Student turns hobby into film career

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 145 views 

Filmmaking has been a part of John Erwin’s life for nearly as far back as he can remember.

What began as a childhood fascination and hobby has evolved into a budding film career that has earned him notoriety in the movie business and throughout the region.

With nearly 30 pictures under his belt, Erwin – aka Burcham Erwin –  is not only an award-winning filmmaker, but is already an industry veteran at the ripe old age of 20.

As a child, John Erwin knew he wanted to make films.

“When I was about six, I started messing around with my dad’s Video8 camcorder,” said Erwin. “The first film I remember making was just me walking around the house, narrating what I saw. Around that same time, I would set up my action figures and take photographs of them in different poses, then line them up like a comic book after they were developed.”

Some of his earliest work consisted of simple narratives filmed when he would have friends over to visit. He also began making puppet films around this same time. At age 11, one of Erwin’s puppet movies, entitled “The Walker House,” debuted at the first annual T Tauri film festival. The movie centered around a young boy who, after moving into a new home, has an encounter with a ghost. The boy then decides to investigate the mystery surrounding the ghost.

Erwin won an award for “The Walker House” at T Tauri and later won for another one of his films, “Downtown” at the same event.

More recently, Erwin earned acclaim for his films “Children of the Mother Beaver” and “Big Black Scar.” In the spring, “Children of the Mother Beaver” (COMB) was among the pictures featured at the 2012 Little Rock Film Festival. The sixth annual event was held May 29 to June 3 and featured short films and videos from directors throughout the region. COMB was entered as part of the Made in Arkansaw/Arkansas Shorts: Warm blooded Cold-Hearted showcase. Inspired by Friedrich Gerstacker’s Die Regulatoren in Arkansas, the movie follows brothers as they search for their father’s killer throughout the Arkansas wilderness.

A student in the University of Arkansas’ Honors College, Erwin wrote and produced COMB with classmate Zach Harrod and with the help fellow honors student, Lindsay Strong. The three shot the film over the course of eight days., with most of the filming taking place in Elkins, Ark. The team had a budget of about $10, which was used primarily to purchase a few costumes from area thrift stores. Erwin shot the film using only a Canon XF 100 video camera.

As part of the Honors College curriculum, the students were given the opportunity to branch out on their own and put their creative minds to good use. One of Erwin’s teachers, Dr. Kathleen Condray, German Professor for the UA Honors College, says that John’s film, “Children of the Mother Beaver,” was entirely the students’ own work.

“Aside from an hour session on how to shoot and edit a short film, we turn the students loose and let them do their own thing,” says Condray.

In stark contrast to big-budget blockbusters, which dominate movie theaters around the country, Erwin’s films have very small budgets, if any at all.

“I generally do not have any budget,” said Erwin. “I have a lot of my own equipment, and usually borrow anything else I might need.”

Occasionally, he is forced to buy costumes or specific props, but estimates the most he has ever spent is a $100.

Erwin admits that most of his work tends to fall into the surrealist horror category. Earlier in the year, his film, “Big Black Scar” debuted at the Ozark Foothills Film Festival. The film centers around a man who decides to take in an escaped convict whom he discovers living in a drainage ditch. The convict claims to have been framed for a crime he didn’t commit. The main character, who compulsively uses his video camera to record everything he sees, decides that the story would make a good movie, and the two begin acting out all of the parts.

While he has appeared in some of his film, Erwin usually does not act in his own movies.

“I was in both ‘Children of the Mother Bear’ and ‘Big Black Scar’ for outstanding reasons,” said Erwin. “In ‘Children,’ it was simply the easiest solution to cast myself, and in the case of BBS, the other actors I had planned to use fell through so I ended doing all the voice acting myself.”

Although he has been involved in every aspect of most of his films, Erwin’s favorite parts of the process are writing and editing.

“They both give you a direct product,” says Erwin. “Producing and directing are a lot more discouraging because it is where things most often go wrong.”

Erwin has written one feature-length script and is working on another, although he notes that none of his films run longer than an hour.

In late July, Erwin was in pre-production on a new short film, the first of which he says has an actual sort of budget. “At Home” is, as Erwin puts it, “a sort of brooding psychological horror type thing.”

With the actors and producers in place, Erwin is still looking for other local talent to help his film come together.

Anyone interested in working as a production designer, sound designer or as an on-set or post sound person, should contact Erwin at [email protected]