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Death of a Wizard

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Poster by Abigail Thompson

Poster by Abigail Thompson

It feels too real...  A study of the hatred that grows inside a man.  The director, Edward Varnie, paints his picture with black and white film and the gray shadows in between.  Slip back to the late 60s, just after Martin Luther King's assasination,  into this story set in a small Georgia town that examines how things can get way out of hand.

"In a small southern town circa 1968, a jaded African American youth begins piecing together the mystery surrounding his father's death - a mystery that ultimately leads him and his friends toward a violent and sinister truth harbored by the community."


Death of a Wizard
is a story about the Ku Klux Klan and the palpable tension of race relations in the south.  Contrasted against the innocence of youth it begs this question.  What causes this anger?  Are you born with it?  More likely it is something that rubs off from the society you live in or the circumstances you endure.  Whether it's a couple of people in a small town or the division between two countries at odds, there are always the casualties.  No matter if the collateral damage is big or small it can have a lasting affect on the ones least responsible for the mayhem.


Soon to be in festivals around the country, Death of a Wizard is part of a bigger story and a feature length movie called A Lynching on Cheyenne Road that will be produced at a later date.  There the rest of the story will be told and the characters become better defined.

Conceived by Edward Varnie, the idea was fleshed out with writers Alexander Thompson and Sasha Whitaker.  It was then presented to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. UNC accepted the proposal as a thesis film and it went into production nearly a year later.
Robbie Cline
The cast of characters, who are mostly from North Carolina or attending UNC, includes
Jaxson Mitchell as Billy, a young boy and friend of Virgil and Remmy played by Marcese Lorenzo Roberts and Devinron Ready. Kayli Tolleson is Linda, a young girl who is the daughter of a KKK Wizard.  Rounding out the cast is Carissa Meagher as her older sister and Kirtan Coen as Billy's grandmother.  Ed is played by Tony Scarsella and George by Todd Morgan.  


Director of Photography Robbie Cline and the rest of the crew all deserve credit for making this film fit the period.  A serious glimpse of what the world was like in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an advocate of nonviolent protest, was shot down outside his Memphis hotel room.

Devinron Ready, Jaxson Mitchell and Marcese Lorenzo Roberts - Photo by Alexander Thompson

I had a chance to talk with producer Alexa Reass along with Edward , Alexander, and some of the cast. Here's what I discovered.


I noticed right away that Death of a Wizard is a serious story.  You wrote the screenplay along with Edward Varnie, the director, and Sasha Whitaker.  Is that right?

Alexander Thompson: Death of a Wizard came about in a very interesting fashion. The story was an original idea by the film's director, Edward Varnie. He was in prep on a short called Like Melancholy for Joy when he decided he wanted to do a film about two black youths bringing down a KKK Grand Wizard for his next project after Melancholy - his big directorial "calling card" project, if you will.
Alexander Thompson

Varnie approached Sasha and I about writing the project in late September or early October of 2010, and we had a large number of story-development meetings thereafter. There were several different incarnations of the narrative during this time, with small variations therein, before we arrived at our final treatment. We pitched the project to faculty at the UNC School of the Arts in November '10 and the concept was approved for development as a thesis film a short while later. At the time the physical production was almost a full year away, so we had ample time to revise as needed. Having that breathing room was crucial for us.

I still cannot say why Varnie chose Sasha and I in particular, but I am very grateful that he did. Wizard as a story was new ground for me at the time. I've always gravitated toward work of the sci-fi/horror/fantasy/genre-bending variety and this project gave me the opportunity to explore a genre, and a historical/sociological backdrop, I was hitherto only familiar with in a very rudimentary sense. It was a great, and very much eye-opening, process. All the research we did on the KKK and White Supremacy probably got our computers flagged by the Government, but it was well worth it!

Collaborating with Edward and Sasha was a terrific and very rewarding experience all-around. It was my first time collaborating on a screenplay as opposed to writing it solo, and it was a very rewarding process. Sasha and I would send out the new draft, and Edward would have a round of notes ready for us thereafter. The faculty at the UNC School of the Art's School of Filmmaking knew they had a strong and important project on their hands, and were very accommodating during this entire process, providing some terrific feedback as well.


Death of a Wizard is part of a larger project.  Can you tell me about that?

