Georgia Southern assistant professor Jason Knowles has an ambitious project planned for the 20 film students in his summer Multimedia and Film Production class.
By the end of the summer, Knowles and his class aim to shoot a documentary and a feature-length action-adventure film about an old and mysterious legend from the Ozark Mountains: "The Legend of the Madré Véna," a story of buried treasure that may have some truth beneath the fiction.
Over the course of the nine-week class, Knowles' students will take training courses to use their filming equipment, including two new Blackmagic cameras; undergo a rigorous safety course; and then begin the intense filming process, working 12-hour days in their Sanford Hall film studio and on location in Statesboro, North Georgia and Chattanooga.
"We wanted to create a course that simulated a real, professional film set so (students) could see what it's like in the field before they graduate," Knowles said.
The idea for this film has been simmering in Knowles' head for about seven years. He wanted to make an action-adventure film about a modern-day female Indiana Jones-type character. He found the Madré Véna legend during his search for a little-known story to use in his film's plot. The first version he encountered was written by an author and treasure hunter named W.C. Jameson, who included it in his book, "Buried Treasures of the Ozarks."
Jameson's book tells the story of four Mexican miners who stashed a cache of mined ore in a cave near the state border between Arkansas and Missouri.
Fascinated, Knowles began intensive research into the facts behind the legend - only to find, four years later, that the legend was a complete fabrication. In a twist right out of an action-adventure film itself, Jameson admitted in his autobiography that he had made up some of the details, actively trying to throw other treasure hunters off the scent so he could pursue the treasure himself.
Knowles began a different line of research on a different, closely related myth that led him to the mining town of Bella Vista, Arkansas. There, he managed to track down several family members whose ancestors had been treasure hunters, pursuing the hidden horde off which the Madré Véna legend was based.
The documentary "is really about the people who worked the caves. Especially during the Great Depression, when folks were desperate for money, you saw a lot of treasure hunters about," Knowles said, explaining that several families from the area had gone to great lengths - including mortgaging their farms - to pursue the treasure, only to lose everything in the end.
Most of the footage and interviews already are gathered for the documentary, titled "Demystifying the Madré Véna." During the summer course, Knowles hopes to film flashback sequences of actors in period costume to help tell the stories of Bella Vista's treasure-hunting ancestors. If they can manage it, Knowles said he intends to reuse that same footage for the feature-length action film.
As for the film, titled "Relics of the Madré Véna," Knowles has written an action-adventure script starring a "firecracker" of a female lead named Maggie, based on Knowles' own grandmother. The film will present and debunk several of the myths surrounding the Madré Véna ore cache, with plenty of danger thrown in to keep viewers entertained.
Tahir Daudier, a junior film student and the project's director of photography, said he is a big fan of Indiana Jones and loves historical mystery movies like "National Treasure" - films that get the viewer involved in unraveling the story and, as he said, "make your brain work." It's one of the many reasons he's excited to be on board with the project.
"The thought of just getting my hands dirty on a real feature film, under the direction of Dr. Knowles, is immediately what attracted me," Daudier said. "The experience is going to be endless, and going to places outside of Statesboro sounded really enticing as well. The opportunity to pick Dr. Knowles' brain and learn what it really takes to put together a film with a budget, with real money, is really exciting."
He and a few of the other crew members have been tossing around ideas about effects, camera angles and the technical and artistic aspects of the upcoming film, looking for every opportunity to flex their creative muscles and "beat all expectations" people may have for a student-made film.
Daudier, who recently brought home the Best Cinematography award for his work on the short film "He Who Laughs" at the Statesboro Film Festival, understands the difficulty of convincing people to recognize the talent in a small town's art scene and a university's film department - particularly a young one like at Georgia Southern, where film only recently became a program distinct from other multimedia studies courses.
"Not many people talk about our film department the way we want them to," Daudier said. "We put in a lot of work. We devote our lives to it, even though a lot of people think we may not get jobs. We love what we do, and we sure would love for people to see it."
Knowles and his class will start their training courses at the beginning of the summer term, but they are hoping to receive significant funding for the film through their IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign. Their goal to fully fund the project is $50,000. As of Monday, that goal was only 4 percent funded.
The money will go to fund the students' travel to the North Georgia waterfalls and Tennessee caves for on-site filming. It also will go to fund better special effects and more advanced set-building, in addition to paying the actors Knowles hopes to cast in the coming weeks. At the moment, all acting positions are volunteer-only. He hopes the money will come through so he can draw in professional talent for the feature, which also would allow the other cast and crew members to work with some professionals in the industry they hope to enter.
But even if the IndieGoGo goal is not met, Knowles and his crew are itching to get started.
"This has been pestering me for about seven years, and I need to get it done and move on," Knowles said of his pet project. "I wouldn't say it's an obsession, but I do want to get it finished. ...We're excited. We're anxious to get started."
All those interested in contributing to the film's funding can visit its IndieGoGo page (www.indiegogo.com/projects/relics-of-the-madre-vena) to explore the different pledge options and the benefits that come with each one. Additionally, aspiring actors who would like to join the cast may contact Knowles at firstname.lastname@example.org but are advised to do so within the next few days so Knowles can finalize a cast as quickly as possible.
Brittani Howell may be reached at (912) 489-9405.