When Hobart resident Juan A. Mendez attended Indiana University Northwest about 10 years ago, he wanted to be a writer. He majored in English and minored in performing arts, pursuing disciplines that stoked his desire to create on the page and the stage.
Now, eight years after earning his IU Northwest degree, Mendez’s creative journey has led him to the big screen, where he and filmmaking partner Zernul R. Shackelford, of Merrillville, will premiere their debut feature at the Portage 16 IMAX on Thursday, Aug. 20, at 7:15 p.m. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted. Cast and crew members will be in attendance to chat with the audience.
“I had always enjoyed writing, but I also enjoyed films, and I had thought about becoming a filmmaker,” said Mendez, 54, who took a screenwriting class at IU Northwest with the late instructor and Northwest Indiana film critic Jim Gordon.
Mendez wrote and directed “Red,” but he also took a brief turn in front of the camera for a flashback scene.
“I used to perform (at Theatre Northwest) with (Associate Professor) Jerry Taylor,” Mendez said. “I performed with him and took some classes with him. I think that’s when I felt the most alive, when I was on stage. I really enjoyed acting.”
“Red” began life as a short story Mendez wrote that focused more pointedly on drugs. He decided to adapt the piece for a student film he made as part of the Chicago Filmmakers’ Workshop, a month-long filmmaking program in the city. A chance encounter with Shackelford led Mendez to ask the producer, composer and musician to edit his student film.
Although Shackelford wasn’t thrilled with the short film’s drug angle, he was impressed by Mendez’s ambition for the movie. So he was only too happy to assist his friend in bringing a feature-length version to the screen.
“A lot of guys at that (student) stage would probably just shoot an interview, a couple of guys talking in a room,” said Shackelford, who managed the lighting, editing, sound, and music on "Red." “He was going for locations, and he was going for depth. I thought that was pretty impressive for this stage of the game. Several years later we talked about it, and he wanted to shoot the real thing.”
For his part, Mendez appreciated the care with which Shackelford edited his short film.
“I saw the meticulousness with which he was working on that little film,” he said. “I mean, it was practically going nowhere, and yet he devoted a lot of time to it. He was really thorough. I thought, ‘Wow, if he’s putting this kind of effort into this five-minute project … I want him on board when it comes to the big project.”
“Red” tells the story of Manny (Chris Miguet), a 15-year-old student in a Midwestern town whose life is complicated by his mother Liz’s (Beth O’Neill) attachment to her ne’er-do-well boyfriend (Brett Plyler). The film follows the main characters as they make decisions that irrevocably change their own lives and those around them.
On Shackelford’s advice, Mendez diminished the drug angle, but the film retains its hardscrabble sense of reality about the lives of its characters. Shot on location throughout Northwest Indiana and also in Illinois and Wisconsin, the film aims for the sort of low-budget ambiance that often finds favor with film-festival crowds.
Mendez and Shackelford are proud of their production and plan to submit “Red” for consideration in various film festivals, including Sundance and Cannes. But premiering their movie before a hometown crowd in Northwest Indiana is a thrill all its own, they said. The Portage 16 IMAX does occasionally make its screens available to local filmmakers who wish to show locally produced features.
“I told my aunt that I had made a movie that was going to play at a theater, and she didn’t believe me,” Mendez recalled. “She thought it was going to be in somebody’s basement somewhere. I told her, ‘No, it’s a real theater. With popcorn and everything!’”
Shackelford, whose wife, Keri, is an IU Northwest School of Education grad, said the production ran into many of the usual problems that beset a low-budget shoot, including casting and location changes. Most of the difficulties turned into blessings, he said, because the changes that were required improved the finished film.
“This is a very different film from what it would have been (without those changes),” he said. “It helped to make the film quite a bit better. I am very proud of the film.”
For more information on “Red,” visit the film’s Web site at http://www.darquesydeofdlyte.com/Red.html