Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Writer-Director Returns to Delaware to Film Newest Project at Cab Calloway

Delaware Arts Info connected with Maren Lavelle and Matt Steiner, Co-Founders and Executive Producers at film and television prodcution company One-Eyed Rabbit, to talk about their new film Wendy, which was filmed onsite at Cab Calloway School of the Arts, with current Cab students. Here Maren talks about the development of the film and the process of creating it here in her hometown. 

P.S. This interview's a bit lengthy, but it was so great, we didn't want to cut anything! ENJOY!

Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
Images from the filming of Wendy, which was
shot on location at Cab Calloway School of the Arts.

I don’t think I knew being a filmmaker was an option for me growing up. My mom was disabled and unable to work, so we didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t afford a camera. Also, I grew up before young people had access to smartphones, so there hadn’t yet been the boom of technology that made filmmaking way more accessible to those outside of Hollywood.

I always knew I wanted to be a writer and a storyteller. When I was very young I wanted to be a journalist. As I grew up I wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that my mentors told me I should focus on directing. I was like… “too late guys, my parents already spent thousands of dollars for me to audition to go to college for acting!” But by the time I graduated from Pace University with a BFA in Acting I knew I should be writing and directing.

Starting to work with Matt Steiner, my producing partner and, now, life partner, is when filmmaking really clicked into gear for me. When it comes to crafting a story for the screen, our strengths seem to fill in the other’s weaknesses. Being able to work in such a strong unit is what has really made filmmaking a reality for me.

When you were a student here, what were your favorite films or films you looked to for inspiration?
When I was a student in Delaware, I was heavily influenced by films like Ben-Hur, Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, Amadeus, Singing in the Rain, etc. My Dad was a sucker for a good Oscar winning movie, so we would spend hours upon hours on the weekends watching some of the greats. Some of my favorites growing up were Forrest Gump for its impeccable story structure, Titanic, because you can’t find a better love story than that, and Legally Blonde, which I still to this day think is a perfect movie.

Why did you want to make this film?
Matt, my partner, wrote this film back in 2019. I always loved the story. It was so simple and sweet. One of the big inspirations for Wendy was being able to create something that could give young Queer folks their own over the top, in your face, middle school love story. With an abundance of content out there featuring young boy-girl love stories as the main plot point, we wanted to give representation to the young Queer students that deserve to see themselves reflected on the screen.

But as far as actually taking the steps to produce the film, Cab Calloway School of the Arts and the Cab 8th Grade theatre majors are what made me want to make this film happen! Once we started to ponder the idea of making this film at Cab right now with the current 8th grade theatre majors, it just seemed like we had to make the film and we had to make it now.

Whereas with our previous films we were definitely making the films for ourselves, either as a proof of team, for me to be able to direct, or for Matt to be able to act, making this film was almost entirely for the Cab students. I was very focused on the educational aspect of providing the students with the experience of working on a professional film set at such a young age. I thought a lot about how amazing an opportunity like working on this film would have been to me at that age, as it would’ve opened up so many more possibilities to me than I knew were available at the time. I wanted these students to be able to experience that and see for themselves what it’s like to make a film from scratch!

Do you feel this story represents the culture you experienced at Cab as a student? How do you see Cab's culture now?
It’s so interesting because Cab is a very unique school as far as acceptance goes. Of course, it is still difficult in any setting to be able to navigate the social hierarchy that is middle school or high school when you’re an LGBTQIA student and/or a person of color… but Cab certainly leaves more space than most schools for acceptance of any sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, etc.

The story of Wendy is certainly representative of the culture at Cab. At Cab, it’s so easy to talk to your teachers about what you’re going through when you need advice. Identifying as gay or Queer is pretty common place at Cab. Though I think the eponymous character, Wendy, feels more hesitant to be publicly out than she would at the real life Cab, I still think the story of Wendy is something that would 100% happen in the halls of Cab Calloway School of the Arts.

I graduated from Cab nearly 10 years ago, and though Cab was quite progressive in a lot of ways back then, it has grown even more so in the decade since I graduated. Working with Cab students now, I found the students to be way more comfortable in themselves and even more widely accepted, even at younger ages than high school, than was the case during my attendance. The students are also way more politically active and involved than I remember me and my comrades being. They are active and vocal allies for underprivileged folks, and use social media as a tool for making long lasting change in the society they will soon inherit.

What about Cab Calloway made it your choice for location?
Matt Steiner & Maren Lavelle of One-Eyed Rabbit.
Photo by Dondre Stuetley
Cab was an obvious choice for this film, but funnily enough it took me two years since I originally read the script to realize that. Returning to the Cab halls and working with Cab students was the main impetus for producing this film when we did.

Cab was an ideal location for multiple reasons, for one: the community. Being able to have the Cab community rally around this film and help make it happen was so wonderful and fulfilling. Also, I knew the caliber of student actors at Cab was going to be significant compared to anywhere else we could have filmed.

Also, the full circle nature of returning to Cab as an adult to work with the students and direct this film was a huge part of the choice and experience. It was SO fulfilling to walk those halls and see the imprints I still had on the school: my senior photo and a photo of my childhood dog are still up on the board of one of my high school teacher’s rooms, I’m in a photo of the school jazz choir from 2010 that’s up in the halls, and my name is on a plaque on one of the front row seats in the school’s theatre. Returning to the school and seeing how present I still was, while also giving back to the community and the current students by providing this opportunity was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. The experience was so nostalgic and incredibly rewarding, and I can see the influence that had on the film as well.

