Haunting, beautifully shot, and with a brilliant cast, the student film Riverrun has garnered some attention over the past few months in small circles among the Sarah Lawrence community. Currently in the final stages of production, this film is shaping up to be, both in appearance and content, a very thought-provoking drama.
The film’s protagonist, played by Hannah Cohen-Lawlor (‘17), awakens in a purgatory that resembles her hometown, as she has just passed away. Her guide, played by Alex Carroll (‘16), walks her to her final judgment. On the way, they reminisce about significant events from her past life, mostly from young adulthood and growing up in a heavily Catholic home and school. Riverrun explores the roles of faith and religion in today’s society, as well as the highly relatable pressure that arises from needing to meet expectations.
“We decided that we would focus on a certain incident […] and how that incident affected the rest of her life, even into death,” Carroll says. Screenwriter, co-star, and executive producer, he derived inspiration from several literary sources: “Definitely Dante’s Inferno, and most of James Joyce’s works, as the title would suggest, had some influence on the project in the early stages.”
The title itself is the first word of Joyce’s novel, Finnegan’s Wake, but corresponds to the plot arc in terms of the protagonist’s journey, and the mistakes and small joys that tossed her through life.
Behind the scenes are Amit Sankaran (‘17) and Richie Warke (‘18), who have been working hard to bring this tragic story to life. “I want this film to be very beautiful, and give new filmmakers ideas on how to make a cheap movie look really good,” director Cameron Martinez (‘16) said.
Sankaran, the gaffer on set, bases his setups on lessons from past photography jobs, both amateur and professional, the lessons learned in Misael Sanchez’s “Working with Light and Shadows” class and various other projects at SLC. He said, “learning the way different lights look and interact in different environments has helped me develop and execute the vision that we, the crew, have put together for this film.”
Warke brings his two years of DSLR filmmaking to the table, in an effective collaboration with the others. Along with the importance of creating a pretty scene, Sankaran emphasizes the simplicity he required of the light setups, since “[the] script is very performance-driven, and I didn’t want to get in the way of overcomplicated lighting.” Because most of the shoots take place late at night, yet the scenes are set during the day, recreating nonexistent light is a significant challenge, which Amit and Richie have successfully risen to meet. Warke too believes in creating “a look that is both clean and focused. [For example] throughout the short we used maximum aperture […] the subject would be in focus and the background would be blurred. This way the focus would be directed towards the subjects.”
One of the highlights of Riverrun is the deeply moving score written by Jacob Rozmajzl, a freshman at James Madison University studying opera, composition, and the music industry. A sample of his music can be found in the film’s trailer.
Despite the heaviness of the film’s content, on set the vibe is generally lively and positive; it is clear every crewmember not only wants to create a fantastic final product, but also enjoys the company and collaboration with one another. Even when shooting externals on a frigid night, there will still be ample jokes passed around in between takes. “It’s great because you get really close with the rest of your crew,” Cohen-Lawlor says, “You’re always lucky to get a chance to work with your friends.”
With Martinez at the helm of production and a multitalented crew, this is a film worth seeing. “This film asks questions that aren’t really asked in mainstream cinema,” Martinez says, “Hopefully audiences have an emotional reaction and can connect with it.” Cohen-Lawlor agrees the work “was wonderfully written […] I hope anyone who watches it walks away entertained, but also with new insight into the human condition. Not to mention, the actors and crew did some amazing work that deserves to be seen.”
The release date of Riverrun is yet to be determined but until then check out the trailer.