Strange tidings come out of Fruitland these days. A cinematic film crew made almost entirely of sleep-deprived teenagers (excepting a single middle-aged boom operator) is digitally holding the 3,800-person town hostage. A century-old closed down community school has become a fictional private high school for self-destructive youth. A local pizzeria has become the jumping off point for dangerous airborne stunts. Cinematic homicide, suicide and broken limbs are on the minds of everyone in town, and one man is responsible for sowing the seeds to make all the mischief possible: Frank Beale.
Beale is the founder and administrator of Fruitland High School's broadcasting program--although he prefers the title of CEO. For five years the former advertising producer, speech and English teacher has headed up an ambitious and demanding academic program that has produced myriad radio shows, videos, television commercials and dozens of hours of programming on Treasure Valley public access television (TVTV). Fruitland students have been involved in everything from televised local football games to cell phone spots. They have documented cosmetic surgeries and traveled across the country to visit the sets of network television shows. Former Beale students have gone on to L.A. Film School and FOX, and fill an inordinate amount of positions at local television stations. Now, in one of the program's most elaborate achievements, a small group of current and former students are making an independent feature film titled Beautiful Ambitions, in and around the high school that provides their cinematic roots.
"I tell the kids, I'm only going to open the door. You can either casually walk through it or you can blow it right off the hinges," Beale explains. Such an analogy, repeated to the students at the start of each class, hints at the serious individual responsibility to come. However, it hardly encompasses the heady duties for which F.H.S. broadcasters are responsible during their tenures--and which prepare a group of high schoolers to shoot a feature film during summer break. First and foremost: students must apply to the program, provide letters of reference and interview before being allowed near the modest rooms that make up the program's set, office and soundstage. Secondly, the road to that set goes much more through other students than through Beale himself.
"I empower my students to run the program," Beale says. "We create positions for people, they have to apply for them, and I write their weekly paychecks--which are the grades." Beale is the first to admit that the intricate workings of computers, mixers and digital video recorders are largely foreign to him. In his stead, a tightly structured hierarchy of student leaders with titles ranging from Operations Manager to Chief Engineer to Mentoring Supervisor breathe life and professionalism into projects that sound more appropriate to collegiate independent studies than secondary school.
"We are trying to grow people, even if they never go into film after high school," adds Jacqueta Marteny, current Operations Manager and prolific on-air personality. Marteny worked her way up from being a lowly sophomore in the Broacasting 1 class to committing three class periods and innumerable extracurricular hours to administration and production work on all levels of the program--everything from heading board meetings, to shooting features in Boise, to telling newcomers, "No, you cannot put poo in your video." Martney explains, "It's funny stuff, very character building, and you learn a lot about which parts of production you like and don't like to do."
The opportunity to specialize is all too rare in public education, but in Beale's program it is mandatory. For Marteny, television production and leadership are the "likes." For Beautiful Ambitions co-writers Tyler Neisinger, Jordan Carlman and Robert Uehlin, cinema direction is the chosen path, and Beale's student-driven curriculum gave the group ample room to develop simple plot ideas into advanced expressions of individual style. By the time Neisinger graduated this spring, he had already written and directed several short and medium length films. When Beale suggested a feature as a grand sendoff to the student who, in Marteny's words, "single-handedly developed the film section of the program," a small but committed group of students leapt into action.
Beautiful Ambitions is a heavy psychological drama about Andy, a teenager who must attend a private high school to get away from his father's substance abuse problems. At the school, he encounters Rob Caprice, a foolhardy thrill seeker whose passion for jumping off of things--really tall things--threatens to ruin the lives of both students. In true independent style, the film is shot on an absurdly low budget funded largely by T-shirt sales, and several crew members also act in the film. A former Fruitland Operations Director by the name of Lindsay White singularly provides set design, makeup, prop and wardrobe. Fruitland grad and L.A. Film School veteran Lonnie Fitch provides camera operation and serves as director of photography. Beale is also involved, acting as sound man and executive producer--the latter for his help in fundraising and equipment procurement. On the set, though, Beale is a silent, almost reverent nonentity in the presence of his driven pupils. He cracks an occasional joke, but offers no creative advice or directorial expertise to Neisiger and his skeleton crew. Simply put, they don't need it.
"I tell these guys daily that they rival any other operation I have worked on," reports Fitch, who has worked on several small independent films and on the N.E.R.D. music video "She Wants to Move" (better known as "the one where the rappers ride an ass-shaped spaceship through the solar system") "I've been on other sets [where the crew] had their stuff together, but there was so little that I needed to do when I got here--from scheduling to a great script, these guys took care of everything."
Beale sums up the project simply, "These are the kids who blew the doors off," but Neisinger sums up the legacy of his Fruitland education purely in terms of internal commitment.
"I've already put so much time and energy into film, I don't even want to think about doing anything else," he explains. "Yes, we get worn out and tired, but we also have the patience now to make sure that we're getting what we want. We can't just get to the 31st take at 3 a.m. and say, 'Well, that will have to do.'"
If a program like Beale's, one that engenders such passion and commitment to quality, sounds farfetched in public schools, blame it more on the dearth of opportunities available in other schools than to virtues specific to Fruitland. Beale's philosophy, that "I don't want robots; I want people who are able to grow and blossom into something" is optimistic to the point of quaintness. But add to it the secret ingredient of "an administration and school board that is with us every step of the way, and sees the quality in allowing kids to be creative in something that is not traditional," and the possibilities appear to be endless. "There are so many creative students out there who need an outlet," Beale says, "and I was lucky enough to be blessed with a school that realized it. People say, 'Frank, you're doing such a great job with those kids!' And I say, 'No, I'm not. I just opened the door.'"
Beautiful Ambitions is currently in post-production and the filmmakers hope to screen it in Boise theaters by the end of the year. In the meantime, the team's i48 competition entry, a short film titled "Like Flies," will show during the True West Cinema festival, August 12-15. Go to www.truewestcinema.org for more information.