Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

UA alum features local camp in new short film


Brandon Sparks’ journey to becoming a director began when he was young, sitting in the Bama Theatre watching a Tuscaloosa Children’s Theatre production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Now, Sparks, a UA alumnus who graduated with a degree in telecommunication and film in 2014, is about to finish his graduate studies at the University of Southern California. He’s made five films while at USC, but for his thesis film he decided to bring it home and shoot at Camp Horne here in Tuscaloosa.

“You feel better when you’re on your home court and you have that home court advantage,” Sparks said. “I think with me, when I’m coming home to Alabama and working in Alabama, creatively I just feel a lot more open.”

“Camp Nichols” tells the story of a young woman named Jessie who, after being arrested for drunk driving, becomes a camp counselor to fulfill her court ordered community service. While at the camp for the summer, she befriends a boy named Zach and tries to help him fit in with the other campers.

The cast and crew for “Camp Nichols” includes current UA students and alumnae, and also people Sparks knew from USC and the University of California at Los Angeles.

They shot the 18-minute film in six days last August, and dealing with the Alabama heat and humidity proved to be a challenge for the crew. One day during the shoot, one of the film’s producers, Thomas Horton, bought bottled water for the cast and crew. He thought he’d gotten enough for a day and a half, Sparks said. In four hours, the water was gone.

“I know a lot of my L.A. friends hated me,” Sparks said. “They were like, ‘Why did we have to come here? It’s raining every day.’ I was like, ‘You just never been down south before. The humidity is going to kill you.’ ”

Shooting at Camp Horne brought back some memories for “Camp Nichols” line producer Jonathan Norris. He went to camp there for multiple summers as a Boy Scout and helped the production secure the location for the shoot.

“I haven’t been back to the camp in like five years,” Norris said. “It’s interesting coming back here because, in a way everything changes, but nothing’s changed, in a very weird way. So just kind of coming back and learning to kind of put myself on a different level and not think in that same Boy Scout mentality. When you walk into that environment it’s immediately what you think, and you have to approach it as a filmmaker instead.”

Norris’ camp experience helped him relate to the film, in particular, its main stars and their counselor-camper relationship.

“For me, having all those experiences and those relationships with counselors and how those counselors can help guide you from 13 to 18 is like a huge pivotal point for a lot of teenagers,” Norris said. “In a lot of ways, too, having the right counselor can kind of guide kids towards better decisions. Or if they’re outsiders, just connecting with them can make you feel kind of less alone. It can just help your development a lot.”

Another cast member who brought her own camping experience to the film was Anna Lee Hawkins, a sophomore majoring in musical theatre, at The University of Alabama. She was a camp counselor last summer and will be one again this year. In the film she plays Michelle, the film’s antagonist and the queen bee of Camp Nichols who sees Jessie’s arrival as threat.

“I definitely feel my character’s frustration because she’s just always uptight, and I definitely experience that as a camp counselor,” Hawkins said. “It was easy to channel that part of her bitchiness.”

“Camp Nichols” is Hawkin’s first movie role, though she’s acted in local theatre productions including last year’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes” at Theatre Tuscaloosa. She said the experience, particularly working with Sparks, will be great to compare future film projects back to.

“He’s so easy to work with,” she said. “He just kind of lets you do your thing and become your character on your own. Of course he gave direction because he’s a director, but he really let you explore your character on your own.”

For Sparks, this thesis film will be his “calling card” in the industry, and he plans to submit it to different film festivals later this year. “Camp Nichols” will also be screened at the Bama Theatre on May 27. In the future, Sparks said he hopes to tell more stories featuring the South.

“I think that it’s a place that we don’t see as much of being shown on the big screen on television,” he said. “And so that’s kind of why most of the stories that I have, that I’m writing or want to write, focus in some way on the South or southern characters.” 

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