It’s rare to find Nevins Theater comfortably packed at 8pm when it isn’t a Student Senate meeting. However, to the pleasant surprise of the cast and crew of Loose Ends, the Friday showing of Monica Nowik’s forty-minute film brought in a crowd of professors, family members, alumni, and fellow students.
Loose Ends is a modern retelling of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. The poem, famous for its story of Beowulf slaying the monster Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, finds itself adapted to follow a fraternity and a mommy vlogger as they try to move forward following the death of a boy named Greyson. Alfred University alum Howard Lang plays Brian (our modern Beowulf) as he tries to go through a tumultuous interview reliving his time at his fraternity. Jessie Stahlman (Greyson’s Mother, the mommy vlogger) is his antagonist, a monster of a woman who he learns is just as complicated as he is. Stahlman is not from Alfred University, but both her acting on-screen and her interactions with the audience during the reception seemed as if she’d always been known to the Alfred community.
Students Tristan Duhan, Brian Ngatunga, Daniel Michael, Alyra Rain, Erie Hammond, Kathleen Pietron, Shirite Westreich, Corrie Kayes, and Zac Laury were some of the familiar faces that starred in the film. Dr. Danielle Gagne had a cameo as a star-struck faculty member following Brian (Lang) in awe in the opening of the film.
Ashton Julian was the costume designer for the film, who detailed that the fraternity shirts were specifically made and designed by Julian and Nowik. Julian also thrifted shirts for the character of Brian to create a narrative flow of his arc.
“You know, it’s like he’s putting his armor on,” they said, of a notable outfit in which Brian is wearing a Taxi Driver t-shirt when he goes to visit Greyson’s Mother.
The through-thread of Brian’s obsession with being seen as important and worthy of attention, comes across in his “film-bro” aesthetic. Posters of Taxi Driver, “philosophical” discussions about Quentin Tarantino, and a t-shirt depicting Scarface all revolving around Brian was Nowik’s way of telling us that he understands the world in a superficial way–at least until we part with him at the end of the film. What lies ahead of Brian, we’ll never know.
Following the film, the crowd was encouraged to meet at the Alumni Lounge for food, an actor meet and greet, and a director’s Q&A.
“What was your favorite scene to film, what was most interesting?” Stahlman asked Nowik.
“I mean, all of it was interesting. All of it came with its own hurdles. I think the first day of filming when we got the Airbnb hosted by Wilma, that day was definitely up there in my favorites just because it was all so new to all of us. We were like, ‘How are we going to do this?’ And we learned very quickly that there were some ways we were not going to continue doing it, so that was really fun. I think, like, for me it was the scene with you [Jessie] and Howard outside at the Bandstand, with Greyson’s Mom and Brian, and they’re both a little tipsy and they’re having this conversation which was actually improvised about printing double-sided. You guys were just having that conversation-”
“We were so cold,” Lang interjected, to the laughter of everyone in the room.
“It was very cold outside!” Nowik resumed, “And we were just talking about it and I asked them if they would improvise a little bit at the beginning of the take and it just led into…that entire scene is one-take.”
When asked about how the inspiration came to be, Nowik said that it was a collaborative effort. Julian was responsible for the environment surrounding frat boys, whereas a conversation with Dr. Melissa Ryan encouraged Nowik to explore Beowulf for her film. As Nowik began to explore the poem, she was drawn toward the inconsistency of Grendel’s Mother, the fact that she had no name and was an “undesirable woman.”
The process of making this film was a rewarding challenge.
“There’s the movie that you write, there’s the movie that you film, and there’s the movie that you edit,” Nowik said, citing advice from Dr. Nick Schlegel.
She took much of her inspiration from directors like John Cassavetes and Elaine May, wanting to just let the actors lead the filming with little direction from her. This actor-forward approach, to her, is the better way to make movies.
“[Cassavetes takes this kind of approach where] it’s okay when it goes out of focus, it’s okay when they’re out of frame or whatever, because that’s not the point. It’s not about that fancy camera work. Which, cinematography is amazing and I’m not a cinematographer, and that’s also part of it. I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not.”
Ngatunga asked Nowik how she managed to keep moving forward, despite knowing that the film she was making was facing scheduling and filming challenges.
“The first weekend we wrapped filming and I just had a moment where I was like, ‘Because I’ve already started this, this is never going to be a perfect movie. And that was so freeing because I was like, I don’t have to try and make it perfect anymore, and I can just make the best movie that I can make. From there, I just felt really motivated to finish it because so many people helped me to make this movie and I wanted to make this movie. I wanted to see this done and I wanted to be able to press play and watch my own movie. But the process, also, was more important to me than the end result, as long as everyone got something out of it, as long as I felt like I was learning things and I was going in a good direction, I didn’t really care if I got a movie out of it. But I did!”
Much of the Q&A came in the form of questions and comments praising Nowik’s good work, her explaining the meaningful nuances of the actors’ performances, and the audience desperate to learn more about her process in making her film.
Toward the end of the Q&A, Nowik was asked whether she would direct another film.
“If I can make my next film about women, I mean, yeah!” she replied, to the combined laughter and approval of many members of the audience.
Loose Ends was Monica Nowik’s senior thesis project for the Honors Program and English department. To the delight of her, her cast and crew, and her committee (Drs. Rob Reginio, Susan Mayberry, and Susan Morehouse), the production and premiere were notable successes.
Despite all, Loose Ends will remain a memorable experience for everyone involved. Those of us in the Prunty-Russo Media Lab, and those of us who know Nowik, are all incredibly proud at the amazing effort and work that our own Cassavetes put into creating a Beowulf befitting of Alfred University.