Wilkes students eye Sundance with indie film ‘Pitchfork’

Bill Thomas, A&E Editor

On Friday, Sept. 7, the first night of shooting for the short film “Pitchfork” took place. Right out of the gate, co-directors Ryan Wood and Todd Oravic realized they needed to call 911.

It’s not that there was an emergency, but the recipe for one was certainly there.

“The scene we shot on our first night was, by far, the hardest scene in the entire film,” Wood said. “It was us in the pitch-black of night, with 8-foot torches on a stage while people danced, and we had to make it rain on cue. With a budget likes ours, that is a worst-case filming scenario.”

An independent production paid for primarily with donations garnered via crowdsource-funding website Kickstarter.com, “Pitchfork” is the most ambitious project to date for Woodavic Studios, a filmmaking company founded in 2011 by Wood and Oravic.

“It was chaotic,” Wood, a senior communication studies major at Wilkes University, said bluntly when asked to describe that first night of filming.

At the suggestion of the film’s lead, Michael Lally, who is also a firefighter in Scranton, Wood and Oravic decided to let emergency services know of their plans ahead of time.

“I told them right away ‘Listen, this is not an emergency’ and the response was just ‘Uh, OK,’ Oravic, a senior English major at Wilkes, recalled. “I said ‘We’re shooting a film in this cornfield and there’s going to be a lot of fire. We just don’t want people to call you guys saying there’s a field on fire.’”

“Their response was ‘Well, we can have it on the docket as a controlled burn, but if we get any calls from anyone saying that everything’s ablaze, we’re coming out there anyway.’”

Fortunately for the pair, filming for that scene went off largely without a hitch. That’s more than can be said about the rest of the weekend, though.

On Saturday, the planned shoot got rained out. Wood and Oravic also found themselves overwhelmed, at first, in their attempts to oversee the large crew assembled before them. Prior to the shoot, they’d hope to attract volunteers, but they hadn’t expected the sheer number of people who would actually show up to help.

While thankful for the eagerness with which the public has embraced the project, the directors admit the film has revealed itself to be more of a double-edged sword than a pitchfork.

On top of inclement weather and potential fire hazards, abrupt and unforeseen circumstances sent the filmmakers in search of a new filming location mere days before production was scheduled to begin. Despite all the headaches, Wood and Oravic feel “Pitchfork” is a project worthy of their best efforts.

“When we read the script, we were blown away,” Wood said. “We knew right away that we had to make this movie.”

Written by Kevin Conner, who finished the sceenplay while enrolled in Wilkes’ graduate Creative Writing program, “Pitchfork” tells the story of a down-on-his-luck farmer trying to salvage both his drought-ravaged cornfield and a slowly hemorrhaging marriage, only to find that the future of one may come at the expense of the other.

“It goes to a dark place, but it’s also goes into an amazingly uplifting place. It’s a love story, but a gritty one.” Oravic said. “The tone of it is very quiet. There’s no dialogue. It’s heavily based around sound effects and visuals and the performances and the music.”

The intense-yet-subttle dramatic narrative of “Pitchfork” marks a departure for Wood and Oravic, whose previous collaborations have mostly focused on no-budget skits of absurdist comedy. To date, the pair estimates they’ve made around 15 such skits together, several of which can be viewed on the Woodavic Studios YouTube channel.

Though their background is in lighter material, the directors believe the division between comedy and drama is a superficial one. Both genres, they noted, are still based on engaging the emotions of an audience and moving viewers toward a specific impassioned reaction.

“Comedy and drama are different houses built on the same foundation. They’re just different color houses,” Wood said. “You go about designing it differently, but really the roots are the same.”

Fittingly, the directorial duo’s excitement for “Pitchfork” has proven equally as infectious as a hearty laugh. Though their initial fundraising goal was $2,500, donations came in not just from family and friends but from people the pair had never met before, from as far away as Singapore, Australia and Portugal. The outpouring of support pushed the budget up to $4,176.

In a symbiotic cycle wherein the pair’s enthusiasm seems to spread to those around them, only for the enthusiasm of others to embolden their own, Wood and Oravic have developed lofty aspirations for their labor of love. Once “Pitchfork” is completed, they hope to submit it to a number of film festivals, including the iconic Sundance Film Festival, and will also be seeking distribution.

“The second anybody reads this script they’re in love with it and they instantly want to do everything they can to help bring this thing to life,” Wood said. “All we can do is be sincerely grateful for all the help we’ve received.”

For more information, visit facebook.com/PitchforkFilm.