Three Columbia natives will hit the red carpet next week at the HollyShorts Film Festival in Los Angeles with the short film, "Note to Self."
Written and directed by Dennis Williams II, a 2010 graduate of Wilde Lake High School, the 12-minute film shows a man's subconscious dialogue as he grapples over whether to stay in a relationship with the woman he loves or advance his career.
One of the executive producers of "Note to Self" is Jesse Martin, another former Wilde Lake student who graduated in 2009. Martin and Williams established the production company, CampSight Studios, which produced the film, in 2013.
"Note to Self" also stars 2012 Hammond High School graduate Nicolette Ellis.
HollyShorts, which is an Academy Award qualifying festival, will host some of the year's top short films, each under 40 minutes. This year, the festival received 4,000 entry submissions and accepted 415 projects across eight categories, according to festival co-founder and co-director Daniel Sol.
Recipients of the festival's Best Short Film Grand Prize will automatically be eligible for consideration for the Academy Awards' Live Action Short Film category. The festival's designation as an Academy Award accredited festival is a testament to how much HollyShorts has grown, Sol said, and of the quality of projects being submitted to the festival and how selective the festival has become.
Williams, who graduated from University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2014 and lives and works in New York City, said he has always had a passion for film and writing, and has wanted to produce "Note to Self" for several years.
He wrote the film while a student at UMBC, and reached out to Martin, whom he has known since middle school, about getting involved, as well as Ellis, who works as an actress in New York.
"Note to Self" was shot in Brooklyn in January, but Williams initially had hoped to shoot the film in Columbia, he said. His early exposure in Columbia to people from all walks of life has helped give him the ability to relate well to individuals from diverse backgrounds, and to create content that can relate to a wide range of audiences, he said.
"I've been lots of places throughout the country, [and I] just see that a lot of people often get stuck in their bubble," Williams said. "With Columbia you had to really learn how to communicate with a diverse crowd."
Martin also said that his upbringing in Columbia taught him how to communicate with a variety of people, and to see beyond differences.
Ellis didn't know Williams while growing up in Columbia, but said working with him has been "a dream."
She said it's been "surreal" to see "Note to Self" receive accolades, including a Gold award for Best Short Film at the May 2017 NYC Indie Film Awards, and acceptance into HollyShorts, the movie's fourth film festival. "Note to Self" was an official selection at the Miami Short Film Festival and a semi-finalist at the Los Angeles CineFest.
"It makes me feel happy that we're telling [William's] story the way it is; that's important to me as an actress — being able to create a vision beyond the words," Ellis said. "It's still a little unreal to me."
The path to success
Sol, of HollyShorts, said the acting in "Note to Self," and the connection between the actors, especially stood out to him when the film was under review for the festival.
The selected films undergo a two-part screening process by a review team, who judge them based on merit, including categories such as cinematography and acting ability, and how well the film fits into the festival's programming, he said.
The judges, as well as the members of the 14-person jury for the festival competition, are industry experts who include producers, directors and cinematographers, Sol said.
One of the goals of the festival is to help contestants connect with others in the film industry and advance their careers. Several festival participants have gone on to create feature work that has won awards at such festivals as the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest.
Martin and Williams credited Wilde Lake High with showing them how to take advantages of the opportunities available in the world, including those outside Howard County. Martin said he participated in the high school's Career Academy, which helped expose him to different careers, and helped focus his interests.
Some of Williams' biggest inspirations during high school came from exemplary teachers, including his eleventh grade American government teacher, Kareem Penn. Penn first met Williams the summer before his junior year, and was impressed by his work ethic, which at the time Williams was putting to use playing basketball for Wilde Lake.
"When he showed up in my class I was like, 'Wow your work ethic over the summer constantly being at the courts practicing, doing drills — I hope that translates to the classroom," Penn said. "And it did."
While Penn has been surprised by Williams' career path — when not making films Williams works in New York City as the head of content marketing at the educational technology start-up, Skillshare — he said he is not surprised to see that Williams' passion and dedication have led him to success.
Now, as that success has led to "Note to Self," Williams said he wants to bring the film to Columbia to show it and talk with students about it. He said he'd be especially interested in talking with high school students about their own passions and how he can help them achieve their goals.
"My real focus is to continue giving back to Columbia," he said.