by Ahri Messina
The ability to straddle the line between professionalism and having fun is something very important to any artist or performer. It’s something that comes naturally to teenagers. It’s something I’ve truly learned to do only recently, and it’s an ability that I hope to never lose.
Vermont is a very welcoming place for young artists, full of both opportunities and encouragement to take risks and pursue a project. That’s exactly what U-32 student Noah Witke, 15, did last October when he worked with these other teens — Brandon Darmstadt, Sydney Baskind and Marissa Mattogno — to organize Tuff Gladiator Productions. The new teen-run film-making project has already created six short films.
I became a part of the crew a little over a month ago, and, since then, we’ve created three films and have plans in the works for more. Sitting down with four of the original members to talk about the group was loud and somewhat disorganized, but it was also insightful, just like being part of Tuff Gladiator.
For Witke, Tuff Gladiator started with the idea of entering a 50-hour film festival. It was a few kids with no experience and not a whole lot of resources making an amateur film for a contest. Their first film, called “Sizma,” didn’t get them a win and was, as actress and gaffer Mattogno, 17, put it, “a pretty awful starting point,” but it did start them down the road to creating more films.
Since then, Tuff Gladiator has become a much larger group of teenagers, all with different skill sets, opinions and personalities, and we all come together to form a surprisingly functional film crew. “I like everyone I work with,” said Witke, “and I try to keep it that way.” It’s a balance to keep, and when it comes to teens working together there are bound to be tensions, but having fun is just as important to us as making movies. As Sydney Baskind, 18, said, “It helps that our parts (in the crew) are all stuff that we want to do.” Everyone is getting experience in areas of filmmaking that they’re interested in, and because many of us want to continue our filmmaking in some form in the future, this is the kind of hands-on learning that most kids can’t get through a class. Witke gets to direct, Baskind writes most of our screenplays, Mattogno acts, and Darmstadt, 18, does the majority of the technical work. As for me, I’m still finding my place in the group, but until I settle in I’m more than happy to bounce around between writing, doing tech and helping out in whatever ways are needed.
There definitely seems to be a future for Tuff Gladiator. Witke would like to bring in new people during the next three years, when a lot of the current group will be heading off to college. There’s an age range in the group of 15 to 18, so at least a few original members will be around to keep things going for a few years to come. “Noah and I have talked, I don’t know how seriously, about turning this into, y’know, a big production company,” said Darmstadt. There was some laughter and jokes about the thought, but I suppose anything could happen. If ever a group of people was stubborn and driven enough to turn their high-school film crew into their adult jobs, it would be the Tuff Gladiators.
Whether or not Tuff Gladiator Productions continues for future Vermont high schoolers, or becomes something bigger than it currently is, we all have filmmaking of our own to pursue. Working with each other is helping us build on our skills and experience, and giving us something fun and interesting to do in our spare time.
Talking about their first film is something guaranteed to make the original members of Tuff Gladiator cringe. Marrogno spoke of “the leaps and bounds we have made from ‘Sizma,’” and it’s true. Filmmaking is something learned by doing, and while getting started is hard, it’s only up from there. “We still have a long way to go,” Darmstadt added, and Baskind chimed in with, “We will always have a long way to go. If we don’t have anywhere else to go, then what will we do?”
Something Witke brought up was a quote that they put at the beginning of the first Tuff Gladiator film: “Out of chaos comes a higher state of order.” As teens figuring things out, it took a while to find our state of order, but maybe, as Baskind said, “this is the beginning of our state of order.” There will always be room for work and improvement, and putting our films out there in competitions and on the Internet documents our growth as artists and as a group.”
Straddling that line between professionalism and fun is forever a goal for the kids of Tuff Gladiator Productions. We work together as artists and as filmmakers, but we also work together as friends.