Harford man writes and directs high school wrestling film

If you totaled all of the films about high school sports, the one that might be the least represented is wrestling. With a 32-minute movie titled, "The Hardest Six," which he wrote and directed, and which premieres Thursday, Harford County resident Martin Whittier will try to even the score.

"The idea for this started 10 years ago, when I was in high school," Whittier, who wrestled at Perryville High School and lives in Havre de Grace, said. "Me and one of my wrestling buddies, we talked about how there weren't any high school wrestling movies. There was [1985 film] "Vision Quest," but that was about it, and we thought there should be more. The idea had been floating around since then, but it was last year that I took a stab at trying to write a screenplay for it."

The Hardest Six has its premiere showing in Baltimore at the Landmark Theaters at 645 South President St. at 7 p.m, Thursday. The first screening has already been sold out, but there will be an encore showing at 8:15 p.m.

The film's title comes from a term used by amateur wrestling enthusiasts to describe the physical and mental strain endured by athletes during their matches.

"You see lots of shirts at meets and tournaments that say, 'the hardest six,'" Whittier said. "It just means that a wrestling match is the hardest six minutes in sports. I liked that for the title, because it's not used in any other sport. There's no mistaking where it came from."

Casting, location scouting, principal photography and editing took about three months, Whittier estimated, and the film's final tab came to around $17,000.

"I received some donations right from the start, which came to about $3,500, and we raised funds elsewhere, but a lot of the money came out of pocket," Whittier said. "That's nothing compared to what people spend getting a feature film made, but it's a lot for a short film. I wanted to make sure the actors were paid, that the crew was fed and that everything went smoothly."

The film stars Charlie Dreizen, who plays Matthew Howard, a high school student who takes up wrestling after his father is deployed to Iraq and he moves in with his grandparents. Dreizen and Billy Krop, who co-stars as Howard's main opponent, Brandon Moore, each have wrestling experience on their resumes.

"Kropp has wrestled for 14 years, and Dreizen has three years of wrestling experience," Whittier said. "But, it was still challenging to choreograph the fights and have them come out authentic, and not looking too Hollywood."

Helping to choreograph the fight scenes, and taking on the role of referee in the film, is Mike Mazza, Harford Tech's wrestling coach, who also volunteered his Jarrettsville home as a location for some of the film's non-wrestling scenes.

"I got lined up with Martin about a year ago, when this first started to come together, and I've been doing whatever I can to help since then," Mazza said. "We probably had five or six practices to choreograph the final match. As far as an accurate portrayal of high school wrestling, this has to go up at the top. It's not about a state championship caliber athlete; it's about an average wrestler who achieves through the sport."

After scouting several high schools in Harford and Baltimore counties, Whittier and his crew decided to film the wrestling sequences at Perry Hall High School, as it was the most visually neutral. After deciding on the place, there was only the matter of filling the gym with wrestlers, which proved to be one of the toughest parts of the production.

"That was extremely challenging, just getting enough people to come out," Whittier said. "Just getting wrestlers to commit to being there for the match scenes, that was not easy. It came right down to the wire a few times, and it was very stressful. There was a lot of moving pieces to think about, but we got everything to work."

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