Senior Brendan Hines has been making movies in WHSs filmmaking class Script to Screen since he was a sophomore. For his final high school movie, he used a senior tradition as inspiration, aiming to make his most realistic and thematically explorational film yet. Being a senior, its the end of my high school career, Hines said. Its the end of a lot of roads and filmmaking in high school has been such an awesome experience for me. I went into it sophomore year, getting to do that first movie, there was immediate gratification in just writing it and then going and filming it and editing it and getting it all together. That first movie, it was kind of like a flip of the switch. So then when it came time for the next ones, it was like I got to do it and I got to give it 110%
Senior Brendan Hines has been making movies in WHS’s filmmaking class Script to Screen since he was a sophomore. For his final high school movie, he used a senior tradition as inspiration, aiming to make his most realistic and thematically explorational film yet. “Being a senior, it’s the end of my high school career,” Hines said. “It’s the end of a lot of roads and filmmaking in high school has been such an awesome experience for me. I went into it sophomore year, getting to do that first movie, there was immediate gratification in just writing it and then going and filming it and editing it and getting it all together. That first movie, it was kind of like a flip of the switch. So then when it came time for the next ones, it was like I got to do it and I got to give it 110%”
Credit: WayCAM TV

Shooting “Senior Assassin”: “The most Wayland, senior year movie”

On the way from his car to his front door, senior Brendan Hines felt a spray of water. He knew what had hit him. Senior Maggie Melander emerged, water gun in hand, confirming the “assassination” she had just committed. Thus, Hines lost his one chance at winning Senior Assassin, the annual competition between the graduating class in which students attempt to water gun-down one another. While the incident put an end to Hines’ own participation, he had already found a way to eternalize the spirit of the game because long before he was struck by Melander’s tap water, he had been struck by inspiration.

Hines has been making short films through Wayland High School’s filmmaking elective course, Script to Screen, since his sophomore year. In his previous two movies, “Curse of the Minds of the Students of the Morrigan From Hell” and “The Ventriloquist’s Hand,” Hines conveyed genre-based, outlandish humor on the big screen. For his final high school production, however, he wanted to do things a little differently. Looking to make his newest film’s plot seem more plausible than the last two while maintaining engagement, using Senior Assassin as inspiration felt like a natural choice to Hines whose newest movie, “Senior Assassin,”  named to the real life game, debuted Thursday, May 9 at WHS’ annual film festival.

“I am so incredibly proud of both movies that have come before, but I felt like I had one more in me,” Hines said. “I felt like there was something there, that there was a story that I wanted to tell with Senior Assassin. I felt like it was insane that there had never been a movie about the game yet. I was like, how has that not happened? So I felt like I needed to do it. Like, once I had the idea of it, I was like, I kind of have to do it.”

Despite being a game casually played by students around the country, with its beckoning for betrayal and its potentially corrupting motivators like money and glory, Senior Assassin can have a dark side that, in Hines’ eyes, could lend itself well to narrative structure. To raise the stakes, Hines added a title card at the beginning of “Senior Assassin” explaining that “to mark the 25th anniversary of the tradition, previous alumni and champions have donated to the bounty’s reward, ultimately generating a sum of $2,000.” With motives set and story conventions seemingly already living within the base of the plot, Hines had space to step up to a challenge given to him by his Script to Screen teacher, WayCAM Executive Director Jim Mullane.

“It was like I hadn’t really done anything serious and Mr. Mullane really challenged me to do something more real, something less outlandish,” Hines said.

Hines had already met that goal in regards to his plotline by excluding monsters and muppets, figures present in his previous films. But to Mullane, the challenge meant Hines getting back to the basics and addressing areas for improvement that Mullane had picked up on through the years.

“One of the criticisms I had to push for him is realistic dialogue,” Mullane said. “We would critique his script the first two years and change a lot of it because of what didn’t sound real. Brendan is a great improver, and I just told him ‘Be realistic. Sit down. Let’s talk, let’s read the script.’ So we read [Hines’ scripts], and we picked them apart the first couple of years on what a real person would say versus writing. It’s not an English class. It’s definitely more realistic. This particular script [for ‘Senior Assassin’] was excellent. He met the challenge and I think he’s thankful that he did.”

As the two worked to better Hines’ dialogue writing, Hines realized that the inherent allure he saw in Senior Assassin would alone not be enough to carry his film.

“Writing is, I think, very hard,” Hines said. “I think just because you have a good story and a good idea for characters, it’s very different than actually having a good script.

With time and effort, the script improved and Hines did still have the story and characters to fall back on. However, his characters and the way he had actors portray those characters evolved along with his new approach to realistic dialogue, further differentiating “Senior Assassin” from his previous movies. In past years, the offbeat characters and scenarios Hines wrote occasionally forced him and his cast to stay bound to the screenplay in order to keep track of the world he had built within it. For “Senior Assassin,” Hines loosened his grasp on the script and allowed more improvisation and input from his cast members. With this change in direction and strategy, he also observed the conversations in the movie becoming more natural, just like he had hoped.

