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Alumni Film ‘July Rising’ Soars to Success, Brings Graduates Home

Charles Meyer ’19, filming his final project in the Advanced Filmmaking course, is helped by visiting professor Robert Mahaffie ’15.

By Laurie Laker ’12

“July Rising” — a film written, directed, produced, edited by, and starring a slew of Colorado College graduates — has taken flight. In late March, at the 23rd Sonoma International Film Festival, the film won the Stolman Award for Best American Indie Feature film. The film, which deals with issues of urbanization, agriculture, familial conflict, and growing up against the grain, is the creative output of a group of CC students, graduates, and staff members, including Robert Mahaffie ’15. 

Mahaffie, who returned to campus this past Block 8 to teach the Advanced Filmmaking class, was a film and media studies major when at CC. After graduating, Mahaffie worked for two years as a paraprofessional for the Film and Media Studies Department, as well as doing freelance work for the college’s Office of Communications, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue full-time work in the film industry. Now, with teaching a block under his belt, he says he’s literally “done everything possible at CC that is related to film!” with the opportunity to teach coming at just the right time, between gigs.

“The college called me when I was between work in LA, and I immediately said yes. It’s been an amazing experience, and something I’ve thought about since I was a paraprof. It’s probably the thing I’ve enjoyed the most in my six-year association with the college and the Film and Media Studies program. It was a great way to continue giving back to CC,” he says.

That theme of giving back to the college, through art as well as teaching, is a theme that resonates across the entire “July Rising” project.

It started as the thesis screenplay of Chauncey Crail ’17, Mahaffie says. “It was something that he’d been developing for two years by that point. Before he turned in a final script, we’d started casting roles for the film.”

Over the course of the summer of 2017, the film and filming began to take shape, with Crail and Mahaffie as the lead producers. Casting calls were held in Denver, Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, and San Francisco.

“We wanted to film on the land that the film was written about,” Mahaffie says. “Chauncey’s background directly informs the story of the film; his family has farms in Northern California, and so that’s where we knew we had to film.”

The film tells the story of 16-year-old Andy, orphaned after the death of her grandfather, who works to save her family pear orchard. Her aunt tries to get her to return to the city, but Andy is determined to stay and retain the land.

“She’s working to save the orchard from money issues, she’s alone in this project — trying to work out who she is as she works out what to do. She’s also a woman in a traditionally male-dominated world, so she’s got a huge fight on her hands,” Mahaffie explains.

Using their CC film community connections, Crail and Mahaffie immediately involved Lucy Houlihan ’18 and Julia Greene ’19 as co-producers to help with casting and scheduling, and then set off on a location scouting road trip. Once the perfect location was found, on land owned by Crail’s family in Northern California, the team grew to include Thomas Crandall ’16 as cinematographer, Charlie Theobald ’17 as the film’s sound recordist, William Stockton ’19 as the digital imaging technician, Joshua Zambrano ’18 as chief grip and electric supervisor, and Ben Coldwell ’16 as the assistant camera and second assistant director.

Filming started on July 26, 2017, and wrapped on August 21 of the same summer.

“One of the great things we had on our side was the fact that most of our shoots were done on single sets or locations,” explains Mahaffie.

“We wanted to prove that we could make a film in our own way, to not use the traditional Hollywood system of hundreds of people on set. We had 10 or so, with everyone doing four or five jobs at once. I was a set designer, props manager, and managed all the vehicles on set, as well as a producer — it was all a bit crazy!”

Late in the summer of 2017, the team hired Meredith Mantik ’11 to edit the film, who’d been working in Los Angeles as an editor since returning to the U.S. after attending the National Film and Television School in the UK for her master’s in film editing. Mantik was able to edit the film to the point where the team knew what holes in the footage they had to fill in, which brought the CC-heavy crew back to their alma mater, in December and January of 2017 and 2018.

“The Colorado Springs shooting was amazing,” says Mahaffie. “With CC’s blessing, we used a lot of locations on campus like the Bemis kitchen, the Cornerstone studio space for set building and reshoots, as well as shooting around the campus area too.”

The reshooting, editing, refining, and scoring of the film took the better part of the next year, when the team brought on board James Ryan Dinneen ’16 as the soundtrack composer, who worked with Crail’s brother at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music to produce and record the music for the film. Chris Bittner, CC’s digital arts and media technology director, and his students, worked on the sound mixing.

“From the very beginning of the process, we wanted to give back as much to CC as possible at every level of that community, from alumni like us to current students,” says Mahaffie.

Once the film was complete, the question of “What now?” came to the fore. 

“We always wanted to submit to festivals, but we had to work on which ones to target so as to be best received,” explains Mahaffie. “Lucy, Chauncey, and I had three ways to narrow the festivals down; firstly, that it was a location we’d want to visit; or secondly, that it was local to our filming location and so we could loop our local community into the successes; or thirdly, it was related to our film in terms of the focus the festival had.”

The film premiered at the Sonoma International Film Festival, held March 27-29, 2019.

“The Sonoma festival is about food and wine, with a heavy focus on strong filmmaking, so our agricultural and locally focused themes matched well with them,” Mahaffie says.

“We were able to bring our cast and crew to the premiere, which allowed us to reconnect the film with the local community — and then we won!”

A panel of nine jurors announced the winners of the film awards on March 30.

“It was incredible,” says Mahaffie. “The success was gratifying, so wonderful, but it also allowed our cast and crew to connect with more directors, talent agents, and influential people in the film world — that was a real unforeseen bonus of the whole experience — the professional and networking development that we never planned but were so grateful for.”