Independent film very much alive in Cheyenne
CHEYENNE — It may not seem like there’s an independent film scene in Cheyenne, but there is – you just have to look for it.
In the past 10 years, there has been a particular surge of interest stemming from the youth of Cheyenne and surrounding communities. Independent filmmaking is operating in the underground, but it may not be for long.
“The community is lively, the community is great,” independent filmmaker Anthony Syracuse said. “It’s just hard because there’s maybe, if I’m being kind, 200 people in it who are willing to participate and show support for it.”
The Midnight West Fest held last weekend is one of the few local independent film festivals presented in Cheyenne. Of all the films shown this year, few are from Cheyenne residents, but amid those few lies Syracuse’s strongest effort yet.
At 22 years old, Syracuse is one of many local filmmakers that are trying to build community support for the independent film scene in Cheyenne.
“You’d think that in small places like Wyoming, or any small town, there wouldn’t be a huge art presence,” Syracuse said. “At least in my experience, I found it has a huge one, but no one supports it.”
The film, titled “Saint Bernard,” after the song that inspired Syracuse throughout writing the script, tells the story of a superhero who has lost his superpowers. The 26-minute short film with an approximately $6,000 budget then follows the hero through his personal struggle in therapy as he attempts to cope with his sudden perceived inadequacy.
Syracuse knew this script was different by the reaction it received. The concept alone grabbed others’ attention, but when his family and friends read the script, they admitted it was the best work he had done in his years of screenwriting.
Even strangers came to love the idea. During a trip to Ohio, he spent every day perfecting the script in a seating area outside his hotel. Eventually, nearby construction workers approached Syracuse, curious as to what they had seen him working on every day. Peeking out from behind the glow of his laptop screen, Syracuse told him about his movie.
“They got so interested that that night I had eight construction workers that I never met before all doing a read-through of my script,” Syracuse said. “All around this electric fire outside of the hotel, we were reading while I was directing them and taking notes … then they all bought plane tickets to come and see the movie.”
Be it his family or friends, Syracuse has received a variety of interpretations of his script. Some thought it was commentary on religion. His mother questioned if it was capturing the disillusionment of growing older.
The main character’s journey is not one of particularly high spirit. Syracuse jokes that the characters he writes either redeem themselves in the end or suffer a tragic demise. More often than not, it’s the latter.
He approaches all of his work with legitimate introspection, but for “Saint Bernard,” he had to pinpoint a complicated feeling. Then the concept clicked into place.
“The things that I didn’t like about myself were the things that I put up a defense for,” Syracuse said. “The things I am insecure about, the things that I use to make myself feel better, it felt like taking those things away from myself was like losing a superpower.
“So then I was like, what if a superhero lost their super strength, couldn’t lift buses and couldn’t stop bullets anymore? I was like, ‘They’d be in therapy.’”
This is nowhere near his first script, but it is certainly his most thorough, as well as his longest filmed feature. Since he was 13 years old, he has written, shot and acted in his own movies, many of them variations of superhero narratives.
He is used to making films on his own, as many young independent filmmakers do, but for “Saint Bernard,” Syracuse needed help to capture his creation the way he saw fit.
His close friend Matthew Stacey, who served as the cinematographer, as well as one of the producers for the project, was a key piece of the “Saint Bernard” team.
“Every single shot you see in the movie was drawn by Matt as a storyboard and planned specifically by him,” Syracuse said. “We would have extensive conversations about color correction, how we want the colors to look in the shots, and how we want the shots to be laid out.”
The most difficult part of working with a group of this size is the sudden need to compromise. At times, the shooting for “Saint Bernard” was disorganized; short scenes that typically require a four-hour shoot would suddenly turn into 12-hour days.
Ultimately, Stacey is satisfied with the product, particularly noting the performance from lead actor Dominic Rufran, the film’s concept and the film’s set design.
Though he was the cinematographer for “Saint Bernard,” Stacey is a filmmaker himself. In 2016, one of his short films took home five of the eight awards presented at the Cheyenne Youth Film Festival, where he also first met Anthony.
In 2017, two of his films were accepted into the All-American High School Film Festival in New York. In 2020, he helped Syracuse shoot a Netflix special that Syracuse was chosen to direct, but never got off the ground.
Now, Stacey, a Cheyenne local, is pursuing an English degree at the University of Wyoming, with the intention of making a career out of his writing ability. Film is still his primary passion, so he can accurately reflect on film’s role in Cheyenne, despite his young age.
“There are a few things, like local short film festivals, that help us out, but it’s all pretty underground,” Stacey said. “If you happen to find any other people that share this type of passion in Cheyenne, it’s almost by happenstance. You stumble upon it. They’re hard to come by, just because there’s no particularly big outlet for it.”
Stacy’s solution is to create a network for Cheyenne’s film community to operate in. He plans to start a social media page, and spread the word about what local filmmakers are doing. Even better, he hopes to establish more frequent film festivals for people to attend.
Part of the issue lies in the simple fact that this is a relatively new scene in Cheyenne. There aren’t older generations of filmmakers or a Cheyenne film community for newcomers to build off of.
“I would say it’s underrepresented, but I don’t know what the appropriate level of representation for it in a smaller community would be,” Stacey said. “Many of the friends I have made who are also into this, I have met through school, whether that was high school or college. I genuinely don’t know if there are many older generations, at least in Cheyenne, who are interested in it at all.”
However, this may be starting to change. Stacey spent the last two years attending film school at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, where he met many other Cheyenne and greater Wyoming filmmakers who are looking to return and build a local independent film scene.