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Hell or High Water

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If nothing else, Jeff Bonnett and Dennis Curlett had a novel reason for staying in college: They had to finish their movie about the end of the world.

 

It all started when the 19-year-old University of Pittsburgh sophomores decided to shoot a feature-length campus comedy. The two film-studies majors believed it was "something that no one had ever done before [at Pitt]," says Bonnett. But that pioneering spirit also meant that "no one knew what they were doing."

 

With lots of help, he and Curlett did shoot the film, titled What the Hell Were We Thinking? -- then watched as, despite their best efforts, it took another three-and-a-half years to complete. What the Hell at last gets its off-campus premiere, at the next Film Kitchen, on Tue., Oct. 11. Also screening are two shorts by local filmmaker K.C. Milliken.

 

Bonnett and Curlett are natives of Philadelphia-area suburb Chichester who were both born on the same day, in the same hospital, and who have been friends since high school. While Pitt's film-studies program is geared toward theory and history rather than production, Bonnett and Curlett arrived here hoping to make films using the facilities and gear at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. But ongoing renovations at the nonprofit media-arts center scared them off.

 

Eventually, though, they found film students who could borrow Filmmakers' equipment and act as crew. They assembled a cast via an on-campus audition, and shot What the Hell in 19 days in the spring of 2001. Shoots were mostly limited to 14-hour weekend days, and the novices quickly discovered the tardiness and general unreliability of unpaid collegiate actors. Nonetheless, the comedy -- about a wacky pack of college students (who else?) deciding how to spend their last five days before a meteor obliterates the earth -- was in the can.

 

Then, that summer, local film lab WRS -- which had given them a great deal on processing -- went belly up. Their 16 mm reels, none of which they had yet viewed, were impounded by the feds, along with all the company's other assets. By the time Bonnett and Curlett could finally watch their footage, it was spring of 2002. And the footage told them that they needed to do a lot of reshoots -- even though much of their cast and crew had graduated.

 

Though they considered transferring to a college with a film-production focus, they stayed at Pitt for the sake of the movie. "The reason we couldn't leave is it took so long to finish," says Bonnett. "We didn't want to waste the money we'd spent and let everybody down."

 

Post-production outlived even their enrollment: They finished What the Hell in August 2004, some eight months after graduating.

 

The two friends, now 24 years old, moved back to Philadelphia. Reached by cell phone recently, Bonnett was en route with Curlett to visit a friend in Los Angeles, where the two hope to move "eventually, like everybody else," he said. "We hope to make more, better movies."

 

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K.C. Milliken knew it was inevitable: Filmmaker plus pregnant spouse equals movie. But he didn't want a diary film. Instead he made something that's half documentary, half dramatization, spiked with clips from classroom films about pregnancy dating from the 1940s through the 1980s.

 

Milliken will screen "baby m" at Film Kitchen, along with "Xtreme Streetwalking," a parodic short. His wife, Jessica, was "really cool" about making "baby m." But it wasn't as though privacy were an issue. "It wasn't really about us," says Milliken. "We just happen to be characters in it."

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