Kenyon's campus again stars as the setting for a feature film, this one by Karl Shefelman '80.
Story by Dennis Fiely, illustration by Steve Wacksman
For Kenyon graduates and filmmakers working on a project involving college—especially a story based on their own youthful adventures—there’s really only one choice for a shooting location. Yes, Kenyon’s peerless campus is again coming
to the silver screen.
In August, artist and filmmaker Karl Shefelman ’80 used the campus and other Knox County locations in Looking for the Jackalope, a feature-length comedy for which he also enlisted Kenyon students and alumni as members of the cast and crew. It was the campus’s second such role in recent years; actor Josh Radnor ’96 filmed Liberal Arts on campus in the summer of 2011.
Shefelman’s film tells the tale of "a washed-up New York novelist who takes a comically ill-fated journey to his college reunion in Ohio in an attempt to relive his youth and reunite with his old girlfriend,” according to the film’s website.
The jackalope, a mythical cross between a jack rabbit and an antelope, appears in the movie as a metaphor for the danger of trying to recapture the past. (The film uses a creature fashioned in a special effects studio in Los Angeles.)
“The story is based on hitchhiking experiences I had immediately after my Kenyon graduation and ten years later traveling back for my college reunion,” said Shefelman, who lives in New York City. “There was no doubt I was going to shoot it at Kenyon. I wrote it to be set here. I could have shot it closer to home, but my emotional ties to and nostalgia for Kenyon made me decide to shoot it here."
In fact, promotional material calls the film “a cautionary tale about nostalgia.” The phrase could be used to describe Radnor’s romantic comedy as well. Looking for the Jackalope lacks the budget, star power, and profile of Liberal Arts. But both movies deal with a yearning to recapture the magic of college.
“Of course, my story has been greatly fictionalized and embellished to protect the innocent,” Shefelman said with a smile.
The filmmaker graduated from Kenyon with a degree in studio art, then earned a master of fine arts from the graduate film program at New York University. Most of his industry experience has been as a storyboard artist for directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Jonathan Demme. “Working one-on-one with my mentors taught me a lot about visualizing a story from script to screen,” he said.
Although Shefelman has made several award-winning short films, Looking for the Jackalope is his first feature-length project. He raised half of the film’s $200,000 budget from online crowd-funding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Kenyon trustee R. Todd Ruppert ’78, past president and CEO of T. Rowe Price Global Investment Services, invested $50,000 to become executive producer. Shefelman and Ruppert were former teammates on the Kenyon swimming and diving team.
“Shortly after we graduated, I retained him to do a project for me, and he created an eye-catching video,” said Ruppert, a film buff who has helped produce three documentaries. “I’ve watched his activities over time and always been impressed with his talent. I believe in this film and think it can appeal to a wide audience.”
Before the movie had been cast or financed, Shefelman shot a trailer of sample scenes to attract investors. “As Francis Ford Coppola says, ‘Start shooting and they will come’—that was our philosophy,” Shefelman said. “One of the reasons we shot the trailer was to break the inertia in which many filmmakers find themselves, just sitting there with a script.”
He recruited a local cast and crew to pare expenses on housing, transportation, and food, but he didn’t cut costs on his standards. “I knew there was a strong community of local filmmakers and film fans who could help me,” he said. Most of his thirty-six-member cast and crew are linked to the Knox County theater community or the Kenyon film program. Nine are Kenyon graduates or students.
Producers Eric Harper ’98 and Julie Cancio Harper ’98 of Youngstown, Ohio, met Shefelman at the Village Market when he was visiting Gambier to speak at a Kenyon filmmaker event. “We started talking to him, and he told us about his movie,” Julie recalled. “We stayed in touch and he asked us to work on his crew.”
Another crew member, Terrie Lewis of Centerburg was naturally suited for wardrobe: she is a former owner of The Secret Closet, a women’s boutique that used to be in Gambier. “One reason he hired me was because I knew a lot of people in this area who could help him,” she said.
Shefelman expects his movie to be ready for this year’s film festival circuit. “My hope would be to get the film accepted at one of the major film festivals where it has the best chance of being purchased,” he said. “My dream is that it becomes a cult classic, popular among college students and alumni.”