Two Florida State University students are getting the opportunity of a lifetime after being invited to screen their films at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival alongside some of the most famous filmmakers in the world.
Alex McFry and William Stead, students at FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts, are in Cannes this week preparing to show their films at The American Pavilion.
“I’m thrilled!” said McFry, who talked about the trip before departing for the famed festival in the south of France. “I feel like I hit the lottery with so many things coming together to make this opportunity possible. I still can’t believe it.”
McFry’s film “Heads Up” will be featured in the Emerging Filmmaker LGBTQ Showcase at Cannes on Sunday, May 19. The six-minute short film chronicles McFry’s personal story as a gay man who finds out he has contracted HIV.
McFry said coming to terms with that diagnosis was tough, especially when he first found out in 2016.
“I figured I had two options,” said McFry, who grew up near Jacksonville, Alabama. “One was to sit and wallow and not do anything, which would be a waste of time. Or, I could power forward, finish my bachelor’s degree at Jacksonville State University and look ahead to grad school where I could figure out my career as a filmmaker.”
When McFry enrolled in FSU’s graduate film program in fall 2017, he said he had not yet fully come to terms with the diagnosis. But as part of a class, he started writing a screenplay about his experience. The writing project turned into “Heads Up” and, more importantly, it was therapeutic.
“I went from contraction of the disease to the beginning of acceptance in eight months, which was very choppy and fast — it felt like a week,” McFry said. “In the film, I wanted to show that rapid pace. Now, I’ve dealt with a lot of the emotions, and I feel a lot better about myself and my health situation. That’s what is so amazing about filmmaking. You can deal with scary things in a comforting way.”
Florida State paid the airfare for students attending Cannes, while the Colin Higgins Foundation awarded a scholarship to McFry to cover other costs. The foundation, established in 1986, supports members of the LGBTQ community.
“Colin Higgins was a film director who passed away of complications from AIDS in the late 1980s, and he directed a bunch of movies that I love,” McFry said. “This is the first year the Colin Higgins Foundation has offered scholarships to young filmmakers to attend Cannes. I’m grateful because I would not have been able to make the trip without the support from the foundation and Florida State.”
On May 21, senior film student William Stead will screen his documentary “The Flip Side” at The American Pavilion along with director of photography Evan Barber, also a senior in FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts.
The eight-minute film spotlights Banana’s Records in St. Petersburg, Florida, which describes itself as the largest vinyl record store in the world.
Store owners Doug and Michelle Allen started Banana’s Records in the 1970s and have been growing their inventory ever since. Stead’s documentary takes a reflective and engaging look at the demise and surprising resurgence of vinyl records over the past 50 years.
“I quickly learned you can’t write a script for a documentary,” Stead said. “Everything relies on how good your interview questions are, so I tried to craft a story with my questions that characterized CDs as the enemy of vinyl because they put a lot of record stores out of business.”
FSU film students spend a semester learning about documentaries, as well as planning and filming their own. The project allowed Stead to test his cinematic acumen and creative talent, which he’s been developing ever since he first became fascinated by filmmaking as a child growing up in York, England, located about 200 miles north of London.
“Submitting an entry to Cannes seemed like a long shot, so getting invited to the festival is surreal,” Stead said. “This is exactly what I’ve been working for much of my life because I’ve been making films since I was 9 years old. My parents even moved me from a rural area in England to America for better opportunities in the film industry, and this almost feels like a light at the end of a tunnel. It could be the first step to my dream.”
Reb Braddock, the dean of FSU’s College of Motion Picture, said the two-week trip to Cannes is invaluable for networking with some of the most creative minds in the film industry and learning from them.
“The Cannes Film Festival is a singular experience for any filmmaker, so for the Film School to be able send some of our students so early in their careers offers them an amazing opportunity,” Braddock said. “They rub shoulders with filmmakers from all over the world, and they come back energized and inspired.”