Categorized | Arts & Culture

The Evolution of Jeff Wray

[bert1] For many filmmakers, making movies, which involves a lot of time and money, is a risk. Everything must be carefully planned out, and if the plan is not faithfully adhered to, the movie will be a disaster.
Jeff Wray doesn’t see it that way.
Wray is a film professor at Michigan State, where he is also co-director of the film studies program. Before leaving his teaching position at Ohio University in 1998, Wray filmed a movie that started as a careful plan but became a loose experiment.
While attending film school at Ohio University, Wray became a teaching assistant and found the shift from student to teacher to be a dizzying one. Many students came to him, asking for advice on how to get into the film industry, but it was the young black students that concerned him the most. In these students, Wray saw a great anxiety building, especially in those from Ohio.
“Folks were really concerned about leaving,” he said. “They didn’t want to leave because their families were there.”
These conversations inspired Wray to write a screenplay that became “The Evolution of Bert,” a film that follows an African-American man as he faces college graduation, girlfriend issues and an uncertain future, things Wray remembers all too well. As an undergrad during the recession in the 80s, he recalled, “Nobody had a job. It was rough.”
He said he articulates this anxiety through the character of Bert.
The script, which started as a straightforward plot, evolved into an experiment for Wray. For instance, the opening scene became a dream sequence, and subsequent drafts used fantasy sequences and voice-overs.[bert2]
“I feel like we are more in the head of Bert with those scenes as a part of the story,” Wray says.
Filming “Bert” was also less traditional. Because of a lack of time, Wray was unable to finish rewrites of the script and jumped into the shoot. Armed with a borrowed 16 millimeter camera, he stuck close to what he had of the script, but when it ran out, he made up whatever he needed. This proved to not only easy but exciting, due in part, to Wray’s leading man Randall Stokes, a natural at improvisation.
“I told the other actors, ‘if you forgot your lines, just follow him. Follow what Bert does.’”
Wray said sticking to the script means nothing without a human touch.
“If lines come out as I wrote them, and sound wooden, that isn’t good,” he said. “If it comes out as warm and with feeling, I’ll take that more or less as it’s read. I try to go for that feeling of reality.”
That feeling of realism inspired Wray’s writing. A typical day would be filming in the morning, followed by a break, then more shooting at night. During filming, he would scribble new scenes.
The writing of new scenes while shooting and the use of improvisation, led to an uncertainty as to the movie’s length. The film was shot sporadically over several months, leaving Wray unaware of how much footage there was. When the film returned from the lab, he knew he had enough for a feature.
Rather than using computer editing systems common in the industry, Wray used more traditional editing methods, He used a flatbed editing system, which meant literally cutting the film by hand. This turned out to be time-consuming, but let Wray further experiment with Bert’s misadventures.
“It was so much slower,” he says, “but most of what I edited was in no way like the script. The editing was like experimentation.”
The experimental nature of the film pushed Wray’s editing capabilities. He planned on following the story as he had laid it out in his head, but he soon decided to keep making the film in the experimental way.
He described his editing as “playful,” which he believes has paid off in a satisfying way. He said this film is probably one of his favorites of the films he has made.
“I love it!” he says. “My wife says you shouldn’t tell people you like it so much, but I do.”
Wray is currently trying to get financing for his next project, a 40-minute trilogy called “The Soul Searchers.” As he does, he plans to continue teaching film and screenwriting classes, something he is happy with and sees himself doing for a long time.
“I’m content with where I am,” he says. “I like teaching and the atmosphere of colleges. In reality, it’s been validating.”
As for Bert’s future, Wray plans to distribute the film himself. He believes the film also has the potential to break into film festivals, largely because of the audience it can reach. Wray says the film is not only for college students, but for older people too.
“I want people to kind of go ‘Now this is different.'”

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