'What if there's more to this world than we know?': A West Point filmmaker asks in his first feature-length movie

January 18, 2014 10:55:48 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Michael Williams still has a long way to go but, like the glow of the Emerald City, a light is shining in the distance. The independent filmmaker of Shendopen Productions in West Point completed principal photography Jan. 12 on his first feature-length film, "OzLand." Now the dry, dusty, post-apocalyptic world created on location in Kansas, West Point and nearby moves into several months of post-production. And -- if the north Mississippi director, cast and crew are very fortunate -- the film may eventually make its way into theaters. 


After producing more than 20 short films and working on dozens of others -- including James Franco's "As I Lay Dying" -- Williams, 26, made the leap to feature-length with his story of two wayfarers. One is hardened, straightforward, focused on survival. The other, almost childlike, is in search of something to believe in. Together they roam aimlessly in a blighted world -- until they find a ragged copy of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." The book alters their journey. 


"This production was extremely ambitious, something we even surprised ourselves with achieving," said Williams, who wrote, directed and produced the film. He got the idea in 2011 while watching the History Channel. 


"The commentator mentioned something about what if someone had no idea of history or religion and found a copy of a novel, like 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,'" he began. "What if someone in a post-apocalyptic world began interpreting it with his own limited knowledge?" 


With the help of a $2,500 Emerging Filmmaker Grant from the Mississippi Film and Video Alliance, and generous support from family, friends and the public, Williams was able to explore the possibilities. 




Emri and Leif 


Zach Ratkovich of Columbus and Glenn Payne of Blue Springs, near Tupelo, are the story's only actors. Like Williams, Payne is an award-winning independent filmmaker. He's also a frequent actor and a collected painter, who studied under Brent Funderburk at Mississippi State University. Ironically, Payne's own feature-length film, "Earthrise," finished post-production the same weekend "OzLand" wrapped filming. Williams worked on "Earthrise" with his friend, before beginning to shoot his own project. 


Ratkovich is a student pilot at Columbus Air Force Base, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Gleason, Wisc., native was active in theater in high school and at the academy, and he was an extra in Payne's "Earthrise." "OzLand" is his first real film role.  


Payne and Ratkovich portray Emri and Leif, respectively. Their characters' friendship, imagination and faith are tested as they make their way westward. 


"I guess you'd call Emri the caretaker, making sure things are relatively safe and heading toward some kind of goal," said Payne. "He's very contained, doesn't always know how to articulate what he wants to say."  


The actor described his own personality as "goofy, fidgeting and loud," so bringing Emri to life required a transformation. But one of the hardest things, he laughed, was keeping his hair and beard consistent through 16 total days of filming, spread over several months. 


Leif looks beyond, at bigger things outside of what they know, explained Payne. And when Leif finds the book, he begins to find connections between the written word and what he sees in the world around him. 


Ratkovich was surprised to find such an active film community in north Mississippi. "It's cool that there are so many people involved and passionate about art in that way," he said. Moving from stage to film was a revelation for the 24-year-old. He had to rethink the more overt technique required from stage actors. The camera picks up every nuance. 


"In theater, you feed off the audience energy, their enjoyment ... and that's very nice for a performer," said Ratkovich. "With film, you don't get that, but there's also so much more you can get across in film with such subtlety; that's fun to explore." 


Williams said, "This story means a whole lot to me. Both characters are from my own psyche and the story itself is very personal, so I'm so glad to have Glenn and Zach so committed, to go through what they had to go through."  




Finding "OzLand" 


Primary shooting was done in Minneola, Kansas, and in and around West Point and Meridian. The Kansas locations were discovered on a scouting trip this past Fourth of July weekend, when Williams, Payne and Ratkovich set out in search of "OzLand." About one-fourth of the film was shot there, where Baum's Dorothy is from. Mississippi sites used included the empty Bryan Foods facility and Mary Holmes College campus in West Point.  


Turning a civilized world into a bleak setting for the film was helped along by costume designer KK Norris of The Attic Vintage Clothing in Columbus, and Laura Cavett of Oxford, who oversaw sets and prop dressing.  


"Michael knows what he wants; he has a vision in his head," said Cavett, who is experienced in production design and graphic design. The most challenging aspect, said the mother of two, was shooting in multiple locations on the same day. "We were all over the county; we were very mobile, traveled light in a caravan and worked as fast as we could while we had this light." 


Norris worked her magic by "distressing" Payne and Ratkovich's wardrobe. Clothing was dragged behind cars and artfully stained with oil, dye and coffee. Construction workers wore the boots to rough them up.  


Keatsi Gunmoney of Starkville is composing the original score; a sample of his music can be heard on the official trailer at ozlandthefilm.com. He previously scored Williams' short films "Lukos" and "Illumination." 


"Keatsi's adaptation of the folk song 'Wayfaring Stranger' in the film captures its essence in such a beautiful way," Williams said.  


The rest of the crew carefully assembled by the director included makeup artist Casey Heflin, gaffer Jason Lively and sound technician Casey Spradling.  


"The film had minimal crew, minimal resources and minimal time to achieve what we did, but this amazing cast and crew did it," praised Williams. "It means a lot that everyone was so dedicated to bring this to life, and that we have people who believed in us enough to donate their own hard-earned money to give us a chance. Without that, we couldn't have made this movie." 


The months of post-production ahead are critical to the ultimate story. Williams hopes to have the work completed by summer, after which the next stage begins -- getting it in front of the right people.  


"I would definitely like to see 'OzLand' create opportunities for the cast and crew," the filmmaker said. "Hopefully these two movies -- 'OzLand' and 'Earthrise' -- can bring us to the next level, to bigger and better things, to being full-time filmmakers."  






  • ozlandthefilm.com 


  • facebook.com/ozlandthefilm 


  • shendopen.com

    Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.