CHAMPAIGN — Pens To Lens is a joyous occasion every year, with students writing films and adults usually directing them. This year's event has a special, bittersweet story in it.
The event starts at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre. The Champaign Urbana Film Society's screenwriting competition for K-12 students sees the youths write scripts in February that are then submitted to Champaign-area filmmakers and designers to produce.
John Isberg’s first Pens to Lens was in 2014. This year he has two films, “Spider the Arachnid” and “Work Hard, Play Hard,” on his plate.
It’s the second that has a special, touching story behind it.
“Work Hard, Play Hard” was written by Elijha Booker, the 14-year-old Champaign boy who was killed in an apparent accidental shooting May 11.
He was described as a fun-loving teenager. His locker at Franklin STEAM Academy was decorated, and photos and letters for the family were sent in the days immediately after his death.
Former Garden Hills teacher Austin Myers was over at his house often, and was ready to offer ideas for the screenplay.
But he “had enough ideas of his own. He’s pretty creative,” Myers said.
Christine Taber teaches theater at Franklin and had Elijha in her eighth-grade class this spring.
“We do a unit on screenplay writing, with the end project being to write an original screenplay and submit it to the Pens to Lens project," she said. "Elijha was very quiet in my class and kind of kept to himself. Every day of this unit he would grab a computer, focus in immediately, and work the entire period. It was fun to see him work through those thoughts and finish writing the movie.”
She was impressed with the final product.
“As we submitted it to Pens to Lens, I had a good feeling that it might get chosen by one of the moviemakers to be made into a real movie. It was simple and lovely,” she said. “Unfortunately, Elijha died a few days before it was chosen by director John Isberg. John found out about the circumstances, and the weekend of the shoot was an emotional one. Several of Elijha’s Franklin classmates volunteered to be extras in a few scenes, and I know it meant a lot to them.”
Isberg said he was sorry not to have met the young screenwriter.
“Elijha was gone too soon, and I know he would’ve had much to offer when I think about his words in the film,” the director said. “I was struck by the positivity of his script and how hopeful it was. I saw his potential and his struggles in the character of Zae, and I just wanted to do it justice and lift up this beautiful voice that he had.”
The collaboration was unusual.
“I did not work directly with Elijha, but worked with Chris Taber, who was very inspiring and a good friend in helping to make this film,” Isberg said. “Bishop Stevens, who played the coach, was also a great help with the film, and it was wonderful to work with him.
"I just loved what he and Shaton Means (Zae) brought to the film, and I think for all of us — cast, crew, friends, teachers — it was a very emotional experience to make the film.”
Isberg is a veteran of the festival. The former teacher said he was “inspired by the philosophy behind the program and wanted to be involved.”
“When you are looking for a script, sometimes it’s an emotional connection or it sparks an idea in me that leads to a lot of fun discovery and exploration," he said. "Sometimes it’s being able to do an homage to some of my favorite films.”
He said Pens To Lens could change young peoples’ lives.
“I think the idea that we might play a small part in encouraging students to become future filmmakers is really inspiring to me,” Isberg said. “I can only imagine what it must be like for the writers to see their script come to life on the big screen. It’s important to me that students see that their ideas have value and that they have a unique voice. That is really a great thing to be a part of.”
Isberg said he has had fun in his several years.
Last year, “Adventure Around the World” “allowed me to pay homage to (Steven) Spielberg’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ and I had so much fun working on that film,” he said. “This year, it’s getting to pay respect to another filmmaker who has inspired me, Jim Henson.
"Often, it’s a script that allows for a lot of creativity and the ability to jump in and play around in that world the student created.”
Whether it’s special effects or a personal film, it’s the screenwriter’s viewpoint.
“I think that’s what I would encourage students to think about,” Isberg said. “There is a need for diverse voices and new stories.”
Isberg’s advice: “Write about your struggles, write about your dreams, write the story only you can tell, and then go out with your friends and make it, because there’s nothing better than using your creativity to put something positive out into the world. You never know where your voice will take you if you believe in yourself.”