By LAUREN DONAHUE
November 19, 2010
On a recent chilly evening in Amherst, chatty actors giggled in the basement, a savvy tech crew fiddled with equipment upstairs, and a busy director bustled back and forth between the two.
Riverwolf Productions had transformed an Amherst home into the set for its December episode of “Lights Up,” a half-hour satirical sketch-comedy show that filters the world through a youthful perspective. The December episode of “Lights Up,” the company’s second television series, will air on Amherst Community Television (ACTV) on Monday, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m.
Amherst-based Riverwolf Productions was founded by Joshua Wolfsun in 2007 when he was 13 years old. Disappointed that a film class he wanted to take was cancelled, he asked the teacher what he could do. “He told me, ‘just go start making movies with your friends,’ ” said Wolfsun.
And that’s exactly what he did. “Mainstream media stereotypically portray teens as young reckless rebels,” said Wolfsun. “The really great things teens are doing, and what they are really capable of doesn’t get reported.”
Riverwolf Productions, an all-teen effort, hopes to combat that stereotype.
Films and TV
The company premiered its first film, “Keep Living,” in May, 2008. Their second film, “The Paper,” created that same year, was featured in the Kids First! national film festival, organized by the Santa Fe-based Coalition for Quality Children’s Media. Riverwolf also produces two television series, “Student News” and “Lights Up,” which air on six public access channels, in 10 towns.
“My inspiration comes mostly from everyday life,” said Wolfsun.
“Keep Living” is a nine-minute short, following a high school student named Joan through times of hardship and struggle.
Riverwolf’s second film was twice as long. “The Paper” follows two high school newspaper editors as they attempt to expose a government conspiracy.
In the group’s latest film, “The Bard,” they worked with adult actors for the first time.
“It’s harder working with adults, because they actually have lives,” said art director Jovanna Robinson with a laugh.
“The Bard,” which explores the possibility that Christopher Marlow may actually be the writer behind the works of William Shakespeare, was shot in two days at the Amherst History Museum and premiered Oct. 22 at the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies in Amherst.
“I’m very happy with ‘The Bard,’ ” said Wolfsun, who plans to enter the work into film festivals.
The ACTV connection
Riverwolf benefits from the support and resources of ACTV.
“Filmmaking is an expensive hobby,” said Wolfsun. Fortunately, ACTV works as Riverwolf’s fiscal sponsor, which allows for local businesses and families to make tax-deductible donations to the production company through the station.
After becoming a member at the station, Wolfsun gained access to studio space, equipment, training and the advice of ACTV professionals. ACTV memberships are available to Amherst residents, local students, businesses and nonprofit organizations for a fee of $10 per year.
“I may be Jewish, but it was like Christmas morning walking in there,” said Wolfsun of his first trip to the station.
“They are tremendously self-sufficient and incredibly motivated,” said Craig Sinclair, ACTV’s community media coordinator. “It’s difficult to believe they are as young as they are.”
While the station works with many groups and individuals, from ages 14 to 84, “They are amongst the best producers we’ve had here, for working things out for themselves, being independent and being creative in all that,” Sinclair said.
Focus on the writing
While Wolfsun is best known for his films and television series, “First and foremost I consider myself a writer,” he said. On his blog, which can be read on the Riverwolf website, Wolfsun writes, “Before Riverwolf, before cameras and lights, and tripods and computers, and even proper format for script, I was writing.
“To me, a show lives and dies in the writer’s room,” he adds. “Your film or TV show will only ever be as good as the script that it’s shot from. So the better your script, the better your film or show can be.”
Wolfsun’s bedroom, where most of that writing takes place, has been transformed into an office space. He tells a story about the first time friend and Riverwolf crew member John McPhee walked into the space. Wolfsun remembers him saying, “Josh, what happened to your childhood?”
Leading his peers, as head of Riverwolf, comes naturally for Wolfsun. “I have been bossy since childhood,” he said. As each crew member brings a different skill set to the company, Wolfsun considers his main task keeping the crew organized and energized.
“He knows what he wants and works tirelessly to get it done,” says actor PJ Adzima. Known as the veteran of the crew, Adzima has been working with Josh since his first production.
Wolfsun founded the company, but he is not alone in driving the production efforts. He is joined by co-producer, or as Wolfsun puts it, “my partner in crime,” Jesse Chasan-Taber. “Her arrival has just been a godsend to me,” said Wolfsun.
Back at the shoot
Chasan-Taber and Wolfsun were both hard at work leading the “Lights Up” shoot, scrambling to make sure every last detail was set. “We balance each other out just naturally,” said Chasan-Taber. “That’s what makes it work. We both want what’s best for the show.”
“Distribution and publicity are two things we are really working on,” said Wolfsun, “especially with ‘Student News.’ Everyone wants to laugh now. We cover real issues, so getting people to watch can be a challenge.”
With its monthly showing of “Student News,” the crew covers timely news stories from a student’s perspective.
“It’s not dumbed down at all,” said Wolfsun. “We dig into the core of issues and see how it affects teens. We found a niche that is not being covered in mainstream media and it’s an important niche.”
Now that Riverwolf is in its third year, Wolfsun admits, “Occasionally we’ll fall into a rut. That’s when we have to put the brakes on and say, what are we going to do to make this one different? If we aren’t always striving to do more, that’s when we fall into a rut. We are always challenging ourselves. That’s our driving force.”
Riverwolf’s holiday episode of the sitcom “Lights Up” will air on ACTV Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. The next “Student News” shows are planned for the Mondays of Nov. 22 and Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. For more information on Riverwolf Productions visit the website at www.riverwolfproductions.org.