Alexander Thompson: From an early point in development, Edward, Sasha and myself knew there was feature potential in the concept, narrative and themes. 16 minutes can only allow for so much breathing room in developing your characters and creating your world and as such, we are using the short as something of a 'sizzler' or teaser for the feature - a way to convey the aesthetic, tone, visual language, characters, etc. At some point in Wizard's post-production schedule - Early January of 212, if I recall correctly - Edward and I began serious discussion about the feature prospects for the story (Sasha politely declined interest, as he had relocated to LA even before Wizard went into production and now has some projects of his own in the works).

I put together a short treatment for the feature based on notes Edward and I had drawn up, and went through two or three revisions on that treatment with input from Edward after each pass. From there I began to write the first draft. Because I was balancing work on a few other short scripts that are now entering production as thesis films here at UNCSA the writing process took a bit longer than normal. I think about seven weeks altogether, give or take a week. We knew early on in the feature's development that the short's title wouldn't really fulfill the narrative ambitions of the feature as well as it did the short, so Edward proposed an alternative title of A Lynching on Cheyenne Road.

As for how A Lynching on Cheyenne Road will differ from Death of a Wizard, there are numerous ways and most of these come down to expanding the narrative - an enlarged back story, more characters, etc. The feature-length format does an excellent job of creating the world of the Deep South circa 1968, and the characters therein, that our short could only hint at.

We are currently shopping the script at a few production companies. We have interest from a financier in LA, but we want to weigh several options before moving forward with any offers


Alexa Reass:  I kept hearing notions about a feature the whole way through developing the short from Edward, Alex, and others outside the project. We tossed it around a little bit and I didn't hear too much about making Death of A Wizard into a feature until after we completed the short last fall. But I knew it was in everyone's heads and that we were going to at least have a script written.
Alexa Reass
Edward and Alex started outlining, developing, and writing the feature, during the postproduction of the short, around January. Edward gave me the first 20 pages or so shortly after and I read them and thought, "darn, this is pretty good." From then on I knew we had something serious on our hands and that it had the potential to be a great independent feature. They worked on it furiously all throughout last school year (mine and Edward's senior year) and by the end of the year they had finished a draft at about 106 pages. It's still in development but I believe it's to a point where we are all happy minus a few tweaks here and there and we are now at the point of trying to get the film funded. We have some promising prospects and are keeping our options open at the moment.
 

That's interesting how one thing leads to another. Where will people be able to see Death of a Wizard.  Will it be on the film festival circuit?

Alexander Thompson: Wizard is in the process of being submitted to festivals and other potential award venues as we speak. I will be sure to keep you posted on developments in this regard!

Alexa Reass:   As Alex said, Death of A Wizard is going to be submitted to festivals all throughout this year so we will hear about that soon. Right now there is no official way to view our film, as our school owns it for the first two years. But we will keep you posted.


Can you give me a synopsis of Death of a Wizard and how it dovetails into A Lynching on Cheyenne Road?

Alexander Thompson: Death of a Wizard  takes place in Georgia circa 1968. It follows African American teens Virgil and Remmy as they decide to bring down a prominent member of their community - a KKK Grand Wizard. Caught between their friendship and burning desire for justice is 12-year-old Billy, a Caucasian boy with a limited understanding about the nature of hate and violence.

In a core sense of the word, the feature follows a very similar narrative line, and both incarnations of the story arrive at a similar dénouement - the roads they take in getting to that end are, however, quite different. LYNCHING has a much larger cast than WIZARD, and we meet some truly fascinating secondary characters along the way. The whole town in LYNCHING really is a character unto itself. You really get a sense of time and place in the feature that we don't have time to convey in the short. Both Virgil and Remmy's backstory is given an expanded treatment, and they are all the more compelling for it.

That said, most of the key moments in WIZARD will carry over, just with a greater breadth and scope. As mentioned, there are some secondary characters in the feature that are just terrific.

In essence, we used WIZARD as something of a testing ground to see what worked, what didn't, what we could improve or expand upon, and what we needed to draw up from scratch altogether. It was a very educational process in that regard!


Edward Varnie: Death of a Wizard tells the story of a young caucasian boy Billy  and his two African American friends Virgil and Remmy slowly losing their innocence as they try not to give into the anger and hatred around them in the turbulent times of 1968.
Edward Varnie
In A Lynching on Cheyenne Road the story evolved into the maturation and transformation of all three characters. But more specifically the character journey of Virgil. We see the world through his eyes and his expriences as he has to learn how to be a man but also the values of rising about ignorance and mindless violence.  


Alexa Reass: Death of A Wizard is a period piece about three young boys growing up in the South in the late 60s mere months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Spurred on by these events and the constant tension and turmoil, the boys decide to retaliate by killing the grand wizard in their small southern town. Throughout the film they confront racism, poverty, and social unrest and ultimately they must deal with the consequences of taking the law into their own hands.

