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Editor Eileen Wilson, Sahuarita Digital Pathways Academy student Baelyan King (Ben, WWII) Director Gamaliel Luna and Rylee Koebnick set up for a World War II scene.

For the characters in “Letters,” a historical fiction play by Evelyn Merritt, the only way to communicate with loved ones back home is through letters from the war zone.

The play tells the stories of soldiers from the Civil War to the Iraq War through their correspondence, and touches on feelings of isolation, fear and powering through obstacles.

Sahuarita High School’s drama and film students can relate to many of the themes, with the pandemic forcing them to rehearse on Google meetups and Zoom, and a total transformation of what was originally a reader’s theater piece to a full-length film.

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McKenzie Whiting performs a scene as Elsie. 

SHS’s drama, film, choir and band students are almost done with the work to take “Letters” from the stage to the screen, a process that began last year. The premier comes next month after months of hard work and resilience.

Riley Williams, 17, the SHS drama president, an actor and the acting coach for “Letters,” said the play was originally supposed to be part of “The Power of the Pen” for last year’s spring show, but COVID-19 put a halt to it.

“We had to stop everything and we were trying to keep hold of something that we had so we wouldn’t have to start over again,” she said. “Getting rights to shows is so hard and it's so time-consuming... With 'Letters,' since we already had it, it seemed like the best idea and it could be done individually with people where we could safely, not quite perform it but show it, film it.”

Making a full movie involved pulling together different organizations in SHS, former students and a lot of creativity.

The theater students turned to film and video teacher Derek Marshall to help with filming and the use of a green screen. They enlisted film students to help with the camera work and editing.

Connie Devivic Nokes, SHS drama and choir instructor, said the project became a collaboration. She helped to facilitate everything and made sure the students had what they needed.

“In this process, I worked directly with casting and then rehearsing the different actors, which we did through Zoom and Google Classrooms,” she said. “I think my main role once it became a film was to keep the vision and clarity of actors and be a drama coach.”

She appointed Gamaliel Luna, 18, the director.

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Director Gamaliel Luna, Editor Eileen Wilson and Rylee Koebnick work on footage. 

“When it comes to filming, I was bringing people together and I drew storyboards to get an idea of what you're going to shoot with the actors,” Luna said. “For me, my job was to communicate what I wanted exactly with my cinematographers, from there communicating with hair and makeup, then shooting to get the best performance and after that's all done go over editing and put it all together.”

Challenges

The team shot individual scenes following COVID-19 safety protocols, such as everyone but the performer wearing a mask. But, forging a new path in a pandemic year brought with it challenges.

Williams said rehearsal over Zoom and communication was tricky, and as acting coach she worked with people via the computer.

“It was so hard to do that over Zoom because you can't get the energy of a room when you're not in the room,” she said. “I can't tell you, ‘What are you doing with your legs.’ We had to trust everybody to get their character which was kind of nice because it ended up taking so long.”

Despite not being able to practice together, they got strong performances from the actors.

Rylee Koebnick, 16, plays the mother of a soldier in the Iraq War who did not approve of her son’s decision to enlist. When it came time to shoot her scene, her silk PJs weren’t there and they had to improvise with an impromptu set of “best mom” PJs.

“She was visibly stressed and I saw her just pull herself together and she gave this amazing performance,” Devivic Nokes said. “These tears started falling, the mascara was running with the tears. All of us were just stunned and then we started clapping."

Koebnick said it came at a time when she was juggling so many tasks.

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David Villa (Louis, Civil War) has his makeup done. 

“I was getting frustrated because I couldn't get my lines, I kept forgetting them, and then she's like, ‘Grab the blanket.’ There's too many things to do and then finally I just started getting so stressed,” she said. “I just started crying and everything just came to me. I was just crying in my 'best mom' shirt.”

Koebnick was also the photographer, taking head shots of all the cast members for the opening credits.

