My dear son; by the time you read this letter, I will have passed into the hands of eternity. Do not be afraid. I have lived, I have loved, and I have hurt. I ask no more of life than this. You have been, are, and always will be forever mine. Please take these words as I pass them unto you, and nourish them into the depths of your spirit. – Justyn Bell, “Walking.”
These are the words of a 24-year-old baseball star. In his short film entitled, “Walking,” Justyn Bell began his story with heartfelt words from a mother who just left her son alone in the world.
Mary was the beloved mother of a young boy named Thomas. Unfortunately, Mary was ripped out of her son’s life too soon. Her death left Thomas angry, confused and impulsive. With an insufficient supply of dry food in his backpack, Thomas irrationally decided to pack his things and skip town to hike the Appalachian Trail. All he wanted was solace, and Thomas went to dangerous lengths to rediscover himself in the wake of his mother’s passing.
This was the synopsis I could gather after reading director Justyn Bell’s script. In all honesty, the eloquently written script threw me off guard. When I was invited to meet Bell, I expected to be shaking the hand of a roughly 40-year-old man. Instead, a young man greeted me with a big smile on his face and said, “Hey I’m Justyn, nice to finally meet you. Come on in!” My curiosity peaked, because after that surprising first impression, I wanted to know who Bell really was.
Bell is a young filmmaker who works for MBP Media Group in Roswell, Ga. In 2015 he started writing the script for “Walking.” A year and a half later he would go on to direct his low-budget short film with a rag-tag crew of about 15 people. Two months of filming, and three to four months of editing brought Bell to premiere his finished movie at the Plaza Atlanta Theater. After an emotional night and a packed-out audience, Bell was on cloud nine and couldn’t think of a greater honor than to have his passion project seen by so many people.
Bell has even more to look forward to, now that he’s one of the few directors from over 500 submissions to be selected to premiere his film at the 2018 International Christian Film Festival. In the short film category that Bell submitted for, “Walking” is one of only 15 short films to be selected to premiere at the ICFF. According to the official ICFF website, this particular festival is, “One of the largest Christian film festivals in the world, and it’s the only film festival with a screening in France during the Cannes Film Festival.”
After my first meeting with Bell, I was left amazed at how a young man had achieved so much. How did a 24-year-old end up writing and directing a festival-worthy film? To answer this question, I had to go back to the beginning of Bell’s life. As the old adage goes; mothers know best, and there was no better person to shed light on Justyn’s childhood than Connie Bell.
“Justyn was always the fun one. When he learned to ride a bike, he was the one standing on the seat instead of sitting,” said Connie. Call him the black-sheep brother. Between he and his twin brother, Josef, Justyn was the one who didn’t like to be told what to do. As his mother puts it, “He very much lives in the moment and wants to experience the consequences. He gets that from his mother.”
Despite the fact that Justyn had a natural born talent for baseball, he didn’t seek out the traditional sports scholarship upon graduation. According to his mother, Justyn’s humble character keeps him from even mentioning his life in sports. Perhaps this was because Justyn’s heart wasn’t in baseball like it was in film. But before his love for filmmaking came to fruition, Justyn was the performer.
Watching a movie at the theater wasn’t the end of the story for Justyn. After Peter Pan saved Neverland from the nefarious Captain Hook, Justyn would gather his family together and reenact the whole movie in the form of a play or puppet-show.
“He doesn’t like being the center of attention, but he does like being involved,” said Connie. This held true for Justyn when he picked up a video camera for the first time. Justyn was 13 when he began writing movie scripts to make short films with his neighborhood friends. Connie remembers coming home after work to a house full of kids. “Justyn would yell, ‘I’m going to the clubhouse to shoot a movie mom,’ and off they went,” said Connie. These were some of the most beautiful years of Justyn’s childhood that his mother holds on to. Some days she would clean her son’s room and the floor would be littered with crumpled papers, each one a new script.
Among the many kids that Justyn filmed with when he was 13, he could always count on his brother Josef and long-time friend David Nobles to film with him. The three of them would frequently switch roles when they made their fun Nerf gun videos. “I was in all of Justyn’s early films, and I would either act in them or work behind the scenes,” said Josef.
Nobles was also a regular star in Justyn’s early films like “San Diego Heights.” Nobles remembers having sleepovers and spending the whole afternoon filming. “Justyn would quickly edit what we shot, and at night we would grab snacks and watch the movie we made earlier that day,” said Nobles. Coincidentally, Justyn would end up recruiting Josef and Nobles as part of the crew in “Walking” about ten years later.
