Cinematic Storytelling

From screening scripts to world premieres, a group of Duke friends are creating character-driven films from start to finish.

Family Weekend stars Matthew Modine and Kristin Chenowith as workaholic parents whose sixteen year-old daughter (Olesya Rulin) holds them hostage in order to gain their attention and bring the family back together. The quirky comedy, which opens in February, is in the tradition of such offbeat auteurs as Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore), but in fact it’s the first feature-length film by a group of Duke friends.

Adam Saunders ’99, Benjamin Epps ’00, and Peter Gail ’00 are the founding members of Footprint Features, a Los Angeles-based film production company. Saunders produced and acted in the film, Epps directed and co-produced it, and Gail co-produced and acted. Writer-actress Milly Sanders ’99 works in the company’s creative department.

Epps directs (Courtesy Jami Saunders)

“At Footprint we are creating character- driven stories that appeal to a mainstream audience,” says Saunders, Footprint’s CEO. “We’re drawn to movies like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, which celebrate the importance of character, even if those characters are dysfunctional or eccentric. We’re very focused on the creative process—Family Weekend went through nineteen rewrites—and we’re finding that people who are veterans in this business want to be a part of what we’re doing. We’ve had an amazing number of people who have helped us along the way.” One of those is Academy Award-winning filmmaker and producer Edward Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Traffic), whose Bedford Falls Company helped produce Family Weekend.

After graduating from Duke, the group of friends formed a theater company called Footprint on the Sun to nurture new talent and produce ambitious works for broad audiences. It was good training for running a DIY film company: Footprint Features was formed in 2007. Saunders says that he and his colleagues relish the start-to-finish nature of what they do, from finding a great script and lining up talent to shooting, doing post-production, and negotiating distribution deals.

“As an actor you can feel powerless since you have no control over the finished product,” he says. “One of the things we love about Footprint is that we’re in charge of everything; each decision we make profoundly affects the final product.”

Gail and Saunders in Family Weekend (Courtesty Jami Saunders)

Footprint already has two other featurelength projects in the queue. Seven Years, Three Days, written by Jesse Zwick, is a modern-day exploration of friendship, adulthood, and loss through the eyes of a group of college friends brought together by tragedy. And When We First Met, a cross between 500 Days of Summer and Groundhog Day, follows a young man who travels back in time, repeatedly, to woo a woman with whom he’s smitten— to varying degrees of success.

“One of the first plays I tried out for at Duke, I didn’t get cast,” says Saunders. “[Theater professor] John Clum said to me, why don’t you do your own play? That was profound to me, to realize that I could be in control of the kind of work I wanted to do. That same impetus is what drives us today.”

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