“Right before the second shutdown, I lost half of our days of headshots and so I was so stressed,” she said. “I said, 'Guys, we have to get these headshots in,' and we had reshoots anyway. I was taking pictures while we were filming and we just had this assembly line going. Everything bad that happened worked out good in the end.”

Making it work

As most of the hurdles that came their way, the cast and crew used the lost photos and necessary reshoots to make the film stronger.

“The loss of those pictures at first was a blessing in disguise because it forced everyone to come back,” Luna said.

Editor Eileen Wilson, 18, was brought on board by Luna, who worked with her in film class.

“The performances were good to begin with but they really shined the second time around because they got to memorize lines again and maybe just improve upon what they did last time,” she said. “As far as editing goes, we didn't have enough footage to fill some spots because we just didn't shoot enough, so when we reshot we took that into consideration and filmed some more.”

The team had to work magic with limited props, which consisted of a cot, a picnic table and a bench. Their crew of makeup artists did wonders to figure out how to give a Civil War soldier frostbite or bloody a war nurse dealing with the painful realization she couldn’t help all those wounded soldiers make it out alive.

“I hope that people can take away that we didn't really have much,” Koebnick said. “We just had the film room and the cameras, just a community of people who worked together and pulled this big production. We just started with nothing and were learning on the job.”

The finished film will have attention to detail. Wilson is going to be color correcting the footage, placing characters in the 1800s in a sepia, using black and white up to the Vietnam War, and slowly improving the camera quality as the eras progress.

The SHS band and choir performed numbers for the opening and closing credits.

They need Green Valley

They are even featuring a slideshow of about 40 local veterans along with their years of service as a way to honor them  at the end of the film.

As the students prepare for their premier, they are hopeful the story resonates and that people in the community see the level of work put in. It is a piece of SHS history.

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Makeup designer Sydney Perez, Dominique Valenzuela (Katie, WWII) and Connie Devivic Nokes take a selfie just before the WWII film shoot.

Williams said she hopes people in the Green Valley community will support their efforts.

“In drama we figure it out, as long as it looks good it's OK,” she said. “I'm hoping that since we have such a big retirement community that is familiar with the arts, that they will take us seriously. I know that if they knew and were aware they would like to support us more. I hope this shutdown will offer new opportunities for them to realize maybe I should give them a try.”

For Wilson, "Letters" was a chance to participate in theater that she would have never gotten if it weren't for COVID-19.

“I’m not happy that COVID is going on, but I’m glad it led to this and if it wasn't for that then there would be no video and I wouldn't be involved,” she said. “This is the first time our school has put out something like this and I’m glad I could contribute to this and help portray a story.”

Luna’s time as director taught him skills he will carry with him.

“It's helped me with my problem-solving skills because once you get on set, everything changes, something can happen,” he said. “You have to improv and whether or not I become a filmmaker, I've learned a lot of life lessons.”

For him, “Letters” was even better as a film and he used their experiences in filming to help him get into character.

“The interesting thing I derived from the Zoom meetings was it felt very similar to the characters writing the letters because back then letters were the only form of communication,” he said. “On Zoom we felt really far away from each other.”

Koebnick also said the lessons they learned throughout all the reshoots and setbacks will stick with them.

“We just learned so much,” she said. “We had to refilm a few scenes and the second time we got it done just like that. We were getting so efficient at it and it was a good experience.”

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Film and video instructor Derek Marshall, right, helped to guide the film crew during the project when needed. 

Watching the students come up with creative solutions and remain resilient was something Devivic Nokes treasures as a teacher.

“We had a few artistic differences of opinion that had to work out and that was so cool,” she said. “At one point during the filming, Derrick Marshall turned to me and said, ‘They’ve caught their stride.’ Instead of being in the middle of it we were in the background watching and it was so cool.”

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728 

Reporter

Reporter Jamie Verwys grew up in Sahuarita and graduated from the high school in 2006. She lives in Tucson and graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2018.