NICHOLASVILLE — After the academic year ended at Asbury University in Wilmore, a few dozen media communications students and recent graduates went to school on a real film set.
Assistant professor Joshua Overbay went straight from classes to a three-week shoot for As It Is in Heaven, a feature-length film about a cult leader dealing with the aftermath of his doomsday prophecy not coming true.
"I have always been fascinated by cults and cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh," Overbay said during a break from shooting Thursday at a home in rural Jessamine County. "What really fascinated me about their lives is that often they started from what I think are very sincere roots and good intentions. To me, I think the interesting story is, 'Where did things go awry? Where did it take a dark turn?'"
In most movies, Overbay said, cult leaders are portrayed as simplistic and inhuman, so he wanted to tell a story with more depth.
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He also wanted to make a feature-length movie.
It's something Overbay had been wanting to do for a while, but even with the relatively low costs of digital filmmaking equipment, putting up even a modestly budgeted professional-quality production can be prohibitively expensive.
Late last year, Overbay thought to turn to the hot fund-raising tool Kickstarter.com.
"We had 30 days to raise $10,000, and within 21 days we raised $10,000 and in the last few days we raised $11,000," said producer Michael Grout, a recent Asbury graduate. "We got a lot of excitement from the media-com department, just that we were doing it ourselves."
The film is being made by two production companies, Tracking Shot Productions, Overbay's company with cinematographer Isaac Pletcher, and Embark Visuals, Grout's company with Asbury graduates Aaron Holmes and Nathaniel Glass.
"It's not officially an Asbury project, but it is connected in that I am a member of the faculty there, so Asbury can support me in my professional endeavors," Overbay said, noting there are also several professionals from out of the state working in key roles. "So this is a professional endeavor.
"However, the majority of students working here are taking this for either an internship or a class."
One of the 30 current students or recent graduates is Blake Lawless, who worked as a unit production manager on the film.
"This is an awesome opportunity," Lawless said.
Asbury, which is well-known nationally for its media communications program, has seen plenty of filmmaking activity by students and faculty, but a professional feature-length film involving so many students is unprecedented, Lawless said.
In three weeks of filming, Overbay said he has seen an impact on his students, particularly in working with pros like Pletcher, the cinematographer.
"I'm just as confident in their work as anyone else's," Overbay said. "And they've proved themselves.
"There is a different mind-set from when you create a project for a class as opposed to, here is a project where the stakes are incredibly high for a lot of people in this, and we're going to let you come be part of that. I've noticed an incredible change in the students when they realize, this isn't play, this is for real."
After a quick post-production process, Overbay and Grout plan to submit the movie to about a dozen film festivals, including Sundance. Depending on how the festivals go, they also plan to seek distribution in limited theatrical release as well as home video and online releases.
"It's not intended for mass audience, and we know that going in," Overbay said. "It's for a niche audience, and we want to get as many people to see it as possible."
The past few weeks have been an experiment, Overbay said, with a lot of support from Asbury. But if it is successful, he hopes it will be the start of something associated with the Wilmore school.
"Depending on the success of this, we'll see what happens," Overbay said. "But it will feel like an incredible accomplishment that we made this."