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Teen directed movie after getting braces off — and got his orthodontist to invest

Josiah Stendel, 16, who wrote, directed and produced the short film “Orphaned Courage,” formed a video production company when he was 13.
Josiah Stendel, 16, who wrote, directed and produced the short film “Orphaned Courage,” formed a video production company when he was 13. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Josiah Stendel was in a rush to get his braces off. After all, how many movie directors go on set with a mouth full of metal?

A high school junior from Richmond, Josiah leaned heavily on his orthodontist and managed to get his braces removed the day before filming began for “Orphaned Courage,” a 30-minute feature that he wrote, directed and produced.

The film premieres at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Kentucky Theatre.

“It’s a newly discovered passion,” Josiah, 16, said of filmmaking. “Something comes alive in me when I’m doing it.”

The film “became so much more than I ever imagined,” Josiah said, with a team of 40 professionals from four states coming together to work on it. Support from the community and local businesses also made the film possible, because it was produced on a budget of just $2,500.

“Even my orthodontist privately invested quite a bit into the project,” he said, grinning.

The film tells the story of Elliot Thompson (played by Chad Zigmund), an orphan raised by a professional mixed martial arts fighter who learns that his estranged brother (John Wells) is a gang leader.

Josiah said The underlying message is, “It doesn’t matter whose blood you have, but whose heart you have.” His goal is to use “Orphaned Courage” as a fundraising tool for adoption, a cause close to his heart because he has four adopted cousins.

Profits from the premiere event will be donated to the ABBA Fund, an organization that gives interest-free loans to families who are trying to adopt. The donation will be used to set up a fund specifically for Kentucky families, and because the loans are repaid by those who receive them, Josiah said, “it really is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Silvio Wolf Busch, one of the actors in “Orphaned Courage,” said filming was half over before he learned that his director was just 15 at the time.

“I thought he was in college or something,” Busch said.

But he said Josiah’s talent as a director is evident: He understands the technical side of filming but also has the creative vision that helps him coach actors to get just the performance he wants.

“Josiah knew exactly what he wanted in every shot,” he said.

Making the film was a special experience, Busch said, and he hopes to get to explore more of the stories behind the characters Josiah created.

Busch has worked on plenty of sets in past years, including the 2014 film “The Fault in Our Stars.”

“I didn’t have any more fun on that set than I had on this one,” he said. “What impressed me is how everybody magically came together and pitched in.”

A three-minute edit of the film was among the top 15 entries for best sound design in the My Rode Reel competition this summer.

“Orphaned Courage” is his most ambitious project yet, but Josiah isn’t a film production newbie. He started his own video production company, Menlo Lights, when he was 13. The business offers promotional videos, wedding highlights trailers, music videos and more.

His first short feature film was about a pickpocket who undergoes a radical change and begins putting things in other people’s pockets.

“After that, people were asking me, ‘When’s your next film coming out?’” he said.

Josiah is home-schooled. His “momager,” Andrea Stendel, said her son is a self-starter who independently seeks out information on topics that interest him. Over the summer, he sometimes spent 13 to 16 hours a day editing film.

“It’s not work for him,” she said.

Before he caught the filmmaking bug, Josiah was into engineering, which he said has helped with the technical side of production.

With each project he undertakes, he said, “I always try to challenge myself in a different way.”

For “Orphaned Courage,” the challenge was in stunts and special effects. He integrated fight scenes, a ceiling collapse and a burning building.

Josiah would love to make a feature film someday, but he isn’t talking about his next project just yet. That information is to be revealed to holders of VIP tickets at the premiere.

“I’m dreaming big again,” he said.

If you go

“Orphaned Courage” premiere

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22

Where: Kentucky Theatre

Cost: $12.50; VIP tickets are $30. Go to Showclix.com/event/orphaned-courage.

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