During an unusual senior year, a group of local students decided to devote their time and energy to writing, filming and editing a feature-length film that they hope to debut this summer.
“We do this because we love making movies,” said Sam Spears, a senior at Albemarle High School who stars in the film. “It’s our passion and we enjoy doing this. We all love each other. We’re all best friends following our dream.”
Production on “Water Under the Bridge” wrapped earlier this week after nearly three months, just in time for graduation. After a short break this summer, the team will get to work putting the film together — an effort that includes an original soundtrack — with a goal to premiere it in August before they head off to college.
Luca Huff, a senior at Monticello High School who directed the film, said they hope to debut the film at the Paramount Theater.
“Or somewhere really nice where we can premiere it and bring everybody,” he said.
Huff, who has been making movies since middle school, wrote the screenplay with Peter Bell, a Monticello graduate and student at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
Seniors at many area high schools graduate this weekend in outdoor ceremonies, a change from previous years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Creating the movie was a bonding experience and gave the students an opportunity to spin their free time during the pandemic into creative gold. Along the way, they built an impressive following on TikTok with behind-the-scenes videos — with nearly 250,000 followers and 3.4 million likes — and learned how to manage their time along with all the tasks that go into making a movie.
Huff started the @BackstreetCinematics account in January to put a face to their production unit. The TikTok following has ramped up the pressure and interest in “Water Under the Bridge.”
With past projects, Huff said they would pour their “blood, sweat and tears” into it and get a few hundred views on YouTube. This project is different.
“It really feels like we’re really working for something bigger than ourselves,” he said.
TikTok also has connected them with other creatives across the country who are helping with the movie, as well as sponsors.
“If you make cool content, you will get pushed out,” said Oliver van Wincoop, a senior at St. Anne’s-Belfield School and cinematographer on the film.
Though filmed during the pandemic, masks and social distancing won’t appear in “Water Under the Bridge,” which is set in 2004.
Huff said 2004 was chosen because the plot of the film, which is a coming-of-age thriller focused on four high school friends covering up a murder, wouldn’t work with smartphones and social media. He also wanted a “throwback vibe” for the film.
“That period of time or era was very nostalgic for me,” he said. “Growing up, we were so young then. Personally, graduating and seeing my childhood end, it almost feels like this is a good way to wrap it up by throwing it back to when it all began.”
After working on 50 other projects, Huff and his friends were ready to try something more ambitious this year, especially as they all had the skills needed to pull it off, as well as the time, with classes online for most of the school year.
“Online school doesn’t even feel like real school when it’s your senior year and you’ve got like two classes and you’re just in and out of Zooms,” Huff said. “Frankly, I’m always wanting to make another movie, and I just saw this opportunity and everybody else saw this opportunity and we’re like, ‘yeah let’s jump.’”
Spears said filming the movie brought the friends closer together. The time and effort involved was not a sacrifice, he said.
“Obviously, the pandemic sucks and COVID sucks but I’m so, so thankful for the way things turned out because making this movie has been so cool,” Spears said. “It’s going to be really awesome when it comes out and it’s all done.”
In addition to those in Charlottesville, Huff and others are working with teens across the country who offered to help score the movie and create graphics. They all keep in touch over Discord. The cast is made up of about 10 actors, while the production crew numbers about 40, most of whom are teenagers.
Spears said that with a team of teens, “nobody is stuck up.”
Wincoop said he was on a stricter lockdown for most of the pandemic, but filming was an escape.
“Being able to have this one bit of freedom when I’m not staring at my screen was so rewarding,” he said. “It’s surreal.”
Wincoop said working on the movie meant getting to do something he enjoys. He’s also had to learn to use the calendar app on his phone.
“I’ve never been this busy in my life,” he said.
“My favorite part is putting the audio on there and getting some tracks down,” he said. “It just brings everything together.”
He’s planning to go to Pennsylvania State University in the fall to major in film.
Making the movie beats any desk job, said Bell, the PVCC student, adding that a film set is the best place for him.
“These guys are my best friends,” he said.
Joe Yung, a senior at AHS, acts in the film and is the lead boom operator when he’s not on screen. He said the best part of making “Water Under the Bridge” is spending time with his friends.
“I’m so glad we used this and took advantage of this year,” he said. “Everyone has all this free time. We really took the best time that we had to do this.”
Yung wants to become a forest ranger and is going to college in Oregon in pursuit of that goal.
Production started in mid-March, and Huff said it was essentially a full-time job to plan filming locations, craft a schedule that worked for the cast and crew and to coordinate props and wardrobe teams. In addition, they had to factor in the pandemic, though Huff said a closed cast and crew helped to limit exposure to the virus before they were fully vaccinated.
“We have so much that we’re putting into this that we don’t really have time to go out and socialize with anybody else,” he said. “There’s no time to catch COVID.”
Huff is planning to pursue film as a career and will attend the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in the fall.
He feels like making “Water Under the Bridge” has prepared him much more for college, almost to the point that he feels ready to skip college and go straight into the industry. But he’s not doing that yet.
Spears described Huff as the team’s most valuable player.
“You know how flaky teenagers are,” he said. “You gotta manage how many actors — 10 of them — and … he’s got to take into account everybody’s schedules, work and sharing rides. He’s managing everything. It’s just a huge workload.”
Spears met Huff over Instagram when he was asked to participate in a music video — an interaction that Spears said he is grateful for. Before that, he and Yung made some movies at Albemarle High School through a TV production class and he didn’t have many close friends.
“And then I met these guys, and we made this film and we became really close,” he said. “… These are my brothers. Hanging out with them is the best.”
Spears said he plans to take a gap year after graduation to figure out what he wants to do with his life.
“I want to pursue film as a career,” he said. “This is what I love. I don’t love anything as much as I love this.”