J.A. Corwin Stauff and Ryan C. Smith, juniors at Bangor’s Husson University, wanted to make a different kind of student film, one that speaks to their interests and concerns. Photo by Izzy Allers

It’s tempting to think that the Maine film scene is more of a southern Maine thing. After all, Maine’s first congressional district has a lot more people, and cities like Portland, with its thriving film and arts scene, get most of the press – especially from a local film writer employed by a Portland newspaper. (You can guess which one.)

But Maine’s a lot more than Portland, and Maine filmmakers come from every corner of our absurdly huge state. Take writer/directors Ryan C. Smith and J.A. Corwin Stauff, juniors at Bangor’s Husson University, who are turning their tenure at Husson’s New England School of Communications (NESCom) into an ambitious feature film project that addresses the very real and present threats to American democracy.

“Chapman Speaks” is an upcoming, hourlong film from the fledgling filmmakers, a bitingly satirical look at the way right-wing media commentators feed misinformation and hatred to disgruntled viewers. The main character is a former internet celebrity turned popular nightly demagogue for a fictionalized right-wing news network. After an uprising inspired by his rhetoric sends America down a path toward outright authoritarianism, Chester Chapman, finding the downside to being a media figure in a censorship-dependent fascist society, must reflect on his choices, especially when confronted with shocking facts about an ongoing conspiracy from a former journalist colleague.

That’s a lot of heavy thematic lifting for a student-made film, but in talking to Smith and Stauff, I came away impressed with how thoughtfully they’ve approached their thorny topic.

“We have a lot of similar interests and are very politically minded people,” said Smith, adding that he and Stauff wanted to make a student film different from the usual crop of horror or coming-of-age films. “We wanted to do something that was us.”

Seizing upon a subject that would allow the duo to take advantage of NESCom’s ample equipment and studio facilities, and express something of their thoughts and fears for their country’s imperiled democracy, they turned to the world of media.


“All our interests kind of funneled into this idea,” said Smith, “Corwin’s got a fascination with the subject matter, while the media lens is more what I’m interested in.” Added Stauff, “I’ve had an almost morbid fascination with authoritarianism in America, and I think it’s an important idea to discuss right now, how important democracy is, how important ethical media and free speech are.”

With the blessing of faculty adviser Frank Welch, Smith and Stauff have outlined an ambitious plan for their first feature. With casting taking place in early February and a self-imposed deadline for the end of the NESCom semester to complete at least most of “Chapman Speaks,” the two juniors have a daunting number of details to put in place. Still, talking to them, it all sounds impressively under control.

“We’re polishing up the screenplay for the Feb. 4 auditions,” said Stauff. “We’re making storyboards, lighting diagrams, we’re pursuing grants and working out the budget. Plus, NESCom leaves us wanting nothing in terms of high-end cameras, dollies, lighting, LED panels – so gear is not an issue.”

Asked about creating such an elaborate, media-centric setting on a student budget, the pair had a canny answer at the ready. “Having started out as an internet show, the network that picked Chapman up has an interest in keeping him looking like the ‘common man,’ so they keep the look of his old set,” Smith explained. Good answer.

As for the film’s weighty subject matter, and the central conceit that appears to hinge on one of these right-wing, career-obsessed, conspiracy-hyping figures actually possessing conscience enough to have a change of heart, well, Smith and Stauff have thought that through, too.

“A lot of these prodigious media figures, like those on Fox News, know what they’re doing is entertainment. Chester Chapman knows what he’s doing he’s doing for excitement and ratings, but he only comes around to caring about that once the authoritarian government he helped create starts telling him what to say on-air. His change only really comes when it affects him personally. It’s a selfish decision,” Stauff said. Another good answer.


For Smith and Stauff, their time at NESCom has prepared them for the technical aspects of their upcoming production very well. Preparing to tackle a complicated and controversial theme so relevant to today’s news is a whole other matter, but one the filmmaking team clearly has examined from all angles.

“We want to avoid coming off as preachy,” said Stauff, “I have my own biases and there’s a side to every issue the film brings up that I’m on, even an extreme one in some cases. Still, we’re trying to present both sides and show the human side of the conflict, to show the good intentions a lot of people have. Basically, if you demonize one side, you will never reach that side.”

Added Smith, “We want to make a move that says something. There’s a love of films that can take you out of yourself for a minute, where you feel things that are bigger than the movie, that are bigger than you. That can serve as a call to action.”

Here’s my call to action: If you’re interested in learning more about a pair of hustling, thoughtful young Maine filmmakers from outside of the Portland bubble, keep tabs on the film’s under-construction Instagram account, chapmanspeaksmovie. The writer-director duo also urge interested actors to attend Saturday’s auditions at Husson University’s Harold Alfond Hall. (Email [email protected] for more details, including travel expenses.)

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