Filmmaker Jonathan Skurnik. Photo by Michael Anderson

Local filmmaker screens two

By Brooks Robards - April 27, 2006

Judging from the two Jonathan Skurnik movies that are planned for the Katharine Cornell Theatre on May 5, the Vineyard Haven filmmaker might seem to have a fixation on babymaking. But it's just coincidence that both "Pregnant," his 10-minute short, and "Rick's Canoe," the feature-length film he collaborated on with five other directors, focus on the subject. He has made films about everything from shamanism to Lyme disease.

The two offered by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society are the first ventures into fiction for an award-winning director who has been making documentaries for 16 years. It's true, however, that "Pregnancy," which was filmed in Edgartown, was inspired by a real-life experience 41-year-old Mr. Skurnik had with the girlfriend who attracted him to Martha's Vineyard almost four years ago.

Within the brief span of "Pregnancy," a couple learns they will have a baby, copes with the shock, weighs their options and comes to a conclusion about their feelings. The short stars actor Michelle Marks, as well as set design by Nora Laudani and music by Eric T. Johnson. All three live in West Tisbury. It was funded in part by the Martha's Vineyard Cultural Council.

Mr. Skurnik received lots of help from other Islanders as well. "I learned how wonderful it was to actually make a film on Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Skurnik says. "I felt so supported."

Help came from the Point Way Inn, which housed actors and crew, and Edgartown's Apryl Anastacio, whose company Craft Services did the catering. Caroline Svenska provided her Edgartown home as the set, and many others made contributions.

Despite extensive documentary filmmaking experience, Mr. Skurnik found he still had plenty to learn. "It's a collaborative process," he says. "The way everybody puts aside their egos and works together is amazing."

He credits Oscar-nominated editor Jim Klein with refining a film Mr. Skurnik describes as overacted and overwritten. "Pregnant" opened the Brooklyn Arts Council's International Film and Video Festival earlier this week.

The longer "Rick's Canoe," that shares billing with "Pregnant" on May 5, came about as part of a Santa Fe feature film workshop Mr. Skurnik participated in last year. The workshop was led by San Francisco-based filmmaker Rick Schmidt, author of the best-selling Indie bible, "Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices."

Made in 10 days on a $2,000 budget, "Rick's Canoe" follows the vagaries of six single guys who are too old for post-grad angst but not really settled in life. They participate in a group therapy session led by a woman who decides she'd like to make a baby with one of the participants.

All six of the workshop participants helped write and direct the film, which has a strongly improvisational feel. Each of the six took turns being at the helm, and Mr. Skurnik says he took charge in a scene set at a gym and also came up with the film's ending.

Veteran Mexican-American actor Val DeVargas, who worked under Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil," appears as the father of one of the film's characters. Mr. Skurnik described working with Mr. DeVargas as different from his experience with the other actors, who were locals or workshop participants.

"We just sat around and talked for an hour and a half," Mr. Skurnik says. Mr. DeVargas listened and absorbed what the workshop participants had to say about their unfolding project and then simply "became" his character.

"We had so little time we could really only shoot a scene once," Mr. Skurnik explains. "We all just dove right in." Meeting at 8 am and starting the first shoot at 9 am, the workshop began the day after the Santa Fe Film Festival, where Mr. Skurnik's film about stuttering, "Spit It Out," played.

As a result of his experience in Santa Fe, Mr. Skurnik will co-produce a Feature Film workshop with Mr. Schmidt this summer on the Vineyard, August 7 through 16. He is already talking with the Woods Hole Film Festival about offering one of its filmmakers a slot at the workshop as a prize.

Despite battling Lyme disease since last September, Mr. Skurnik has finished the first draft of a full-length screenplay, called "The Very Best There Is." It earned a reading at the Independent Film Project's Raw Word event in New York in March.

"Spit It Out" will air this summer on local PBS stations and will have a screening at Atlanta's DocuFest this week. Mr. Skurnik's documentary short about a Ukrainian novelist, "The Elevator Man," will also be shown there and will have its inaugural broadcast on WNET TV in New York on July 20 as part of the ReelNY series.

In October Mr. Skurnik helped the World Wildlife Fund teach documentary-making to Tibetan ecologists in Yunnan Province, China. Another project, "American Shaman," is due for completion in 2007. In the meantime, the filmmaker will pack up and move to Los Angeles this summer. It's the next stage in a career that has taken off like a rocket.

As for life on the Vineyard? Mr. Skurnik's dream is to return to the Island to write the movies Hollywood will be clamoring to produce.

Martha's Vineyard Film Society presents two short films, Friday, May 5, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $6, or $4 for members.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.