PETER NICKS, ESCAPING MORGANTOWN
SFFS/KRF Filmmaking Grant Winner; $35,000 for screenwriting, Fall 2013.
What was the inspiration for this story?
Escaping Morgantown is a story inspired by the year I spent in federal prison on drug charges in the hills of Morgantown, West Virginia in 1990. And being that I was a creative writing major at Howard University when I got arrested, I think I began taking mental notes for this story the day I self-reported to that tiny minimum security prison. I loved prison films growing up, especially One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Midnight Express. So I couldn’t help but filter my experience through the scenes of these films. Sometimes the stereotypes materialized, but more often they did not. My time there became about getting to know a remarkably diverse bunch of convicts for whom this prison had become home. Many of them were career criminals. Some were third or fourth generation convicts. Their fates had seemingly been determined and they did not seem very eager—or able—to alter the trajectory of their lives. Similarly, I discovered that many of the staff and guards were born in this poor coal-mining region. Working at the prison was one of the few options they had in life. I also got to know the local soldiers. We served them lunch at the local guard base just months before they were all shipped off to fight in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. We couldn’t leave. They couldn’t leave. Everyone was doing time in their own way. That really became the foundation of the idea for the film—this notion of exploring the disparate fates and trajectories of a bunch of very different people joined together by a common experience.
What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
One of the bigger challenges that I’m seeing is the length of time—and the limited resources available—to bring quality cinema to screen that is not formulaic. We are fighting for resources against tent-pole franchises—not to mention increased competition from video games and small screens—and that is a tough battle. And once the films get made there is the additional dilemma of finding the resources to market and sell these quality films to the appropriate audience. This leads to a very narrow cohort of people able to make films: those with the resources to do so. Not only are there very few of us out there able to finance our own films, but more troubling is that this truly precludes talent from the lower end of the economic ladder from getting the opportunities they deserve.
What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?
Putting the artistic tools needed to make great films aside, networking and personal relationships are one of the most important aspects of getting a film financed, shot and distributed properly. Being a part of the San Francisco Film Society community presents innumerable chances for synergy. New relationships are forged at each gathering. And occasionally these encounters lead to new opportunities, new supporters, fresh inspiration. The human interactions are what really make a difference in the filmmaking process. Because that solitary process of grinding it out on the computer can only take you so far. I really think SFFS understands that a strong community fosters strong individual artists.
Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society support has had on the film.
The SFFS support has made a huge impact on the life of my film and moved it from idea to the page. Being given the financial freedom to write is rare. And for a filmmaker trying to push the boundaries of genre and cut against the grain, it is a true gift. I’m now part of a community of like-minded creative spirits who inspire me, encourage me and guide me at every step of the way. And that’s vital, because we can’t do it alone.
The Spring 2014 SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant round is currently open to apply!
The Film Society has established an excellent track record of success with the 37 projects previously funded by SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grants, with supported films winning top honors at the world’s premier festivals, garnering critical and popular acclaim and capturing the imaginations of audiences worldwide. As the grant program continues to grow, more and more exceptional independent features will join the distinguished company of such films as Short Term 12, Destin Cretton’s sophomore feature which won both the Narrative Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at South by Southwest 2013; Ryan Coogler’s debut feature Fruitvale Station, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the narrative category at Sundance 2013 and is an Oscar hopeful in multiple categories; and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s debut phenomenon which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and Cannes’ Camera d’Or in 2012 and earned four Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture).