The Daily Arts Film Beat offers insightful analysis of films of all genres. Nevertheless, there has been a lack of attention given to the many talented and passionate filmmakers who surround us here at the University of Michigan. I started this series to highlight their work, their unique visions of film and the obstacles they face as student filmmakers.
The auditorium is dark off the stage, where a spotlight illuminates a golden circle of space. The gaffer stands on a ladder, holding the light and directing its beam while another student holds the ladder steady. The camera operator, LSA senior Johannes Pardi, stands in front of the stage, camera hooked over his shoulder on a complicated contraption that vaguely resembles an oxygen tank. They wait for the director, who stands on the side of the stage, to call action.
The assistant director speaks. “Quiet on set. Set’s up for a take. Roll sound and camera. Audio ID.”
The clapper reads the set number and claps the slate closed. He moves out of the way, action is called and the light turns to follow Janae Dyas, Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore, as she walks down the auditorium’s center aisle. She wears a long black skirt and magenta heels, courtesy of the costume designer who sits in one of the audience chairs. She steps onto the stage, where Professor Jim Burnstein stands with a microphone. She takes the microphone and turns into the spotlight as he backs away and delivers the take’s final line.
“And no garden, no brick and no man will ever trample on me.”
The director, LSA senior Julia Gray, moves to talk to Dyas, suggesting where to slow parts of her monologue. Then she yells into the collection of crew members in the audience, asking for “Sophia” — the writer. Raines, an LSA senior, abandons her discussion with another crew member about her love for the show “Atlanta.” Their conversation has come here from Raines’s mentioning eating a bagel for breakfast at 1:00 p.m., which she ascribed to the “life of a college film student.” Now, she brings a copy of the script to the stage, joining Gray, who asks her to note during which line Dyas steps onto the stage. They prepare for another rehearsal.
The script’s original visionary, Raines has been with its characters and their story since the fall of her sophomore year of college, when she wrote it in a feature screenwriting class. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, she told how the story began as a romantic comedy following a Black woman who falls for a white man, to the discontent of her parents. Rather than progress immediately to the following class, “The Rewrite,” Raines chose to wait until the fall of her junior year to revisit the script, a decision that would result in a complete overturning of the plot.
She wrote the draft, “then 2020 happened,” she said. The increased focus on and outrage against violent and nonviolent anti-Black racism that summer made her reflect on how much she centers whiteness in the stories she writes. She found that the romantic comedy with a white love interest “wasn’t a story I could tell that felt very true to me … just where I was politically and mentally at.” She turned the script in a new direction, taking to heart a note she had received on the original screenplay and developing the two “best friends” into central characters. The romance-centered plot was dropped for a story of three friends and their experiences as Black women at a predominantly white institution.
Officially, the film is set at an “unspecified PWI western public school,” but unofficially, it is inspired by Raines’s own experiences at the University.
“It’s not a system for students of color,” she said. “This school’s meant for straight, white men, able-bodied … It’s not built for marginalized identities.” Constantly needing to deal with microaggressions and being talked over in classes and public spaces, Raines said that, as a student of color, “You’re not just a student.”
Raines grew up in a suburb in New Jersey. There were white people around, but when she came to the University, she said, “The density (of white students) was insane.” At a school where 60% of the students are white, she felt “fractured off” from other Black students, who make up only 5%. Due to their smaller numbers, she had to actively seek out this community. In her freshman year, she formed a group of friends who called themselves the “Black squad” at an event for Black students. They went to dinners together every other Friday, attended Target sales and played Uno. They have since lost touch, but the sense of community remains with Raines and is something she wants to evoke in the film, partly captured by the moments from her time with these people that have worked their way into the script. She described her complicated feelings toward the University as “love/hate, most times just hate or frustration,” but said, too, that this shared adversity can create a bond between students. Two of her best friends formed the initial “DNA” for two of her script’s main characters. Another character, who acts as an older brother figure, is influenced by Raines’s friendships with upperclassmen of color, supervisors or older students she met as a resident adviser — “the Yodas,” as she called them, “mentoring or guiding other people of color.”
Raines cannot disconnect her own experiences from what she writes. Ideas come to her based on events in her own life or from her frustration, and she molds these inspirations into characters or plotlines, changing and refining them. Barring being hired to write for a show about “three quirky white students in a college dorm,” she expects any of her own projects to center on Black characters, saying that she “can only write through the lens of a Black person.”
As a kid, Raines was drawn to writing and considered journalism — “I knew Mark Twain was a journalist,” she said, so maybe she should be one too. In eighth grade, she found a book in her school library about women in different careers. She was drawn to showrunner Shonda Rhimes’s (“Grey’s Anatomy”) description of working as a screenwriter, including her admission that she liked her job in part because she could work in her pajamas.
“The way she described the process (of) writing for shows and stuff … I don’t know, I just really liked that a lot,” Raines said, adding that “the idea of writing in your pajamas was also very alluring.” She began screenwriting in high school and joined her school’s club, but mostly saw the endeavor as impractical. With the encouragement of a high school colleague, she realized that this was not only something she wanted to do, but something she could do and chose to attend the University for its strong screenwriting program. Her love of film and television is born from its “synthesis of all these different art forms, like music, visuals, writing, sometimes poetry.”
In her own writing, Raines lets characters drive stories. She likes the unexpected but won’t introduce uncharacteristic plot twists for shock value, instead seeking to find the heart of the story before seeing what twists it could take. Her characters are built of contradictions and inner conflict, and she likes forcing them to make uncomfortable decisions. She wanted to avoid falling into character archetypes. She feared that her character Kendra, a politically active member of various Black organizations, would be categorized as the “angry Black woman,” and sought to draw out her other aspects.
“She does this out of love and out of a lot of insecurity,” Raines said. “She really wants to take care of people and her friends, and it’s also just someone who’s afraid of saying goodbye — letting go — and sometimes she distracts herself with these things as a front, but it comes from a place of deep love and a sense of wanting to belong somewhere … I wanted to make sure that shone through.”
Of course, as the writer, Raines could only do so much to present these characters as complete people, using their complications to break them out of simple archetypes. The other half of the battle was casting actors who could bring this nuance to her words and depth to their performances. During casting, which involved actors submitting video-recorded auditions, this was what Raines searched for. She is thrilled, now, to see “what they bring to the characters (she’s) written, new things but also things (she) didn’t know they would pick up on.”
This unspoken deeper understanding of the nuances of the script is something Raines has found with the crew as well. She gestured to crew members around her and introduced them as they walked past, determined to give recognition to each one — “Yes, you too, Drew Agley, head of editing.” Agley, an LSA senior, sat a row in front of her, immersed in editing the footage they had already taken.
“Call us out, one by one,” someone says while others echo Raines’s description of them as “the dream team.” When selecting crew members, besides looking at their filmmaking experience, she chose people, like Agley, who were enthusiastic about her specific project and about telling the story of women of color. This makes it easier to stay true to her vision, as the crew understands how personal the story is to Raines and wants to do it justice. She likes to be involved in the production and said that “my email’s open; my door’s open; (anyone on the crew) can call me if (they) have any questions.”
During production, Raines has found herself involved in more than writing. She helped with finding locations, scheduling and replacing an actor who backed out at the last minute. Once, she was an extra, entering the realm of the film’s onscreen world as well. With the rest of the crew, she has spent hours on set for rehearsals, filming, convincing a café to let them film in exchange for a credit and carpooling to farther locations. Laughing, she said that the hardest part of making the film has been the consequent lack of sleep.
She loves being on set most of the time. Working together with the crew is an unparalleled experience. Inevitably, issues arise during production, and when they are overcome, she said, “that feeling is the best, when there could potentially be a derailing issue, but then (we collectively find) the solution, and everyone is just cheering like (it’s) the moon landing.” Similar to her fascination with the different elements of art that come together to make a film, Raines has a deep appreciation for the different skills and interests that every member of the cast and crew adds to their team.
They had to finish the rough edit of the film by April 19, the semester’s final day of classes. Now, they plan to take it to festivals. The first showing is on May 2 in the Michigan Theater at 6 p.m. and is open to the public. After that, they are looking to take the film to the Frankfurt Film Festival and potentially a festival in the Hamptons.
“We’re going to Hamptons?” Raines asked Burnstein, who sat behind her in the auditorium.
“I think so.”
At this, she addressed the room as a whole, “Okay guys, we’re going to the Hamptons!”
Burnstein added, “They want us to come.”
“They want us to come,” Raines told me. “You can (write) that — they are begging us to come. Begging to see ‘PWI.’ We’re in high demand.”
When asked about continuing screenwriting after college, Raines gave a definitive yes. She will keep writing. This is the work she loves, and she plans to move to Los Angeles to pursue it. She wouldn’t mind writing for an existing show — “that’s a paid gig” — specifically mentioning “Atlanta.” Working in a writers’ room would immerse her in that culture of collective creativity and diverse viewpoints that she loves, but she would like to write features on her own as well. The concept for a “Dodgeball”-style movie inspired by her high school volleyball team and the coach that transformed it has been on her mind for several years. She will keep writing “whatever ideas float into my head or nag at my soul.”
In an earlier draft of the “PWI” script, the opening scene takes place on a campus tour. As the tour guide shows the students, including a Black student, around campus, another Black student approaches the first and tells them, “Get out; it’s a trap!” This is something Raines has joked about doing herself. She thinks of “PWI” as the film she wished she could have seen before starting college, which would show her the realities of attending a PWI as a person of color. While acting as somewhat of a cautionary tale for newer students, the film is also intended for those who, like Raines herself, have made it to graduation. Her dad has told her “anybody can go to school; finishing school is something different,” a sentiment especially true for students of color. To the other Black students graduating this year, Raines said, “we did it, guys.” This message of recognition, pride and camaraderie is one she hopes comes through in the film. “This PWI wasn’t easy; there’s a lot of shit, but we’re here, and we’re going to keep being here and taking up space and also being a resistant force.”
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: The student filmmakers introduction was added.