Editor's note: The headline in our print edition mentioned the wrong college campus for the location of the screening.
Recently, a film was produced in Fort Wayne that features a lot of high-level, local talent. Names that anyone in Fort Wayne’s forever hemorrhaging “art scene” would likely be familiar with.
The Paper Angel’s writer, producer, and director, Darren Hunt, almost didn’t take on the third hat of being director for his film.
“[The] central idea came to me in a flash in 2006,” Hunt said in an interview with Whatzup. “The first draft of the actual script was finished in 2015. I had a friend read it. Revised it here and there up to 2018 when [said friend’s] reaction was, ‘It’s ready, but don’t be crazy and try and make a film.’”
Thankfully, Hunt didn’t listen to that piece of advice.
The two-night premiere of his film will be screened at Indiana Tech’s Magee-O’Connor Theater on Sept. 10 and 11.
An Early Love of Movies
In the 1970s, Hunt grew up going to the movies at the legendary Wilma Theater in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
“It was the only theater in town,” Hunt said. “Jaws, Rocky, then Star Wars each came in their respective release years and stayed for over a year. Then HBO hit when I was 13 and threw open the doors on many films I would have never seen so early on: The Graduate, Easy Rider, French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, The Exorcist. Being in my early 20s as the ’90s hit, the new indie wave really put its hooks into me.”
The first rule of filmmaking is that you shouldn’t try to make a movie if you’re not a sincere movie fan. Hunt, thankfully, is such a fan.
“I wrote my first story at age 9 — my mom saved it,” said Hunt about his history as a writer. “My first love was poetry, but I was never that great. I freelanced for the Gazette in the ’90s, then Whatzup came along and I jumped in early on — 1997. I wrote off and on up until 2015. Wrote my first film script in 2003 — 145 pages.”
Powell Steals Scenes
Hunt’s film tells the story of an older white man in a depressed, small city who attempts to help a too-wise black youth. He does this all while attempting to pay off the debt needed to grant him access back into his card game.
“Everyone said I would never find the kid,” Hunt said. “I found him through a Weisser Park drama department teacher. She read the script, listened to what I was looking for, and said, ‘I have the kid.’”
She was right. Jason Powell’s bright eyes and surprisingly nuanced performance steal moments left and right.
“I found the adult lead (local theater mainstray Bob Ahlersmeyer) through a friend who worked with him in theater,” Hunt said. “Other principal roles were filled by two local actors who have done lots of small productions. I also used many friends for the secondary and non-speaking roles.”
Finding these two key actors allowed Hunt the confidence to move forward with what is his first real film project.
“Directing and producing a first film is not something I would recommend,” Hunt said. “Scheduling alone drove me insane. Since I wrote the script, I had the naive notion early on that this would make directing easier. But I learned that a set and actors, and what happens between action and cut, can be something entirely different than what is on the page. What you thought the story was about can end up being something entirely different. The entire endeavor is such an art form, and the learning curve is very unforgiving.”
Driving the Story
When asked about what he believed the story was about, Hunt put it about as well as you can imagine.
“I think it’s essentially about a mistake in belief and how desperation can sometimes motivate bad decisions,” Hunt said. “There’s a message in it somewhere, but I’m not enamored with message-driven films. I am beginning to think message is something we contrive out of emotion.”
Filmmaker Johnny Commorato Jr., who was an early consultant on the project, put it differently and poetically.
“The Paper Angel is Darren’s vision of the relationship between a man and a child that allows them to grow in a way that neither expected.”
The making of the film, if one were in a reductive mood, could be described as a cliche, a labor of love, or an artist crossing genres and trying a new thing that he has no footing in. But isn’t that beautiful?
“From January 2019 to June 2021, it was total consumption emotionally, mentally, and physically,” Hunt said. “Countless nights of planning shoots, schedules, calling locations. Watching the forecast. Insomnia for months really. Manic monologues with my notebook. Thinking out loud with my wife on why, how, and what I was doing or not doing. Wanting to give up. Not being able to give up.
“After about 10 days of shooting, I knew I was in the barrel of a very big, slow-barreling wave that would constantly break over me, reform, scoop me up, ignite the thrill of the ride, then re-terrify me all over again. And I knew there was no way out but through.”
Ahlersmeyer is All That
As a viewer, I was especially impressed with Ahlersmeyer’s stoic, sometimes pitch-perfect lead performance. When asked about his history as an actor, Ahlersmeyer simply said, “I’ll send you my credits.”
Ahlersmeyer’s resumé is about as good as they come in a place like Fort Wayne, which helps to explain why the film works: its central nerve can thump.
“I started acting in high school, but really enjoyed theater once I got into college,” Ahlersmeyer said. “Since then, whenever I can fit acting into my schedule of life, I try to hit the boards again.
“Over the course of shooting this movie — a few years — two cast members died of cancer,” Ahlersmeyer said about the production of the film. “The mechanic, who we had to recast and reshoot the scenes, and the homeless drifter [both passed away]. There was a lot of loss during this production. It should be pretty emotional for all involved when the film premieres.”
In addition to the film’s premiere at Indiana Tech, Hunt has been submitting his movie to film festivals all over. So far The Paper Angel has already been accepted into four.