Bill Blaney turns film school final into pandemic project
During the worst days of the pandemic, many people were taking up new pastimes and hobbies they had always meant to try, like baking or not killing plants. Others were resuming things they had set aside for when they had more time, dusting off equipment and paraphernalia, resurrecting long forgotten manuscripts, or in the case of Bill Blaney, completing an ambitious, unfinished student film.
Blaney, who grew up in Manhasset, used that town, along with Great Neck, Port Washington, and Sea Cliff, as the backdrop of his final project for film school. The plot was partly rooted in Blaney’s personal experience, but also served as a response to the Just Say No anti-drug movement of the time. One of the cliques at the high school at that time had earned the name “Bleacher Creatures” because of where they chose to hang out to do their illicit activities. “It was all the stoner kids, and the reason they had that name is you had the bleachers in front of the school, you know, at the football field, and the one that face the street on the other side, where they used to get together before school to get stoned because nobody could see them,” Blaney recalled. While he wasn’t overly interested in these activities, through circumstance he befriended a new kid at school named Bruce who was, and he fell in with this crowd for a time. While they had fun partying and hanging out, it always seemed a little too dangerous to Blaney.
Eventually, Bruce and Blaney had a falling out over another friend and Blaney moved on. But the Bleacher Creatures and that scene left a lasting impression on him. After high school, he went on to study film at Temple University in Philadelphia, and when he had to choose the subject of his final project in senior year, his experiences in the drug culture of early eighties Long Island came to mind. Blaney stated, “I really wanted to do something substantial. Film school really doesn’t require you to do much; you could do a two-minute film, a five-minute film.” He was determined to produce something more, however. “So I wrote this 35-page script, which was based on this group (the Bleacher Creatures) and I was given about nine days to shoot it, which in 16 millimeter really was not enough time. So, a couple of friends and I got the equipment and we came back to Long Island. And over the course of nine days, for 15 hours each day, we shot in Great Neck, Manhasset, Port Washington, Tappen Beach over in Sea Cliff, you know, wherever anybody would let us shoot.”
When the final product came back, however, Blaney wasn’t pleased with the results. There were issues that he didn’t notice in post-production, and being young, he was disillusioned. “When I got the match print back, there were a lot of things I couldn’t see when I was editing it. There was a camera light in a shot, a few little things here and there that were just awful. And being sort of an insecure 21-year-old I said, ‘I can’t show this to anybody.’ I considered it sort of an ambitious failure.” Blaney said. The film went in a box, which went in a closet, and no one knew anything about it for 37 years.
In the trapped-at-home days of the pandemic, Blaney was cleaning out this back closet and stumbled upon the box, which he thought had been lost or thrown away. “I find the negative of (the film) which I thought was long gone. So I thought okay, well I’ll send it out to get a digital transfer,” something that was not possible at the time he originally shot the film.
After editing the film down from 44 minutes to 32 minutes and removing the issues, he showed it to some people and was surprised that they responded positively. “I’ve been lamenting about this thing over the course of decades, ‘oh this disappointment that I made when I was younger,’ and everybody seemed to respond to it. So I thought, Okay, well, maybe there’s some decent bones in here somewhere.”
The film seems to tap into a strong vein of nostalgia. “It’s a time capsule of a particular place and time, particularly Manhasset. If you look around, there really isn’t that much of film of that type, from that period of time. People shot very little video. It’s a bit of a cultural piece about substance abuse. And it’s also very local. I think that’s probably the interest here.”
Blaney decided to send the finished film, now titled Three Phases of Fern, out to festivals to see if it would get picked up, and the first to give it a spot was the Long Island International Film Expo, where it will be shown July 19 at 9:15 at the Bellmore Movies and Showplace. Blaney is grateful for the attention. “I’m much later in my life. I have my family and my kids. It’s not like I’m 20 years old, trying to forge a whole new life. I’m very happy with where I am. To me, it’s sort of a testament to the fact that you know, music, films, so many of these mediums, you could go 37 years later and there might be something worth seeing or listening to. And that’s fascinating to me, because it’s not really the case with so much in popular life, which is disposable.”