On day one of the production of “Walking,” Nobles could be seen with his professional-looking Canon C100, ball-head tripod, and shoulder rig. Justyn had recruited Nobles as the director of photography, or DP for short. Nobles was a “shoe-in” to be the photographer, not only because of his history with Justyn, but because he had been honing his craft by filming weddings.
Josef was responsible for post-production graphic design, where he worked late nights with his brother. Justyn had a vision of a real-looking butterfly in his movie, serving as a spiritual guide for the main character. “Every time you saw the butterfly, that was me,” said Josef. Josef would model for about an hour and his brother would come to check on it. “Animating was really tedious,” said Josef. But animating wasn’t the only tedious part of Justyn’s filming journey.
Before casting the actors and choosing the crew, Bell and his girlfriend, Hannah McCune, had a big job on their hands. The script that Bell wrote was very visually demanding, meaning he needed to film in the most beautiful locations to set the tone for the movie. In November of 2015, he and Hannah began scouting locations all over the North Georgia Mountains. “Every other weekend, over a four month period, we hiked about 12 different trails,” said McCune. Bell had a vision for each scene, and he wanted each different background to be symbolic of the main character’s grief. That’s why he carefully scoured every last trail he could find.
The legalities of the film industry caught up with Bell and McCune when they realized they needed a permit to film in certain government-owned parks. “I really didn’t know how hard it was going to be to get the permit,” said Bell. The cost of a permit can vary depending on the size of a production. When selling permits, the Georgia State Parks website makes it clear that, “Primary consideration is given to protecting the natural resources, reducing disruption of normal public use, and recovering expenses incurred by the department.” Luckily, Bell and McCune got in contact with the USDA and were able to secure a permit at a low cost since their production was small and wouldn’t be disruptive.
With the hassle of scouting out of the way, the next thing Bell had to worry about was finding a skilled crew. He needed someone to handle sound, another person to diffuse and reflect light, and someone to manage props. On top of Nobles being the DP, he also needed a behind-the-scenes photographer, and a producer. Finding enough dedicated people to fill all of the roles is a tall order to fill for any filmmaker. But Bell had a reliable gang of old friends to turn to, thanks to some connections he made with a production company called Farmin’ Dreams Studios.
Bell’s connections with Farmin’ Dreams Studios traces back to 2013, when he met a guy named Dave Rajkumar. Back then, Bell had to start from scratch. He moved so much as a kid that he didn’t have any strong ties with like-minded filmmakers. So one day, Bell hopped on Facebook and saw an ad for a film called “Tonight is no Different.” Rajkumar had posted a casting notice for his film being produced at Georgia State College. Even though acting may not have been Bell’s passion, he thought auditioning for a part in Rajkumar’s film would be a good way to find a potential crew. He responded to the Facebook post with enthusiasm, even though the project would inevitably be scrapped down the road. But that didn’t stop Bell and Rajkumar from harvesting a friendship through Farmin’ Dreams. “I knew I had to prove myself to them. I was serious about my work so I auditioned for one of their films and we’ve been good friends ever since,” said Bell.
For the years to come after their first film, Bell and Rajkumar worked together to write even more scripts. Rajkumar would produce a movie and Bell would be DP. Then the next idea would be thrown on the table, and Bell would write a script while Rajkumar produced it. Bell and Rajkumar were partners for years, constantly filling new roles in their co-produced movies. “Justyn was always there to help me brainstorm projects,” said Rajkumar. From one of the earliest collaborations, to one of their most recent films, new friends were invited into Farmin’ Dreams Studios along the way. In fact, the woman who voiced the mother in “Walking” was cast after working with him in a previous Farmin’ Dreams film called “Lost and Found.”
Enter Valerie Menzel; The beautiful award-winning actor from Charlotte, North Carolina. After she met Bell on the set of Rajkumar’s “Lost and Found” film, Bell was happy to have Menzel be the lead in his own film called “Saving Sarah.” “Justyn is so actor-friendly. He has no ego, and there’s never any drama. It’s always a pleasure to work with him,” said Menzel.
When Bell wrote the part for the mother in “Walking,” Menzel was his natural go-to choice. Even though Menzel lived hundreds of miles away from Bell, the two of them collaborated to get all of the mother’s voiceovers over the phone. Bell would send her still images of some of the filming they did to help get Menzel in the right actor’s mindset. As Menzel recorded herself in her studio, she had Bell in her earpiece where he could listen to her and give her feedback after each take.