In essence, Death of a Wizard is just a piece of the story. You don't have a ton of time to tell a story in 16 minutes so we couldn't go into great detail in the back story of the characters or the backdrop of the time. So you end up with a glimpse of what happened, you sort of come in at the middle. A Lynching on Cheyenne Road expands the story on both sides and really delves into and develops the time period, characters, and story. We are focusing on the perspective of Virgil, as Alex said, and follow him through finding out about his father, deciding whether or not to do something, etc. and we see how it affects him as a person and the other characters as well. You will see Remmy's and Billy's stories evolve too alongside Virgil's.


It is filmed in black and white, to great effect,  which reminded of "In Cold Blood".   Why was black and white chosen and will A Lynching on Cheyenne Road have the same feel?    

Alexa Reass:  I'm going to leave this question to the director since it was his and the cinematographer's (Robbie) vision to go with black and white. But I will say we were all talking about shooting on film, in black and white from the very beginning. I love black and white film and I think it gives the film a certain edge and distinction that shooting in color would have left out.

Edward Varnie: Ideally that's what we would like to carry over. The black and white was used to capture the ideology of a lot of individuals from that period. I feel one of subtle themes in the short and feature. The scale of duality amongst characters in the story have no gray areas for how they feel about themselves and each other. The stark harsh black and white draws the line in the sand for the audience to choose Where they want to stand in this argument.  


Tell me about the actors you chose and how they fit the characters you envisioned.

Alexa Reass: I just want to start off by saying we could not have dreamed of a better cast. Winston-Salem isn't exactly the easiest area to cast in and we auditioned people for quite some time, a few weeks or maybe even longer. It was not a rushed process in any shape or form. When you find the right actor you know. He/she just clicks in your mind and you see them as the character and you hope that the same actors click for everyone. 

You can especially see when the director likes someone and with all of these guys, Devinron, Lorenzo, Jaxson, and Kayli, I could tell Edward had who he wanted. Our two main actors, Devinron and Lorenzo are both students in the drama department at UNCSA, which I think gets overlooked much too often when it comes to casting young parts. 

Marcese Lorenzo Roberts

They were hungry, always had great communication with Edward, and did anything they could to get into their character and understand the story. Each one definitely made the character their own and it's hard to separate one from the other now. Virgil is very gentle, patient, generally against violence (at least in the beginning), and he wants to protect Billy. Lorenzo really took that into him and played the protector/non-violent role very well. He's also a very funny and light-hearted guy and that can be seen in Virgil as well in the film.
Remmy on the other hand is a much more mysterious guy. He is quicker to fight than talk. He's more serious and brooding, and you can tell he's been through a lot. Devinron is a method actor and really took Remmy's personality on in all respects. He became the roughed, quite type and played it to a tee. He's a big guy too so he definitely fit into the towering character of Remmy. He also brought some of Remmy's emotions, which he (Remmy) doesn't often let people see. 

Devinron Ready


Jaxson Mitchell:  I played the lead role of Billy. He was a young boy growing up just trying to be a kid. My character did not understand the word or meaning of racism. Billy did not understand why everyone had a problem with him having friends like Virgil and Remy. He saw them as someone to look up to. Billy seemed to have had to rush growing up. He had no one else. His brother was in jail and he was living with a sick grandmother who he was having to take complete care of.
Jaxson Mitchell
I loved playing the role of Billy. I learned so much becoming this character. I was unaware of what it was like growing up in those times. Just to hear of the time period the script was set to was so interesting. It was very eye opening to me.

Alexa Reass: Jaxson was the perfect kid to play Billy. He has a great look and he's a great actor too. He worked hard through every rehearsal we had and became Billy right before our eyes. And that's all Edward right there. He really worked well with Jaxson and knew what to say and how to be around him. He also developed a friendship with Devinron and Lorenzo that can be seen on screen in how easily they get along and joked around. Jaxson was such a pleasure to be around; he's a very funny and amazing kid. 


Kayli Tolleson:  I played the role of Linda. I was the youngest daughter of the Wizard. My character did not know who or what her father was to everyone else. To me, he was just my father, but everyone else knew he was the Wizard and was connected to the KKK. 
Kayli Tolleson
My role was challenging because it was a non-speaking role and I was in some very difficult situations. Everything I did in the story had to be acted through my face-my eyes especially- lots of emotion and body language, and I had to scream!

