Shawn Ryan)

Sarah Whalen is all about the film world. But you won't find the Livermore 17-year-old assuming different character roles on-screen -- no, she prefers to be behind the camera.

"I like having control of the shots," said Whalen, who attends Middle College, a program that allows high school students from Pleasanton, Livermore and Dublin to attend school at Las Positas College. "You can see it in an actor's eyes when they get it, and they realize what moment they're going for. And that's a lot cooler for me than memorizing lines."

And this passion led her to attend the Santa Cruz-based Young Actors' Theatre Camp, where she wrote and co-directed the post-apocalyptic film "The Risen," an eight-minute short selected this year to screen at the famed Cannes Film Festival in France.

"It was a really cool experience to see my movie being screened, which was awesome, at the American Pavilion," she said.

Whalen has had sci-fi inclinations for as long as she can remember, tracing back to her "Back to the Future"-watching days as a child.

"I've always liked the way those movies translate these different themes that seem really unrealistic -- but it's always sort of the humanity that comes out in those films that makes it relatable and enjoyable to watch," she said.

Post-apocalyptic films, she added, "test society's rules and boundaries."

The plot of "The Risen" follows the saga of a group of youngsters trying to stay alive in a world with no adults, the fear of being taken by "The Risen" looming over them all. Three children -- Aubrey, Kyle and Trina -- emerge as leaders in this new world, causing political strife and even a love triangle.

With the exception of a brief appearance by Aubrey's "mother," her cast consisted entirely of children, partly because all the actors available at the camp were kids, but also because she saw featuring them in central roles as a form of empowerment.

"I feel like there's not enough empowerment with kids, and feeling like you have a voice and feeling like you can take on these responsibilities," Whalen said.

"In summer 2017, she was a student that was a little shy," said John Ainsworth, who co-founded the camp along with his husband Shawn Ryan. Ainsworth was the official director for the film. "And I remember her coming up to Shawn and me and saying she had an idea for a script."

They thought the script had promise, so they worked with her on it, in preparation to be filmed during their winter session.

Both winter and summer sessions of the camp take place in the Santa Cruz mountains. Though the filming itself for "The Risen" happened over the course of one week during the winter session, they had about a month of pre-production work -- which Ainsworth said made all the difference in terms of film quality.

They were limited to using the natural resources, from wintry lighting to the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, leading to a dark and foliage-heavy setting -- luckily perfect for the post-apocalyptic storyline.

After filming concluded, Ainsworth took the films created during the camp to Los Angeles for professional post-production sound and lighting editing, before submitting it to festivals.

They found out around February that "The Risen" had been selected to screen at the "Emerging Filmmaker" showcase at The American Pavilion in Cannes.

"We were thinking it might qualify for the 2019 film festival," Whalen said. "So I wasn't really expecting it to get into Cannes this year. But we got an email a couple of months before, and they were like, 'Yep, it got in, and we would love for you to come and participate in the festival with us.'"

Whalen attended the festival with Ainsworth, Ryan, chaperones and a few other students who had played a role in "The Risen," along with some cast members from another camp film that was to be screened at Cannes, "Pretty." The trip, Whalen's first time in Europe, was a whirlwind of experiences -- they saw their film screened at The American Pavilion, went to panels with movie producers and took a strut down the red carpet. Whalen remembers doing a double take of a man who indeed turned out to be Pierce Brosnan.

They were thrown into something of a networking arena to speak with representatives from distribution companies like Hulu and Netflix. Some, Whalen said, weren't interested from the outset but others saw her and her younger peers as the new generation, especially considering that women in the sci-fi genre are scarce.

Whalen's mother Dawn, for her part, appreciates the confidence and purpose that filmmaking has given her daughter, especially after having faced bullying in school.

"We did different camps, different classes, and she still believed this was what she was meant to do," Dawn said. "Even though there was some discouragement along the way, it didn't deter her."

Sarah Whalen is headed back to the Young Actors' Theatre Camp this summer. She has many new ideas for her next film, but thinks perhaps her next one will be a psychological thriller.

"The Risen" is still being submitted to various film festivals, meaning they can't release it online yet, per festival rules. They're waiting to hear back from several.

"Here we are less than a year later," Ainsworth said, recalling the film's inception when Whalen brought forward her script idea. "That's the stuff movies are made of."

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Like this comment
Posted by Eva G
a resident of Stoneridge
on Jul 10, 2018 at 10:51 am

Wow!!!! Congratulations to Sarah Whalen and her team and lots of luck. Way to go Sarah.

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