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Kevin Kerwin got into movies to write screenplays. But to make his first feature-length film, the film-school satire Filmic Achievement, he found he had to surrender to improv. The comedy, a burgeoning hit on the festival circuit, premieres locally Nov. 10 and 12 at the Three Rivers Film Festival.

 

 

Kerwin, a 35-year-old Mount Lebanon native, grew up focusing his creative energies on writing fiction and playing basketball. It wasn't until after college, while writing copy for a Cleveland ad agency, that Kerwin realized how much he liked the screenwriting he did in his spare time. At age 27, he and his wife, Kate O'Neil, sold their house and moved to New York so Kerwin could study film at Columbia University.

 

Columbia's film program, which focuses on writing rather than technical production, was ideal for Kerwin. While still a student, he won the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriting Competition with his feature-length script Over and Out, a comedy about a washed-up TV star forced to teach high school drama back in his hometown.

 

The award hooked Kerwin representation by no less a talent agency than Hollywood big wheel CAA, and suddenly he was getting gigs. They were, however, gigs in a rather unglamorous quarter of the film industry -- the little-recognized one where production companies pay you to write scripts, but where the scripts never get turned into movies.

 

"I like to see something" for his work, Kerwin says. At Columbia, his satiric tendencies had targeted his instructors and classmates. But while he hadn't been able to finish a script about that milieu, the idea for what became Filmic Achievement stayed with him -- and then he went with it. When O'Neil lost her job after 9/11, "She said, 'We should do this.'"

 

This time, instead of a script, Kerwin simply handed his actors bios of his fictitious film-school characters at the fictitious, Manhattan-based "UNY": Students such as pretentious Francophile Delvo Christian, Tarantino manqué Mike Pack, and wannabe feminist auteur Constance Van Horn, and faculty including the oleaginous Buck Felty.

 

To flesh out the story he envisioned, Kerwin -- a fan of The Daily Show and The Office -- wanted improv, but not necessarily comedians: To be truly funny, the main roles had to be played straight. "I wanted this to be one big joke," he says, not a series of little ones. "I wanted actors that understood the deep-character comedy."

 

The principal cast was recruited from the off-Broadway theater company The Rude Mechanicals, while much of the crew was drawn from among Kerwin's former film-school colleagues. With O'Neil as producer, Filmic Achievement was shot on video for about $15,000. Then some 65 hours of raw footage (improv equals many takes) was screened for potential investors to raise $50,000 more for editing and other post-production work.

 

The result is a mockumentary in the now-grand This Is Spinal Tap tradition -- one that some viewers might not even realize is a comedy at first. So far Filmic Achievement has been accepted at 13 festivals, including the Cleveland International and the Santa Fe International. Kerwin himself -- now back in Cleveland, directing TV commercials by day -- won Best Director at the Stratford-Upon-Avon International Film Festival.

 

The film's cast and crew all worked on deferred contracts. "As soon as we sell the film we'll get paid," says Kerwin, sounding quite confident about a theatrical exhibition market that's notoriously difficult to crack. "If it gets out there, it's going to be successful."

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