I really enjoyed working with everyone on the set. Everyone was very respectful of the fact that Jaxson and I were there, and that we were children, and this was a very mature topic. I did a lot of research online and through looking at pictures from Time Magazine of this time in history.

I was honored to be a part of telling this story.


Alexa Reass: Kayli was cast as the little sister in the film and she was fantastic as well. Her and Jaxson hit it off in a rehearsal done on location and that was great because their scenes together were more believable because they were comfortable around each other. She played the scared sister role very well and had to be in some intense scenes in the film and did great through all of them. We are very grateful we were able to cast such amazing actors in all the roles and they really all do fit perfectly into their characters.

Edward Varnie: With any character work I think of the qualitys and traits that I feel the character and actor should have in common.  The group if actors we worked with and possibly want to work with again in the future were passionate about the material and ideas of the characters and story. That's why they excelled and elevated the film. Actors are the tools story tellers carve the foundation of the story with.           



Anyone have any anecdotes about working on the set of Death of a Wizard?

Edward Varnie: Well this is more pre-production than actual set. For our all crew meetings I came in dancing to the 90's Chicago Bulls warm up song. While wearing a KLM hood. That was real fun for me and the key crew. Also to show everyone we're making a serious film about a serious subject matter but we don't have to take ourselves so serious.

Alex Thompson: Oh wow, where does one begin with set anecdotes from Wizard?
For me, perhaps the single most exhilarating moment was the very first night of shooting. This was the big "KKK Rally" sequence that opens the film, immediately setting the precedent for the tone of the film. There must have been well over 100 people on set that night, including fire marshals since we were working with burning crosses. The scope was just enormous for a film made for as little as it was. You'd think you'd just walked onto the set of a well-budgeted indie feature instead of a short! As one of the writers, it was a humbling and awe-inspiring moment to see so many people working so diligently toward one unified vision, all stemming from the words Sasha and I had committed to paper. 


Photo by Alexander Thompson

Jaxson Mitchell: That would also be one of mine as well! Loved the atmosphere that night of filming the KKK rally. Another for me was the Junk Yard Scene that was epic. And of course how could I forget the death scene. I was absolutely excited about this scene. I was able to work with special effects on that night. This short had so many firsts for me that it truly was remember-able for me. After this script it is hard not to compare all scripts to this one. This was one of the best scripts, cast and crew to have had the opportunity to work with.

Kayli Tolleson:  I thought the scene where I was chased into the bedroom and hid under the bed was a good scene. I  know it was hard for the crew to figure out the bed and how I could be under it and then drug out from underneath it without hitting my head. One other cool thing that I saw was how they figured out how to make the bullet holes in the door. I had not seen anyone do that before and it was neat the way they came up with the idea.

Alex Thompson: As I recall the exploding door effect had to be shot twice (the latter as a pick-up shot after principal photography) because it didn't work quite right the first time around. The effect was achieved by drilling out the bullet "holes" into a prop door we installed, patching them over and painting over the holes after filling them with sawdust and other debris, then blasting them out via air-pressure. Perhaps someone wants to correct me on this? As I recall this was the technique used to execute the effect...

Kayli Tolleson: YES!  that is how the bullet holes were made!

Jaxson Mitchell: That is how I remember it as well with the bullets. During the Junk yard scene I had to use an E-Cigerette with just the water vapor. The production designer on set helped me with how to hold it and how to make the scene look so real. I do not condone smoking whatsoever but it's all about acting. This was the last night of filming for me and it was a great night to end on.  All the crew members were stoked at how well the scene went. They were hollering Award Winning. Everyone always asks me was it real.

When will the public be able to see Death of a Wizard screened?


Edward Varnie:  We're still in the process of submitting to festivals and other types of competitions. So the  best thing for the public to do is fight and ask about its availability to the mass public.  People need to start the movement that makes Death of a Wizard and films like it a need and demand. I'm sure if the public generates enough noise online and in other types of art house circles, Death of a Wizard can go viral and touch many people in different places. To me, it is the kind of story that can do that. 


Photo by Alexander Thompson
Thanks to all of you for telling us about Death of a Wizard and A Lynching on Cheyenne Road. Check out the links below to learn more about these films.


Official Facebook page for Death of a Wizard 


JuntoBox Films project page for A Lynching on Cheyenne Road


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I was very disappointed at the narrow scope of this article. I appreciated the script, cinematography and acting...but truly felt that the production design is what made this film shine...what made it real for me. I was very surprised that more wasn't said about that aspect of the film and the crew behind it...particularly the production designer.

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