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Reprogramming Jeremy: A New Film by a Maine Playwright Has its World Premiere at MIFF

Sean Wagner as Jeremy in The Reprogramming of Jeremy.

by Gregor Smith

What if the people around you, the people who love you and are supposed to act in your best interests, wanted you to change something about yourself that was fundamental to who you are? Would you? Should you even try?

These are the questions confronting the title character in The Reprogramming of Jeremy, a new film based on a play by Maine actor and director Bobby Keniston, who also adapted it for the screen. The film had its world premiere last Saturday, July 14, at Railroad Square Cinema as part of the Maine International Film Festival. The film will have a repeat screening this Saturday at 12:30.

Jeremy is a sweet, shy, sensitive teen, with a secret: he's gay. When this secret is revealed, it causes turmoil within his small, rural, close-minded town, and his parents, on the advice of their pastor, send Jeremy to a religious camp for conversion therapy, i.e. to "pray the gay away."

Conversion therapy is any type of therapy intended to change one's sexual orientation. It has been condemned as ineffective and potential harmful by the American Psychological Association and by many other organizations of mental health professionals both in the United States and abroad. Thirteen states and two Canadian provinces have outlawed conversion therapy, and during its recently concluded session, the Maine legislature passed a bill banning state-licensed practitioners from using conversion therapy on minors. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill, and the legislature failed to override the veto.

The playwright and screenwriter currently lives in Dover-Foxcroft, after many years in the Skowhegan area. In an email, he writes, "I am very active at my hometown theater, Center Theatre, and Lakewood Theater in Madison. I am a playwright for the youth and high school markets with over 30 plays published. I previously worked as the theater teacher at Foxcroft Academy, but now write, direct and act full time,..." He also worked at Railroad Square Cinema for a few years in the early 2000s, making that theater an especially fitting venue for the first public showings of his first film.

He wrote the play in 2010, in response to news reports about bullied gay teens killing themselves. Describing his motivation, he states, "I wanted to write a play from a human perspective and not make it seem political or preachy that dealt with this issue. I staunchly stand for gay rights and against conversion therapy of any kind, but wanted to show the humanity in all of the people in Jeremy's life, even those who thought he needed to be reprogrammed."

He produced the play in the fall of 2011, both at Lakewood Theater and at Center Theatre. He noted, sadly, that a week before the play's premiere, "there was another high profile instance of a gay teen in Buffalo, NY, committing suicide after being bullied. His name was Jamey Rodemeyer. He died September 18, 2011 after having made videos on YouTube to help other victims of homophobic bullying."

Bobby Keniston

Although the characters in his play are not based on specific people he has known, the lead character is named after a girl on whom he had a crush in college and whom "I still think of as a dear friend. Her name is Jeremy, but she is always called Mimi. There is a line in the play [and in the movie] that Jeremy's mother says, how even if she'd had a girl, she would name her Jeremy, but 'probably call her Mimi or somethin'.' This was a tribute to my friend."

So how did the play become a movie? The film's director, Gail Wagner, who lives in Delaware, picks up the story: " I have always loved acting and wanted to pursue it as a career but life happens," she writes. She started acting again in community theater around fifteen years ago and has been doing films for ten, although The Reprogramming of Jeremy is the first feature film that she has directed. By days, she is a paralegal.

She continues, "I started directing stage plays a few years after returning to stage acting. To me its like painting a picture — you have this canvas (the stage), the paint (the script), and the brushes (the actors), you help guide it to this picture for people to appreciate at the end. I love seeing actors improve and grow, especially kids.

"I reached out to Bobby after one of his plays in which I was cast, A Forgetful Remembrance, won our theater competition. I believe writers should know how much a play was appreciated and the audience feedback. When I was staging his End of the Movie, we also communicated as did members of the cast. After End of the Movie performed in the Delaware Theatre Association One Act festival, Bobby shared The Reprogramming of Jeremy with us." In a separate email, she writes, "I was totally blown away by the emotions the play evoked and thought the story would make a great film. I chased Bobby for about 2 years to let me make the film and he [finally] agreed."

