A monster of a project

James Shelley refuses to let a little thing like the recession get him down and is using it instead as inspiration for exploring his creative side.

The Glendale resident is a prep school teacher, college instructor and automotive writer, but he hasn’t been able to find steady employment in those fields since the first of the year.

“I was desperate to do something,” he said, adding that he was determined not to let the recession hold him back.

“My wife said, ‘You might as well finish the film you’ve been working on for years,’” he said.

Shelley has been looking for work during the day and working on his film at night.

“I found a composer,” he said. “He did a great job, and his music made all the difference in the world.”

Shelley is pointing toward getting the film, “Minotaur,” to the 2010 Oscars, if it qualifies and wins the required festivals leading up to it, he said.

He seems to be heading in the right direction, because the seven-minute dramatic short won Best Narrative in the Crescenta Valley Arts Council film festival May 2.

Based on the Greek myth, the live-action film explores the thin line between heroism and brutality, Shelley said. Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, was the first western monster in mythology, he said.

The film had a long story to tell, but Shelley told it in a short period of time, said Richard Toyon, one of the festival’s directors.

“In this case, drawing from a smaller geographical area, the choices are limited, but we are always looking for a film with a beginning, middle and end that tells a distinctive story,” Toyon said.

“In ‘Minotaur,’ Theseus slayed the Minotaur, and so it was the telling of that story, but it’s a long story and he told it with great economy, and it had a nice visual style to it.”

The making of the film was almost as harrowing as the story it told, Shelley said.

A crew of 32 people worked on the film, which was shot in three two-week intervals over two years, he said.

It was shot in the caverns of the Nevada desert, he said, facing 125-degree heat, flash floods and a marauding biker gang.

The crew had to build a dirt ramp up to the cavern entrance, which was destroyed during a storm, he said.

“We were stuck there for four or five hours while some of the crew shimmied down the mountainside and found a road grader with a tractor and steam shovel to remake the ramp,” he said.

Shelley found his love for mythology and filmmaking while attending Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks in the mid-1970s and attended USC film school in the early 1980s where his mentor was Barbara Myerhoff, an anthropologist whose documentary “Number Our Days” earned an Oscar.

He has completed his course work in communication management at USC and is working on his thesis. His recent studies at USC have explored how film, TV and video games can produce positive changes in behavior, he said.

“I’ve been lucky to study with important researchers, leading to projects that have employed me,” he said.

He wrote the script for a video game titled “Remission” for children with cancer, which encourages them to stay on their chemotherapy regimen, he said.

Shelley teaches history and English for prep schools, and journalism and creative writing at the college level, he said.

He uses mythology to get students excited about learning by comparing stories of the ancient world to present day events.

“If Bernard Madoff were found guilty of defrauding investors in Rome in 1 AD, he would have been lowered in a big pit and strangled by a big ugly fat guy,” Shelley said.

“Now he goes to tennis prison. These guys have it easy compared to ancient guys. So things like that get people interested.”

The film has more action and no dialogue, which gives it an artistic quality, said Shelley’s wife, Pauline Lau, who was the co-producer.

“I grew up in Hong Kong where films have more action,” she said. “This film is more about action without any dialogue.”

She also likes that the element of mythology makes it a great educational tool.

They plan to next make the film available online along with a study guide for students and teachers to download for free, she said.

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