Ben Nichols turns on his camera.
It’s the first rehearsal for his feature-length film.
Now that the red recording button is on, Kaleb Rich-Harris transforms into his character. He plays Victor, a high school senior trying to get into college.
Victor asks his retired teacher Dr. Jack Conners, played by Ken Farrell, to write him a recommendation letter.
Victor isn’t the best student. He isn’t in many clubs, he doesn’t get good grades, and he never speaks a word in class.
Doc has written recommendation letters before, but not for students like Victor. Doc only writes for the top students — the ones who show initiative and promise.
“They all have something that makes them remarkable,” Doc said. “They are people who really have something to offer the world.”
Victor stares at Doc.
“I feel there’s more to me than you know,” he said.
Nichols, a freshman at IU, wanted his independent film project, “Just Call Me Jack,” to be about the future of young people.
In high school, after he received good grades and had teachers write letters for him, he wondered what it would have been like if he wasn’t the same kid.
“I thought that there were a lot of kids I know that didn’t have the grades I had but have still done really cool and incredible things, but no one really knows about it,” Nichols said. “Not everything has to be academic. This is revealing a kid that maybe you ignored in high school or didn’t really know about.”
Nichols is the producer, writer, director and composer of the feature-length film.
“Just Call Me Jack” is about Victor, who needs a letter of recommendation for his college applications. Although he doesn’t know where he wants to apply, he thinks a great letter of recommendation will guarantee his acceptance.
The movie is set in Doc’s house as Victor tries to convince his teacher that he is worth his recommendation.
“The entire film is this conversation, interview-style, where the kid basically fights back and says, ‘No, this is why you should believe in my future and the future of young people as a whole,’” Nichols said.
Nichols first started writing the script in 2012.
“In the first draft of the script, Victor is a lot more sarcastic and drops the f-bomb a lot,” Nichols said.
After reading it again and thinking about how he wanted to actually portray his character, Nichols created Victor to be more mild-mannered and shy.
“It’s better for his character development because at the end he becomes more overt and open,” Nichols said. “So you get to see his character change more, unlike in the previous drafts where I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
The final draft of the script was finished during spring break, and shooting for the movie is scheduled for late May.
IU sophomore Kaleb Rich-Harris will perform the role of Victor, which he was
offered after auditioning at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in February.
“Kaleb came in and did a monologue from ‘Death of a Salesman’ and a song from ‘Godspell,’” Nichols said. “He took two really professional pieces and just blew us away, and that’s when we knew we had our guy.”
Rich-Harris said he first saw advertisements for auditions in the theater building and emails from theater professors about the opportunity.
“I’m very interested in film and saw it as a great challenge,” Rich-Harris said. “I was staying in Bloomington this summer, and I just really wanted to do it.”
Bloomington resident Ken Farrell didn’t audition for the film, but was offered the role of Doc after the first actor dropped out of the movie.
Nichols sent Farrell a message on Facebook after seeing videos of his performances for the Cardinal Stage Company.
Farrell met with Nichols and signed the contract on the spot.
“I was immediately interested in the concept about what the script has to say about relationships in the time you’re struggling in adolescence,” said Farrell, who has been acting for 48 years.
Shooting for “Just Call Me Jack” will last for two weeks. Nichols plans to stay in Bloomington to edit the film in order to finish before September, when he can start sending it to film festivals.
Each film festival submission requires an application fee, so Nichols said he wants to wait until he has finished the movie before deciding which ones to send it to.
“I want it to be good,” Nichols said. “And since it’s my first movie, I’m open to the idea of making a movie that’s good, but maybe not perfect because it’s a learning experience.”
Part of that learning experience for Nichols was allowing himself to take every opportunity he could with the movie, he said.
Nichols wrote the entire script, developing each character and revising it until he was satisfied. He also wrote the lyrics and composed the score for the song in the movie,
“Rest Yourself Tonight.”
“I think a lot of people that want to get into film limit themselves a little bit,” Nichols said. “As in, ‘I want to be a director, but someone else has to write the script, and someone else has to act.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, if you do everything, even if you’re not the best at everything, at least you have that experience.’”
Taking on so many roles in the movie opens doors for Nichols to explore, he said.
Nichols said he first thought about film while watching Disney movies as a kid.
After watching “Bambi,” the end of the VHS tape had a short documentary about how the animation for the film was created. It was then that Nichols realized people created the movies he loved, and it was an option for him to pursue in the future.
Nichols started making short YouTube videos and then films for high school film festivals and the Indianapolis High School Playwriting
Music came when he started taking guitar lessons six years ago. Nichols said he dreamed of learning the electric guitar but was forced to begin lessons on an acoustic guitar.
“For me, acoustic was like, ‘Well that’s not going to impress any girls. I don’t even like country music,’ and the day I started, I just fell in love with it,” Nichols said.
Nichols also performed in supporting roles in his high school theater productions.
All of these aspirations culminated in the production of “Just Call Me Jack,” he said, where he was able to fuse them.
The combination was Nichols’ way of showing the power of the younger generations and the potential they can create for themselves, he said.
“Older generations have a responsibility to pass the torch to their descendants,” Nichols said. “The film will inspire students to not limit themselves and think outside the box.”
Through “Just Call Me Jack,” Nichols said he is also trying to prove to the University that even without a film school, students are doing great things.
“Even though this movie is an independent project, I want it to inspire people to keep making things, keep pushing the envelope,” Nichols said. “The bigger our content becomes, the better our school and our education will be and the more we can convince people here at IU that we are talented.”
Creating things doesn’t just apply to film students, but all students on campus, Nichols said.
“There is no excuse not to create things,” he said. “The world is at our fingertips.”