‘Wesley’ to be presented Feb. 27

From left, Burgess Jenkins and WCU alumnus Keith Harris act out a scene in Wesley the movie while then-WCU student Aaron Putnam and WCU faculty member Arledge Armenaki operate the cameras. (Photo by Matthew Skala)

The historical movie “Wesley” about the co-founder of the Methodist church will premiere at Western Carolina University in high definition in the Fine and Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27.

The WCU premiere will honor the faculty and students who worked on the independent movie as actors and crew, with proceeds from ticket sales benefitting a fund established to help students in WCU’s Motion Picture and Television Production Program with the cost of producing their senior thesis films. The screening will be introduced by director John Jackman from Foundery Pictures and followed by a panel discussion.

In the historical drama set in the 18th century, John Wesley, played by Burgess Jenkins, grows from a young Anglican priest struggling spiritually into a leader of the Methodism movement and a champion for causes such as prison reform and anti-slavery. Events from Wesley’s life portrayed in the film include his rescue from a house fire, survival of a near shipwreck, struggle with a star-crossed love affair and calm in the face of violent mobs.

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“‘Wesley’ is quite a beautiful film with really powerful performances, and the screening at WCU will offer outstanding picture clarity on a jumbo screen, ” said Arledge Armenaki, WCU associate professor of cinematography, and director of photography for the movie.

“It’s such a great story, and we – the actors, set carpenters, costume-makers, electricians, camera operators, editors,  composers and special effects crew-members – all did our very best to make it into a wonderful film,” said Armenaki.

Sixteen WCU students got hands-on experience as crew for “Wesley” during filming on locations in and around Winston-Salem and Morganton for two months in 2007 and two weeks in 2008. With coaching from Armenaki, students served as a unit production manager, assistant directors, construction coordinators, set dressers, carpenters, boom operators, grips, camera assistants, wardrobe managers, office manager and script supervisor.

Kristen Philyaw, a 2008 WCU graduate with a degree in motion picture and television production, said she valued the high-intensity, hands-on experience she gained helping coordinate props for “Wesley.” “It often felt like we did not have enough hands among us or hours in the day to get the sets dressed, props made or pieces coordinated,” said Philyaw, who works at a financial institution in Charlotte and recently co-founded a small production company with her fiance, Robert Cassidy, a WCU alumnus who also worked on “Wesley.”

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As crew members, they helped find, manage and build sets fitting for the 18th century and in line with the storybook feel that Armenaki and Jackman wanted to create. Some even helped build a re-creation of the HMS Simmonds ship inside an old gymnasium at Methodist Children’s Home in Winston-Salem, and a 50-by-20-foot blue screen, which required a lot of sewing and lighting, to hang behind it.

“Getting everything ready for a scene was quite a production in itself – like dressing a museum diorama,” said Armenaki.

The students’ assistance was critically important, said Jackman. “We couldn’t have done the movie without them,” he said. “We were trying to accomplish a very ambitious picture while operating on a very restricted budget, and their help was just invaluable.”

WCU students and faculty also were cast in the movie. In addition to Keith Harris, actors with WCU ties in the film included faculty and students who were extras; Peter Savage, visiting lecturer of theater, who played Mr. Williamson, the man betrothed to the woman Wesley loves; and Terry Nienhuis, retired professor of English, who played gardener James Locke. Part of the challenge was researching the history in order to prepare for their roles. When advised to use a rough country Yorkshire dialect, Nienhuis eventually called a fellow faculty member from England for help. “He said, ‘It’s funny you should ask because I have a friend visiting from that area.’ I brought a tape recorder over, asked his friend to read my lines and then studied the recording,” said Nienhuis.

Tickets cost $10 each or $5 each for senior adults at least 60 years old; WCU faculty and staff, students and children; and groups of 15 or more. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (828) 227-2479 or visit Bardo Arts Center online.

For more information about the movie, check out the Web site for “Wesley.” For more information about the Motion Picture and Television Production Program, contact program director Jack Sholder by phone at (828) 227-2324 or by e-mail at jsholder@email.wcu.edu.