When college classes resume next month, students will go back to overpaying for textbooks and cramming for exams. Dillon Orth, Andrew Zuckerman and John Cronin will do those things but they’ll also scramble to finish the movie they’re shooting right now.
The three alumni of Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights, all 21 and rising college seniors, describe their $20,000 “Undergrads” as a “hangout movie” in the mold of Richard Linklater’s low-budget “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused.” An ensemble comedy that takes place over the course of a weekend, “Undergrads” is short on plot but long on eight main characters interacting in and around iconic St. Paul-area locations such as Bogey’s Lounge, Capital View Cafe, the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop and Stacked Deck Brewing.
The friends began planning the movie last summer, when Orth and Zuckerman interned at Hollywood production companies and realized they wanted to make their own movie. But COVID-19, which shut down the entertainment industry in March, had something to say about that.
This past spring, they were writing the screenplay and starting to do casting — Zuckerman at the University of Minnesota and Orth at DePaul University — when they realized they needed to shift from in-person to taped auditions. The script also had to be altered, eliminating a concert scene that would have been impossible to arrange, but they held firm to the plan of a Minnesota shoot while all three men are home for the summer.
“It was starting to look a little precarious as things were going downhill with COVID,” admitted Orth, also a co-producer and actor in the movie. “There was a little time when we thought we couldn’t do it because of the [coronavirus] but we have a small crew, a small cast and we’re outside, in bigger spaces, a lot. So if we took precautions we figured we’d be all right.”
Movie production is resuming slowly — a TV movie was shot in Oklahoma before the virus spiked there, and Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy and others are currently quarantining in Australia before filming a Hulu series. “Undergrads” is following similar precautions.
“The film industry sent out guidelines, so we’re following those strictly. We have been on top of COVID safety. Everyone is masked up if they’re not on camera, so the whole crew is masked up. We have temperature checks daily,” said University of Minnesota student Cronin, who’s co-producing. “So far, we’ve been fortunate to be in good health, in addition to the majority of our cast, who were able to get tested before they flew [here]. I wouldn’t say we’re living in a bubble, but pretty close.”
They’re also monitoring blood oxygen levels and “strongly recommending” that actors, who are mostly friends and friends-of-friends, self-quarantine after filming concludes July 28 (it began July 13).
“We’re really checking in with everyone to make sure they’re not going to bars or restaurants or anything crazy. What is nice about almost everyone being from out of town is they’re staying together and they’re staying among themselves. So we can keep everyone contained and healthy on set,” Orth said.
Once shooting is completed, it’s back to school and back to work on editing “Undergrads.” They’ll launch a campaign to raise funds for postproduction, intending to complete the comedy in time to submit it to fall film festivals. The moviemakers aren’t sure what life it will have after that. Maybe it will end up on streaming services, in theaters or as a calling card for future work.
“We’re really hoping for the best. We don’t care about the money. We just want to get it seen and help the entire crew and cast get some careers out of it. We’re all young. We’re all looking for something to do after school,” said Zuckerman, who’s directing the film.
Whatever happens with “Undergrads,” Zuckerman said that between juggling schedules, meeting deadlines and solving a stream of production problems, the three students have learned “a ton” every day of the shoot.