“For the most part, [the acting and dialogue] was on script, but the actors were definitely free to improvise,” Hines said. “The first scene of my two leads in the car is entirely improvised. I gave them just the rough outline of how the conversation should go and they just kind of went with it. Max Markarian improvised a lot of his jokes. We came up with some lines on set. We would rewrite things on set just because it didn’t sound quite natural or quite right because when you’re writing it is very different than when people are actually saying it.”

Markarian, a senior, plays one of several assassins while the two lead roles, Nico and Mark, are played by juniors Alex Irwin and George Stafford, respectively. In the early parts of the film, Mark has little desire to win Senior Assassin, seeing it more as an opportunity to spend time with his classmates, many of whom shun or mistreat him, including his closest friend Nico. Mark assists in the assassinations required of Nico, who is, unlike Mark, eager to win the money, which he plans to use for college. The character of Mark demands Stafford’s ability to draw a variety of emotions out of the audience at any given moment. When Stafford first looked over the screenplay, he realized that he would be trying to induce laughter, pity, optimism and more, all in a 29 minute window, so he would have to keep it as believable and genuine as possible.

“Reading the scripts for the first time, I got a sense of what the character wanted to do, and said the lines in a way that made it seem like that’s what I wanted to do,” Stafford said.

Stafford is one of a few actors in “Senior Assassin” who Hines cited as having been an easy casting choice.

“I just had everyone working with everyone doing the same scenes, just seeing different pairs together and really unexpectedly, George and Alex really quickly became the ones just because they had good chemistry when they were talking together,” Hines said. “Alex was able to play that sort of cooler character. George was really able to be comfortable being awkward, kind of leaving silence a little longer than you would want just because that is what was best for the scenes and he did a great job with that.”

Hines found that for this film, the actors who stood out the most to him were those who not only had a thorough understanding of their character, but were also able to evolve their role further. Because of this, Hines ended up casting people who he never anticipated, and having them act in ways that he expected even less.

“I didn’t intend for two juniors to play the two lead seniors in the movie, but they just were right for the part,” Hines said. “Same thing goes for [junior Annabelle Roberts]. When I wrote [the character of the feared assassin] the Ronin, it was just kind of this antagonistic force. Annabelle came in with a surprising amount of humanity to it. Not necessarily as angry but just kind of determined, so it was a different performance than I had imagined for the part, but it was really unique and I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Traditionally, Script to Screen sources actors from the Honors Dramatic Arts (HDA) class. This year was no different, with the bulk of “Senior Assassin” roles being played by WHS drama students. But Hines wanted to make the most of his final high school movie and saw an opportunity. In the film’s cold open, a group of seniors stake out a dimly lit parking lot, holding their water guns ready. Each of them–except the Ronin, who massacres them only moments later–are not HDA students, just WHS seniors there to support Hines.

“Everybody involved, from the actors to the non-actors like my friends, they were all super committed and they did a great job,” Hines said. “I’m really happy to have that, especially with that opening scene where it is really just my friends. That opening is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever filmed just because it’s so meaningful to me to see my friends be in something that I made.”

Hines not only wrote his friends into the fifm, but also himself and his dog, a tradition for each of his films. The dog, Winston, plays himself but with a tumor. When Mark, who finds solace from his loneliness by spending time with Winston, hears the news, he is suddenly willing to put everything on the line to win Senior Assassin and with it, the $2000 that he needs to save Winston’s life. Because of the key subject his dog becomes in “Senior Assassin,” Hines was happy to see that Winston grew from his previous roles.

“[Winston’s] acting skills have definitely improved over time,” Hines said. “I never auditioned him just because I never had another option, nor would I ever replace him. He was just such a perfect casting decision. This year especially, he really ran with it and he was doing things on his own. He was improvising a lot. That shot where he follows George off camera, that was not planned. I was rolling on George and he came right up and I just pointed the camera at him and he walked off on his own. It was so natural and well done. He never even looked at the camera. It was like he had just gotten so used to it that I think he is by far and away the most amazing dog actor that has ever graced the screen.”

The personalization of “Senior Assassin” did not stop there. Hines enlisted another friend to create an original score for the movie. From percussion to deep, bugle-like brass, the music portrays the intensity of battle.

“I have a fellow senior, Adam Lange,” Hines said. “He’s been a friend of mine since elementary school. I reached out to him last year for my second movie because his dad is a trombonist and [Lange] plays trombone. They’re a very musical family. I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in writing some original pieces for ‘The Ventriloquist’s Hand’ which he was thrilled to do, and he did an amazing job. So then this year, it was like a no brainer. I had to go back to that well and get more of Adam’s music and I think he did a great job. I think some of his best stuff is in this movie.”

Without context on the friendships behind the music and acting, viewers might not have been able to tell how unique the film was to WHS student experience, but they could see it in the setting.

