Moviemaking Ducks score big with their first film out of college

Actors in makeup

It’s the stuff of the silver screen: A bunch of idealistic college students bond while taking cinema studies classes together. They regroup soon after graduation to make a movie and enter it in a film festival on a whim. In a perfect storybook ending, their film wins multiple awards.

Except that it’s a true story, and it all began at the University of Oregon’s cinema studies department.

The protagonist in this movie is Brad Burke, a 2016 cinema studies graduate who pulled it all together. Key supporting roles are played by Claire Haines, a 2015 cinema studies alum and now the second-in-command at Burke’s production company, and Andre Sirois, an instructor in the cinema studies program who would prove instrumental in the group’s success.

It was 2015, and Burke, Haines and several other students connected in a No Budget Film course taught by Sirois. The intensive, boot-camp-like course gives aspiring independent filmmakers all the basic tools they’d need to make and market a low-budget movie while making it look remarkably high-budget. The course was intense, and in that crucible, friendships blossomed.

Unbeknownst to them at the time, Burke had imagined where his classmates in Sirois’ course would best fit into the making of a movie. Burke was particularly impressed by Haines’ editing and production skills, and the two forged a strong mutual respect for one another.

Once the spring term ended and most of the tightly knit core of friends graduated, Burke saw the opportunity to act on his idea of producing his own film.

He already had a script he co-wrote with a former high school classmate named “Waldgeist,” a horror film set in present-day Oregon. He also had a production company, Green Studio Productions, he had launched in 2013.

He dialed up many of those former classmates so that 30 of the 81 cast and crew members of “Waldgeist” were Ducks.

It took two years to film and edit, but Burke, Haines and the others could officially say they had a film to their credit.

Then they took a shot and entered it in the Oregon Independent Film Festival.

Much to Burke’s surprise, judges awarded “Waldgeist” Best Horror Film and Best Supporting Actress awards. It’s also up for Best Picture, which will be announced Sept. 23 at the festival awards show at the Clinton Street Theater in Portland.

Even better, “Waldgeist” will have its premiere at the ceremony’s conclusion, putting the film in front of many of the brightest figures in the state’s vibrant film industry.

It’s already been a thrilling ride for Burke and his crew, and much of it traces back to the skills and theory they learned in Sirois’ course and others they took in the cinema studies department.

“We blend a liberal arts degree with creative work in filmmaking, and a lot of schools silo those things,” said department head Mike Aronson, who helped guide cinema studies from a program to a full-fledged department this summer. “We think that’s a great education model.”

Burke has ramped up Green Studio Productions. He named Haines CEO. She has moved to Southern California, where she can better court investors for future productions. She does freelance editing on the side to pay the bills.

Meanwhile, Burke is on the management team for Starbucks near Portland and often starts working at 5 a.m. at one job or another to make this work, plowing any money he makes back into the company.

Burke has also pulled David Chiang and Jam Mandeberg, two cinema studies alums whom he met through that fateful No Budget Film course, into management roles with the company.

“‘Waldgeist’ was very much a learning experience for all of us, a way to bring us together in a time where we were uncertain about where we were going and what we wanted to do,” Haines said. “Now we’re a well-oiled machine working on tons of stuff.”

They have a second feature out, “Off the Beaten Path,” which they also filmed in Oregon, and a third is nearly complete.

“I’m not surprised they’re still working together and finding success,” Sirois said. “They had a lot of that in class, and they really came together there.”

For Burke, the accolades were affirmation that the team is on the right path.

“It very much told us that what we’re doing is valid,” Burke said. “It’s something we can move forward with, something we have the talent for.

“That film was made on no budget,” he added. “After those awards, I knew that this is something I could do with my own company, with my own crew and a producer I trusted in Claire. We all have to take second jobs to make rent, but I think it’s still 100 percent worth it.”

By Jim Murez, University Communications