Did you tap any of Cab's theater students for this film? Any other Cab 'resources'?
Absolutely. Ava Ramey, incoming Cab freshman, played our lead, Wendy, and Lexie Rubincan played opposite her as Wendy’s crush, Cassie. The rest of the recently graduated 8th Grade theatre class from Cab filled out our featured ensemble. These students are REMARKABLE. The talent is insane. Working with Ava and Lexie was more wonderful than I could have imagined. The two are best friends, which helped provide an incredible intimacy on screen, but besides that, they jumped right into these very challenging and nuanced roles without missing a beat.

Long shoot days are no joke, and these young women were in every scene working for 10 hours a day two days in a row. That’s longer than a typical school day! And I did not take it easy on them! But they were beyond professional and continued to give vulnerable and subtle performances that blew the script out of the water. I can’t believe the luck we had in being able to work with these incredibly professional and remarkably talented rising young actors.

We used the Cab premises for our film, including the theatre, hallways, and classrooms. We were so grateful to work with Amanda Curry, the 8th Grade theatre teacher, who helped us organize auditions for the film and helped us with the logistics of production. Brian Touchette, the theatre manager at Cab, was invaluable in ensuring we had all the equipment we needed for filming and helping us use the recently renovated theatre and all of its capacities to help tell our story as honestly and artistically as possible. Julie Rumschlag was the dean at Cab when I attended back in 2008 - 2012, and she was so supportive of our venture every step of the way.

The support from the Cab community has been incredible, and I’m so grateful to every person who helped make this film a reality.

What do you want audiences to come away with after seeing it? Where can they see it?
Wendy should fill audiences with a sense of wonder, magic, and glee. We want our film to reach young folks who otherwise might not see themselves reflected on screen in this way. We want LGBTQIA students to see their story fully realized in the film: we hope those students leave the film feeling seen, heard, and recognized. I hope non LGBTQIA audiences still leave feeling seen and recognized. It’s a relatable story, we’ve all had that deep, all-encompassing teenage crush that we can’t get off of our mind. I think we’ve captured that essence really well in this film. I hope people leave the film and share stories of their most wonderful and most embarrassing moments with their crushes throughout their lives.

Wendy will be submitted to a wide array of film festivals! @one_eyedrabbit will send updates via social media on where audiences can find Wendy as it makes its way around the festival circuit.

Did you always envision this film being shot in here or was that a 'happy accident'?
Originally we conceptualized filming Wendy in the Bronx, in a school that Matt has been teaching in as a teaching artist for several years, the students of which inspired the characters of Wendy. But the making of the film didn’t actually spring into action until I came up with the idea of filming it at Cab and casting the Cab students. Once we latched on to that, there was no stopping it, and there was something beautiful about returning home to make this film.

What was the most rewarding thing about coming "home" to shoot this movie? What was the most challenging?
Ohmygosh, so many things. The most rewarding thing was working with the Cab recently graduated 8th graders/rising 9th graders on this film. They were so eager to be a part of this process and they were all so passionate about being involved in a Queer love story, whether they indetified as Queer or not. I also got to work with Emma Altrichter, a recent Cab high school graduate, as my Assistant Director. Most of the students hadn’t worked in film before, and I hadn’t either at their age. I felt like I was giving back to Cab and the current Cab students some of the energy and momentum that Cab gave me when I was there. Community is so important, so being able to plug back in to create this beautiful film with such talented people was absolutely fulfilling.

The most challenging part of producing the film in Delaware was the logistics! Producing indie films is no joke, and since we’re filmmakers based in Brooklyn, we had to work to find a local crew that we thought could help us realize our vision despite not having worked with any of them before. But the team we came up with was magic. My first choice for this film, and for most of my films, was to find a non-male cinematographer who I could easily collaborate with, and for Wendy I found that in Sol Tran. Sol rose to the challenge of an incredibly ambitious film schedule, a big cast, and a determined director and turned out remarkably beautiful shots while managing to get all the coverage we needed. We couldn’t have made this film as well without that combination of professionals.

What is your favorite part of this movie and why?
There are so many parts of this film that I love, but my favorite part is a relatively simple scene between Wendy and her mentor, Mr. Hansen (played by Matt Steiner). It’s not the most showy or colorful scene in the film, but that scene is the essence of the film, the idea that you have to put yourself out there in order to live a fulfilled life. You have to try and sometimes fail, but then get back up and try again. That applies to career ventures, life obstacles, but most importantly, love. Mr. Hansen says a line to Wendy: “You can’t live your whole life in your head, you know?”, and that’s exactly what the film is about. At a certain point, you have to jump off the diving board into the pool of the unknown and risk heartbreak or humiliation, but it’s the only way to learn and grow.

Do you get to come back to Delaware often? What do you miss most about Delaware? Any shout-outs you want to give?
I do come back to Delaware quite often! My ever growing family is still in Delaware. My Mom, Tara Bowers, a local costume designer for Delaware theatres who also costumed our film, lives a short drive from Cab and Matt and I come home to Delaware every couple of months. My niece, Charlie, is two years old and we love watching her grow and learn! And I have a nephew who is arriving at the end of July 2021!

I’ve always loved Charcoal Pit and Pizza by Elizabeth’s, and Woodside Creamery is an absolute summer staple. Can’t miss Lewes and Rehoboth Beaches in the summer too!

What is next on your creativity list? What can we see from you next?
One-Eyed Rabbit has two other films in the film festival circuit that folks can look out for, our debut films Maya and Keeper. Next up we’re looking to produce more of our short films including The Lie and Molly: In Progress. We’re hoping to get funding for our horror feature She Howls, or any of our other short film, feature film, and series pitches.

We can’t stop making work though, so one of those projects will be in production as soon as we have funding!

Learn more about Maren and Matt's projects at!