Contest enables teens to make a film with a real-life movie star


The ninth floor of the Universal Sheraton in Universal City was in disarray as a film crew raced to ready the setting, with only two minutes until star Dominic Monaghan was scheduled to arrive. As one crew member rushed to tape the sprawling cables to the multicolored carpet, another struggled to light the small hallway as hotel guests floated by unfazed.

Just another day in Hollywood. But not for this crew. They were all teenagers.

While most adolescents would rather spend spring break lounging at a pool -- the hotel windows gave a perfect glimpse of one below -- these teens spent theirs getting a crash course in filmmaking by spending a week shooting two short films all over Los Angeles.

“Let’s work smart, not hard,” someone in the background shouted in time for one last run-through as Monaghan stepped off the elevator. The scene went off without a hitch.

Monaghan was one of two celebrities who recently lent their time and talent to Fresh Films, a program that offers a filmmaking experience for teens each summer and -- for the first time this year, in partnership with Reese’s Puffs cereal -- during spring break.

Reese’s Puffs held a nationwide contest to select the 17 teens who were flown to Los Angeles. They were divided into two teams to work on two short films, getting hands-on experience in a variety of jobs and being part of the entire production process, from storyboarding to casting to editing.

Sarah Wedel, the only teen from California to win a spot on the production teams, got interested in filmmaking by watching a Valencia neighbor -- a special-effects director -- start his own production company.

“[The contest] has given us a unique opportunity. It’s pretty cool. I usually spend my spring break at home, lounging around,” the 17-year-old high school senior said. “I like filmmaking because it’s a mixture of all the arts.”

Wedel said she appreciated being able to rotate into different jobs and learning about the importance of continuity, lighting and sound mixing, her favorite role of the day.

The two films also were written by teens (chosen from a separate contest). They star Monaghan, from “Lost” and “FlashForward,” and Bobb’e J. Thompson, from “30 Rock” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”

Monaghan said he was attracted to the program because of the opportunity it afforded teens. In his short film “Gloria,” he stars as a rock god searching for his missing guitar.

“When I was their age, I didn’t have something like this,” the 33-year-old actor said between takes. He was especially impressed with the energy the teens displayed.

“They hustle. They work hard,” Monaghan said. “As an adult, it’s fun to be around.”

At the downtown offices of American Public Media that same afternoon, the atmosphere was less hectic. The crew was clowning around while on break and using Flip cams to capture behind-the-scenes moments. Here they were filming “K-RUN FM,” starring Thompson, 14, known for his role as a foulmouthed youngster in “Role Models.”

In the short, Thompson portrays a teen who won a chance to be DJ for the day at his favorite radio station, only to discover that the format of the radio station has changed. Thompson said the concept of kids being in charge is why he agreed to participate.

“I [normally] don’t get to do that. There really are no boundaries here. It’s easier to talk and feel free,” Thompson said. “With kids it’s more loose. We’ve had a great amount of fun. How we got work done I don’t know.”

Inside one of the cramped radio booths, some of the teens had squeezed into a corner to set up the next scene.

Julian Sergi held the camera in between cracking jokes with Thompson and the crew. The 18-year-old high school senior from Chicago said he aspires to be an actor and screenwriter, like his idol, Seth Rogen.

“I was thinking, if [Reese’s and Fresh Films] can do this for a group of kids, it’s just a preview of what’s to come,” Sergi said. “The nice thing about teens is it’s more camaraderie. This business is so cut-throat. But we are really focused. It pushes out the best of you.”

The films will be available for viewing online at from April 12 to 26. Viewers can vote on which one they like best. Each teen on the winning team gets a $1,000 scholarship and a portable Flip camera.

Morgan Williams, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Texas, did a Fresh Films project in summer 2008 in Dallas and now interns for the program. She said it helped her find her passion.

“It’s an absolute amazing experience,” she said. “Ever since then, I knew what I wanted to do. Where I’m from, you don’t have the resources or the actors. It gave me all the things I needed. It was a crash course in filmmaking.”