NMSU alum to screen short film at Cannes
Damien Willis, Las Cruces Sun-News
LAS CRUCES – Sometimes good news comes at just the right time.
Such was the case for Julian Alexander, a 2014 graduate of New Mexico State University’s Creative Media Institute. Alexander is now working on his master’s degree in filmmaking at Leeds Beckett University’s Northern Film School in Leeds, England.
Last month, he received word that his short film, “Buffalo,” — which he made as a student at CMI — was accepted to be shown at the Short Film Corner during the Cannes Film Festival — perhaps the most prestigious film festival in the world.
But success did not come overnight for Alexander. In fact, it came at the end of a long string of rejections.“To be completely honest, I was probably at my most creative low — I was creatively depressed at the time,” Alexander said. “We’d been sending it to so many festivals, and getting rejected each time.”
As soon as the film was complete, in mid-2014, Alexander and his team submitted “Buffalo” to about 10 film festivals.
“Rejection letter after rejection letter, they began piling up, and we really began to question our creative integrity,” Alexander said. “I was talking to Keagan Karnes, my producer for ‘Buffalo,’ who has three films hitting the festival circuit at the same time — so he was getting three times the rejection letters that I was.”
Then he submitted to Cannes — twice, actually.
“I sent it to two things,” he said. “One was a student film festival, which it didn’t get into, and the other was the Short Film Corner. It cost 80 Euros (about $91), and my student loans had just come in. About two weeks later, I found out it had been accepted, and everything changed. It was like a switch, and my whole outlook got better. It was incredible.”
Director Julian Alexander, left, on the set of his
Director Julian Alexander, left, on the set of his short film, “Buffalo.” Alexander is a graduate of NMSU’s Creative Media Institute, and “Buffalo” was recently selected to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Also pictured, from left to right, are crew members Andrew Griego, Dillon Glazebrook and Ilana Lapid. (Photo: Courtesy Photo / Cristina Comancho)
The 20-minute short film is a period piece, set in the American west during the time of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, or Buffalo Soldiers.
“The film is about Sgt. Young, who is a Buffalo Soldier, and Officer Wilson, his white commanding officer, as they escort hunters throughout Apache territory,” Alexander explained. Tensions rise among the group as the hunters discriminate against Young.
“Spanning the length of their journey, they not only overcome racial barriers but they also form a bond. They really come to understand and rise to meet their moral obligation to protect each other as human beings,” he said.
Both Young and Wilson ultimately overcome their complex racial prejudices, steeped in complicated histories, to form a powerful bond.
Young is played by Craig Tate, a Los Angeles-based actor who appeared in “12 Years a Slave.” Alexander flew him in from California for production of the film, most of which was filmed in Cubero, New Mexico, near Grants. Alexander estimates the project cost about $15,000 to make.
“Buffalo” was Alexander’s senior project for CMI; Assistant Professor Ilana Lapid served as his advisor.
“It was a tremendously ambitious project,” Lapid said. “I would say it was on par with thesis films I saw at USC in graduate school. It was a period piece, shot on-location, and involved horses and buffalo — and the only white buffalo in the state of New Mexico. There were stunts and battles — a lot of complicated production elements at play that Julian and Keagan pulled together.”
Karnes said Alexander’s ambition was at times hard to keep up with.
“It was just a HUGE, ambitious project,” he said. “Julian always wants to make everything bigger and better. So I was just trying to keep up with him, on the producing end, trying to get all of these horses and buffalo.”
A long-awaited debut
The completed film has never been shown publicly. A version was shown at the White Sands International Film Festival in a private screening a couple of years ago, Alexander said.
“It was a really rough cut,” he laughed. “You could hear me yelling ‘Action!’ and “Cut!’ in some places. But it was really helpful, because we were able to get a lot of feedback, and I think it helped us to improve the film.”
When Alexander submitted to Cannes, his expectations had been lowered by so many rejections.
“It was crazy,” Karnes recalled. “He called me one morning, and he’s like, ‘Dude, we’re in Cannes.’ I just couldn’t believe it, because it had been a constant stream of rejection, and then to get into the biggest film festival in the world. It almost makes you believe in fate — to think that we were rejected at all of those other festival so we could premiere at Cannes.”
Lapid said she tries to get her students to understand that rejection comes with the territory of being a filmmaker.
“I remember having a conversation with Keagan and Julian here in Las Cruces before Julian left for the U.K.,” she said. “They were feeling frustrated because of these rejections. And I kept telling them that they can’t give up on their project. They’ve got so much energy, money, time and emotion invested in it. You have to shepherd your project along, and be loyal to it, until it finally finds its audience and gets the break that it deserves.”
Director Julian Alexander, right, consults with senior
Director Julian Alexander, right, consults with senior project advisor Ilana Lapid, on the set of “Buffalo.” (Photo: Courtesy Photo / Cristina Comancho)
Not the only success story
Alexander and Karnes will be traveling to France on May 16 to debut “Buffalo” at the Short Film Corner. But Cannes is not the only recent success enjoyed by CMI alums.
One of the things that students at CMI tend to agree upon is a shared belief that the creative energy fostered among cohorts in the program lends itself to a general atmosphere of creativity. Students step up and help out on each others’ projects, and many continue working together long after they graduate.
That’s what happened with Alexander and Karnes. Karnes has also continued working with Sheridan O’Donnell, a 2011 graduate of the program. O’Donnell, who now lives in Albuquerque and works in the film industry, is also beginning to enjoy some success.
Karnes, aside from being a producer, is also a writer and director. A comedy short he made recently was just accepted into the Hollywood Comedy Shorts Film Festival.
“It’s called ‘Good Cop, Good Cop,’ and it’s a little, five-minute comedy about two cops doing the good cop/bad cop routine, but one of the cops just can’t get it,” Karnes said. “It ended up doing pretty well on the festival circuit. It just got into the Hollywood Comedy Shorts Film Festival, and it’s playing at the Chinese Theatre later this month.”
Lapid said seeing alumni do well helps motivate the program’s current students.
“It’s really inspiring for our current students to see that the students that graduated ahead of them are meeting with success and getting their films into festivals,” Lapid said. “They’re making that transition from film school into the world of being independent filmmakers. We also hope that the relationships, the networks that students build while at CMI, and that continue once they graduate will enable them to continue to work together and lead them to employment opportunities in the future.”
Lapid credits the leadership of department head Amy Lanasa for creating an atmosphere of collaboration among cohorts of students.
“Amy is doing an amazing job as our department head. She’s really providing the leadership, the vision and the guidance necessary for our program to flourish,” Lapid said. “We’re starting to see students coming from other places — we just had a student come in from Alaska. The quality of the program is strong, and we’re attracting strong students with so much potential.”
Las Cruces screenings for many of CMI’s success stories are in the works, and could begin materializing within the next few weeks — perhaps as fundraises for the filmmakers to attend the various festivals around the world. Details, O’Donnell said, will be forthcoming.
For information about “Buffalo,” visit bitly.com/BuffaloFilm. To learn more about the CMI program at NMSU, visit cmi.nmsu.edu.
Damien Willis may be reached at 575-541-5468, firstname.lastname@example.org or @damienwillis on Twitter.