“I just felt like it was a natural step this year [that] specifically needed to be in Wayland,” Hines said. “The Wayland Town Beach, the Dudley Chateau and Donelan’s are all very Wayland specific locations. I really wanted this year’s movie to be the most Wayland, senior year movie I could make without going too far.”

While Hines utilized all those Wayland landmarks to progress the plot, it was the Town Beach that got to host the most climactic scene of the movie. On the sands of Lake Cochituate, Mark and Nico, the final two players, face off in the kind of epic cinematic duel where onlookers go silent in horror and where one fighter must grapple for a fallen gun before his opponent can shoot him with it. Then, in the moment of truth, Nico grabs the weapon and, without hesitation, soaks Mark’s shirt in water. As the sun set on Mark’s game, it also was setting in real time in front of the cast and crew, making the filming process more stressful but its result more memorable.

Shots from the sunset scene at the Wayland Town Beach showing Junior George Stafford (left) as Mark and Junior Alex Irwin (right) as Nico. Both Stafford and director and senior Brendan Hines mentioned this scene as a standout part of the filming process. “One of the last scenes we filmed was on a beach and just happened to be sunset, so we changed a ton of the shots and a ton of the lines make sense,” Stafford said.

“My cinematography has definitely grown throughout [my three films],” Hines said. “I think the proudest scene I have of what I’ve shot is the beach scene at the end of this [movie]. It’s probably the best looking thing I’ve ever shot.”

The refinement of Hines’ skills came from a long road of work, one that ended a bit unusually. This year, for the first time ever, there was just one student in Script to Screen: Hines.

“When you have only one student, you can’t really do it unless the student is experienced,” Mullane said. “So [with] Brendan, for instance, we had to make a decision [of] whether we were gonna run it this year. Brendan had been through it twice. He knew everything. And he knew how to edit, so he didn’t need an editor. He knew how to shoot, he didn’t need as many crew members. It was him and I and the actors.”

Because of the unconventional structure of this year’s class, Hines said he “had to fight a little” to make it happen. But, considering Hines was not ready to give up on the foundational experience of his filmmaking career, he found advocating for the class to be worthwhile because he got to spotlight Script to Screen’s importance despite recent declining student interest in it.

“It’s a little sad, I won’t lie,” Hines said. “I think it’s a really amazing class that more people should be aware of and taking because it’s an amazing opportunity for actors, for people behind the scenes, all sorts of things. Musically you can add stuff in. There’s so many different ways you can come through. It was kind of a bummer that it was just me and I’d already been around here a couple times. Doing it one last time for the class was kind of bittersweet for me, but a little sad in the grand scheme of things, to see that the streak of this class happening every year is unfortunately coming to an end. Hopefully it comes back in future years, though.”

The feeling of a prospective end permeated through the process to the point where Hines included it in the themes of “Senior Assassin.”

“I wanted there to be a sense of finality,” Hines said. “I also wanted to explore growing apart.”

In the movie, Mark and Nico did not necessarily get the luxury of just growing apart, instead having their friendship abruptly derailed with Mark’s assassination. Mark walks Winston down the street in the final scene and grabs his mail. Inside he finds an unmarked envelope. In addition to the film’s original score, Hines also included a bit of yacht rock, referencing a song mentioned by Stafford, a yacht rock enthusiast, in the improvised opening scene. That same, surprisingly hopeful tune, “I Saw the Light” by Todd Rudgren, plays in the final scene as Mark drives off. Hines said this made the ending a full circle moment, while still leaving the audience with something to think about.

“[I was] exploring how friendship evolves over time and how sometimes, in the end, two people do not remain friends, that something happens that you just can’t get past, but they can still kind of find some sort of closure with each other, which I hope people are able to pick up on in the end,” Hines said. “The end of this movie is a little vague, but to me, it’s clear what happens. I hope to the audience it’s clear, but just spelling it out. I felt like [that] was something I had done with the other two movies, whereas I wanted to trust the audience a little bit more to be able to follow it, identify with the characters and see where everyone’s coming from even if you side with one person more than the other. It was all supposed to flow a bit more realistically this year, which was hard, but I think it paid off.”

This year’s actual game of WHS Senior Assassin wrapped up much more neatly, aligning with the end of the month and the seniors’ last day of high school. On May 31, at Hill Night, senior Ava Balukonis took the title. While the real thing may have been less cinematic, seniors still captured some of the game’s best moments on camera to be posted on Instagram. Like the movie’s resolution, though, the future of WHS student filmmaking remains more open-ended. Hines said after he graduates, he plans to continue making movies and wants other students to do the same while still in high school, using the Script to Screen class as a resource. Mullane says he sees the same things as Hines does on the horizon.

“I’m gonna miss Brendan,” Mullane said. “Brendan was great the last several years. He’s always been a team player. I’ve been teaching this since 2009 and there’s certain students that I see that are gonna do well. I have a good relationship with them through the years and I think he’s gonna do very well in this business. So it was special as far as that’s concerned. He’s very talented and I wish him the best.”

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