The film is shot in the style of documentary, in which interviews with the important people in Jeremy's life are interspersed with flashbacks. Except in the flashbacks, the characters do not interact with each other and only one character appears on screen at any given time. This gives the film more of a theatrical feel and helps keep it true to play from which it was derived.

Gail Wagner and her husband Tom Wagner on vacation. She is the director and both are producers of The Reprogramming of Jeremy.

"Today's film shots, both TV and film, generally cut to a different camera angle every 10-20 seconds," Wagner writes. "Older films held the shot for as long as 15 minutes similar to a stage play where the audience watches the actor speaking the entire time. This can be thought of as more theatrical vs. cinematic. I believed since the bulk were interviews, it was important not to cut away often, breaking the viewer's attention. It was critical to hold the viewer so that they experienced the interview like they were sitting with the interviewer."

She adds, "I also felt each location needed to speak as to the character or the action happening. The interviewed characters do not move from their seats as if stuck in their environment. Only Jeremy moves from one place to the next. Linda, Jeremy's mother, is interviewed at a dining table, while Hank, the father, is drinking beer outside of a trailer. Kenny, the jock best friend, is interviewed after a football practice at the school on stone bleachers, while Abby, the female best friend, is interviewed inside her house on a plush neutral colored couch. Rev. Becky and the Vice Principal [of Jeremy's high school] interviews take place in their very officious looking offices while Pastor Tom is inside his very open and welcoming church." (Rev. Becky Martin is the bible-thumping director of the conversion camp to which Jeremy is sent, while Pastor Tom is more compassionate leader of the church that Jeremy and his parents attend.)

Although the film was shot in Delaware, the location of Jeremy's town is never specified. It could be any small, rural town, anywhere in the U.S. The actors themselves, many of them in their first film roles, come from mainly from Delaware, but also from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. Wagner recruited each one to play a specific role. As the actor that she had originally wanted to play Jeremy aged out of the part, she asked her youngest son, Sean Wagner, to take on the role instead.

She writes, "I wanted actors whom I had worked with previously and knew would be prepared and could be relied upon to deliver; especially since most of the filming locations were only procured for a single day. I was thrilled with the performances all of them gave."

The film was shot on an ultra-low budget. It cost about $10,000 to make, all of which was fronted by the director and her husband. They subsequently raised around $3500 through an online Kickstarter campaign to pay film festival entry fees and to treat the cast and crew a private screening of a rough cut of the film in a nice leased space. She notes, "I was fortunate to obtain almost all of the filming locations free of charge. Our largest costs were feeding the cast and crew on location, insurance for the project, software, and one rented venue."

Although the film has been screened privately by panels of judges at other film festivals — and has won several awards as a result — it did not have any public showings before MIFF. Thus the MIFF screenings constitute the film's world premiere, and Wagner is "thrilled that it is occurring in Bobby's home state!" After MIFF, the film will have be shown publicly in Delaware, so that its cast, crew, and supporters can see the finished product.

Wagner still waiting to hear from eleven film festivals to which she has also submitted the film. "Because this film is a feature film, it is very hard to get it into an annual film festival without a big budget or actor of some recognition," she writes. "I am so grateful to MIFF for selecting The Reprogramming of Jeremy as part of their festival. After the festival circuit is complete, we will look for possible distribution. My major goal was to get the film made to tell this very moving story by Bobby and to highlight these incredible talented actors."

Wagner, the actors who portrayed Jeremy's mom and his "jock best friend" Kenny, and two of the crew will coming to Maine for the repeat screening on Saturday, July 21, at Railroad Square Cinema. Despite their collaboration on the film, this will be the first time that she and Bobby Keniston have never met in person. And what a meeting it will be!

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