Depth of focus

Four cinema majors living in Chicago create their first movie.
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Cinema had 20 majors in the class of 2009, the biggest crop the department has had to date — but even so, it’s surprising that four of them have ended up creating their own production company.

In the fall of 2015, Denison was treated to a preview screening of Not Welcome, the new feature film from Family Squid, a company formed in 2010 by ’09 grads Brian Crush, Jay Hurst, Michael Palzkill, and Marc Sloboda. A few months out from graduation, the former classmates realized that they were all living in the Chicago area.

“We always had a mutual admiration for each other’s work,” Crush recalls, so when Hurst and Sloboda had an idea for a script collaboration, working together felt like a natural step.

Although they didn’t initially plan to continue the partnership long-term, it felt right as they learned how to work together and shared ideas for future projects. “During all of this time we’d talk about what we wanted to do with our lives, identities, existential stuff as well as more standard career talk,” says Crush. “We knew that doing this was what we really wanted to do, we wanted to make movies and we wanted to make a career out of it.”

What if someone else were living in your house, and you had no idea?

After creating a number of shorter projects together, the group decided to work on the feature-length Not Welcome. Sloboda had carefully written the script so that it would be as inexpensive as possible to film. His initial question: What if someone else were living in your house, and you had no idea?

Appropriately enough, filming Not Welcome involved crashing in someone else’s place (though, unlike in the movie, Family Squid had permission). While filming scenes that take place in the main characters’ home, cast and crew lived and worked together in a house they found on Airbnb. In the end, they spent only 12 days filming (plus four days of pickups a few months later). Since post-production only wrapped up about two weeks ago, Family Squid’s visit to Denison marked the first showing of the finished work.

That first screening proved very popular, with the Cinema House viewing room packed to the point of being standing room only. Associate Professor of Cinema Jonathan Walley introduced the film-makers, all of whom he had taught (Sloboda still holds the record for most classes ever taken with Walley: five). “So I take credit for what you’re about to see — if it’s good,” Walley joked.

Fortunately for everybody, it was: the audience laughed frequently, and stuck around afterward for an energetic Q&A session. One common point of curiosity: the possibility of someone else secretly living in your home is kind of terrifying; why turn it into a comedy? “I don’t know how to do anything else,” Sloboda quipped.

Family Squid’s visit wasn’t just limited to that one screening, though; they were on campus for four days, and spent a lot of time interacting with students. “I think my favorite part of being back on campus was reconnecting with our professors (and then working with them to speak with students),” says Palzkill. “I know for me, the relationships I had with the cinema professors were instrumental in what I've done since leaving campus. And it was an incredible feeling being able to take what they've given us, combined with our own experiences, and try to pass some of that on to the current students.”

Returning to campus for the first time in six years also encouraged Family Squid to reflect on their time at Denison. “Denison gave me an opportunity to find out for myself what I was good at and what I wasn't,” Crush explains. “Skills or insights I lacked I was encouraged to find people who could help fill those gaps, so I did. And I didn't have to look far.”

“When I left in 2009, I felt prepared to take on anything,” Sloboda adds, “Because I had learned how to think.”

December 4, 2015