A spacecraft helps one Arlington student heal, while others focus on drug issues

Since September, Brendan Feltrup-Exum of Arlington has spent many hours in his parents’ driveway, building a spacecraft with his father, Bruce.

Curious neighbors often stopped by, calmly asking why a spacecraft landed on their block.

What they learned was that a 19-foot by 8-foot by 8-foot spacecraft was built of 2-by-4s and medium-density fiberboard so that a man could go to space and rescue his wife for Feltrup-Exum’s film, Voyager.

Feltrup-Exum, 28, and three other graduate students at the University of Texas at Arlington are working under the direction of award-winning film and video assistant professor Ya’ke Smith for a master of fine arts degree in film and video art.

Feltrup-Exum’s classmates’ films deal with drug use, the drug war and societal dependence on technology, but Feltrup-Exum wanted to take his experiences out of this world.

Smith said: “We’re constantly pushing the students to move beyond their comfort zones, and challenge themselves with each project. Having the pleasure of mentoring students that produce unique and meaningful films means the world to me personally as well as the department as a whole.”

Feltrup-Exum started writing his script a year and a half ago at the end of a long-distance relationship. He spent about $5,000 on the set while working jobs from computer repair to medical billing. His sizable spacecraft sat in his parents’ driveway covered with a tarp, leaving his parents to park on the street.

Voyager is about husband and wife Edison and Suzanne Hawk, who lose their 8-year-old son, Jacob, in a car accident. The wife is a pilot for a private space flight company that shuttles people into space. Months after her son’s death, she finds it hard to look at her husband and volunteers for a solo test assignment to distance herself.

She ultimately gets lost in space, and Edison Hawk, an engineer, steals a spacecraft to rescue her.

Feltrup-Exum said the story stemmed from a long-distance relationship he had with a woman who lives in Detroit.

“It stemmed out of the feelings and emotions we go through,” Feltrup-Exum said. “It’s a study on my own personal long-distance relationship — space is a hyper-characterization of that unreachable feeling.”

Aboard the ship

Feltrup-Exum installed parachute pouches, eight computer monitors, four digital photo frames, a custom-made pilot seat and flight consoles inside his spacecraft. He harnessed actors to an aluminum I-beam to simulate zero gravity.

He bought a Vietnam-era insulated flight suit and parts from an airplane salvage yard, and got the manufacturing company 3M to donate a $600 full-face respirator. He then built a rain trough on the front of the spacecraft to film a flashback that the father has while driving on the fateful rainy day his son died.

To film the car accident in which the son dies, Feltrup-Exum bought a 1986 Jeep Cherokee online and had a group of assistants roll it over at Knapp Ranch in the Mansfield area. With firefighters looking on, he blew it up with 3 gallons of gas and half a pound of black powder.

It didn’t hurt that Feltrup-Exum also happens to be licensed to use pyrotechnics.

His film is signed with Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union. His lead actors are Christian Heep of Contagion and award-winning actress, singer and composer Cheryl Allison.

Meth and Mexico

Fellow grad student Ryan Britton also drew from those close to him for his film, Not Abel, about two Midwestern twin brothers who are at odds after one decides to leave the methamphetamine business

David King deals methamphetamine to the locals, whereas brother Lewis leaves the lifestyle for the betterment of his family. The two are distanced by the drug, and David makes things worse by using his drug money to try to woo his brother’s wife and impress his nephew.

“David’s intent is to show that he can do better,” said Britton, 26.

He said the murder of his cousin’s friend for being involved in “meth-related activity” sparked his interest to read the book Methland, and there was no going back.

“My story is to focus on the user and his reason for doing so,” Britton said. “I paint a real picture on why people would be involved with this type of drug.”

Britton, of Arlington, shot a majority of his film in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and the rest in the Metroplex.

Grad student Gabriel Duran’s film, The Mule, also portrays the negative outcomes of the drug trade.

His film centers on Marco, a man in his early 30s who lives in Nuevo Laredo.

“It’s basically a lawless city. You are dealing with corrupt police and government officials because they often work with the cartels,” Duran said.

The border city has experienced drug violence for more than a decade. In May 2012, 23 people were found hanging from bridges and decapitated near City Hall because of the drug mafia.

“I know people who live there and have seen extreme violence firsthand,” said Duran, of Arlington. “It ends up badly for a lot of them.”

Marco must take extreme measures to escape the gore and tragedy caused by clashes between drug cartels.

Duran is in the middle of writing his script and plans to start shooting in March.

In the future

Grad student Jean-Patrick Mahoney took a different route writing his script, Phone Coast.

He said his film is about a woman in her early 80s who gets a cellphone from her daughter despite her resistance.

“It’s about the insatiable need for newness and technology, which inevitably makes life for her more complicated,” said Mahoney, 30, of Dallas.

The problem is, the phone is haunted.

The haunting is a byproduct of owning a phone, and unlike others, this woman is not ready to accept the negative aspects of technology, he said.

Mahoney will begin casting for his film after spring break.

Voyager and Not Abel are both in the post-production phase and will be available for viewing at the UT Arlington Student Film/Video Organization’s spring 2014 festival at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

Smith’s critically acclaimed film, Wolf , was released on iTunes Tuesday.

Though the students might take different paths, from teaching to focusing on feature films, they all agree they want to be like Smith.

Smith, 33, said: “My job is to push them to become the best them. We are very selective about who we accept. We push them to tell stories that are going to resonate when an audience gets up and walks out,” Smith said.

Feltrup-Exum plans to graduate in May 2015 and wants to work in feature films. He thanks Smith for helping him dig deeper in his script.