“It was tough because you don’t have the visuals, you don’t have anyone else there, and you don’t know what’s going on so it’s like you’re working in a vacuum,” said Menzel. Luckily for Menzel, music was her saving grace. Before each take, Bell would play the accompanying music for her to set the mood. Bell had appropriately chosen songs that reflected a young boy’s highs and lows after the loss of a mother. Menzel was that mother. But just as Menzel had challenges of her own to get in character, Bell faced new uncharted territory.
Bell knew he wanted an original soundtrack for “Walking,” but just like when he was looking for a crew, he didn’t know anyone who could take on the task. Facebook ended up being his safety net for filling the many roles that his movie required. Again, Bell typed up an ad and released it into the wild, unsure if he would get any bites. Though, Bell was pleased when he got a response from a young fellow from Florida. Bell happened to have ties to a boy named Conner Grubbs, who saw the Facebook ad and offered up his talents. “I don’t know what came over me but I just offered and said, ‘Hey if you want music for this, I’d love to be involved,’” said Grubbs. From that one post, a whole new chapter in the production of “Walking” came to Bell’s attention.
Initially, Grubbs sent Bell some samples of the music that his old band produced. Some songs featured a blended sound of mandolin and piano, but one element stood out to Bell. He gravitated toward Grubbs’ songs that featured nothing but stripped down guitar. It matched his vision of the film perfectly, so he packed his things and took a long drive down to Florida. While sleeping at Grubbs’ parents’ house, they knocked out the whole score in a week. Working alongside Bell was very experimental for Grubbs since all their recording was improvised. “Justyn was willing to take risks. He was okay with me playing a riff off the top of my head after getting inspiration from a scene,” said Grubbs. Even though “Walking” was Bell’s passion project, that didn’t stop him from taking chances every now and then. Other times, adverse circumstances forced him to try new things.
For Bell, there was nothing worse than finding out that his lead actor was too sick to shoot during one weekend. The film was nearly wrapped and Bell only needed a few more shots, so he had to improvise. Bell’s girlfriend, Hannah McCune, had a younger brother named Lucas McCune who looked believably similar to the main actor. So Bell decided to use “movie magic” and trick the audience with some close-up shots of Lucas. “This role was thrown at me last minute, and I was little skeptical about it. I was honestly surprised how well it worked out,” said Lucas. Judging by the positive response from the audience, Bell agreed that Lucas’ scenes did their job at tricking the audience. Now only two questions remain: will the judges at the International Christian Film Festival notice the actor’s double? And how will Bell’s film perform in the long run?
In a market that doesn’t favor independent films, it was bold for Bell to devote so much time to his short film. Adam Leipzig, publisher of “Cultural Weekly,” analyzed a 2016 Sundance info graphic and concluded that big budget studio films account for 92.1 percent of the total box office. “This leaves approximately 550 independent films to fight for less than eight percent of the box office,” Leipzig writes. Although this is the case, Bell isn’t concerned about the return on his investment.
To the ever-humble Justyn Bell, walking away with an award is not his main concern. What matters to Bell is the two-year journey behind “Walking” that makes him firmly believe in his work. Kevin Powers, the sound guy for “Walking” and all around veteran in hosting film festivals had advice for Bell, “What’s great about these film festivals is that you get to be around other independent filmmakers who share the same interests in film.” Bell and Powers are in the same frame of mind. It was an honor for Bell to find out that he was chosen out of 500 submissions, but he’s in it for the networking.
Not even the reserved Justyn Bell could be kept out of the spotlight on the night of his first big premiere. Again, making reservations and contacting the right people to premiere “Walking” at the Plaza Atlanta Theater was completely spearheaded by Bell. On the night of the screening, Bell’s mother, Connie, remembered how nervous her son was. He took it upon himself to stand in front of the audience and hold a Q&A for anyone with questions. After watching the movie, the mesmerized audience gave Justyn their full attention. No matter how nervous Justyn was on the inside, his mother saw him glowing on the outside. “I can’t even use human words to express what I felt,” said Connie. “It wasn’t self-pride. It was me being as proud as a parent could be for her son. He was where he was born to be.”
[“Walking” video footage from day two of production. Shot on the War Woman Dell Trail.]
Written by: Nicholas Cordts
Print Citation: Bell, Justyn. “Walking.” Film Script. 2015. Print. 20 April. 2017.