Works In Progress follows the lives of two recent small-town college fine art graduates and a successful, yet unfulfilled insurance professional during a magical summer in “the big city.”
—International Movie Database (IMDB) description of the plot of Mary and Steve Pruitt's first feature film (view the IMDB listing)
Moviemaking, family style
Put the words “Kansas” and “Hollywood” in the same sentence, and a movie buff is likely to begin quoting Dorothy's famed Wizard of Oz line to Toto: “I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.”
But for Mary and Steve Pruitt, the Kansas-and-movies connection conjures up another image: the launching pad for the couple's own movie career, a romantic comedy called Works In Progress that is roughly equal parts creative quest, labor of love and crucible.
“Making any low-budget independent movie with high production values is an endurance race,” says Steve, who in his day job is the Arvin Gottlieb/Missouri Endowed Chair of Business Economics and Finance at the University of Missouri- Kansas City (UMKC). “It's an emotional minefield, hurdles at every single turn.”
But the two — Mary, a Cincinnati native and 1994 IUPUI graduate with a degree in general studies; and Steve, a Speedway native and a former professor in the School of Business at IUPUI (before it was called Kelley) — have learned how to “survive to thrive” during the nearly 30 years they've been married. And they've grown to love the moviemaking process so much that they already are at work on a second film.
Steve produced and directed the movie, while Mary wrote most of the script (with contributions from her husband) and served as the executive producer — among other things. In fact, most of the hardy crew performed multiple tasks in front of and behind the camera.
The Pruitts even tapped an unusual source for movie extras: their church, the Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kan. Their two daughters — 27-year-old Becky and 23-year-old Barri — appear, but don't have speaking roles. Even the family dog — an English cocker spaniel named Abbey — got drafted to play an extra. No word yet on whether Abbey's got an agent.
Becky, a national merit scholar and magna cum laude graduate of Wheaton College in Chicago, is the director of high school ministries at Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kan. Barri graduated from Wheaton with a psychology degree last spring and began pursuing a master's degree in environmental science at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., this fall.
The stress of the movie process took a physical toll on both husband and wife.
“I lost 27 pounds last summer during shooting, and Mary lost 14,” says Steve. “It can be that rough. The crew was almost never in air conditioning, and it can be utterly miserable, as it was for most of the summer. But then you see the footage and hear others say 'Wow! It's a real movie.” That's when it's worth it.”
Kevin Harlan, a friend from church who is the film's chief editor, admits with a laugh that everyone “wondered if it would ever end. It's such a huge collaboration, and we all thought that maybe Steve and Mary both have a bit of the same insanity running through their veins.”
But once Harlan saw the movie evolving, he was convinced. “A good feature film has to be built around a really good story, and Mary and Steve came up with a terrific script,” Harlan says.
Neither Pruitt would have predicted a leap into the movie business during their early years together. Mary earned her General Studies degree (BGS '94) as a non-traditional student, attending classes and raising their school-age daughters, all the while being part of a “faculty family” at IUPUI.
But as they moved to Steve's new job at UMKC, they realized they needed to indulge their shared passion for creativity. Steve had played in a variety of rock bands through the years and written music along the way, but it wasn't enough.
“I've been creating since I was a little kid. And Mary was apparently born to help me with my obsessions,” Steve says with a laugh. “There is no finer art form than cinema — it is the one that incorporates almost all of the others,” he adds. “So I decided that since I was too old to learn how to paint, I'd make a movie!”
David Greusel, a renowned architect and close family friend — not to mention part of the Works In Progress crew — remembers the day he heard about the project.
“Steve announced it in my basement,” Greusel says. “At that point, he hadn't made so much as a three-minute music video, (so) this struck me as a pretty audacious claim.” But they did make a video of Steve's song Midlife, and the movie idea gained steam.
That video was shot with a “professional video camera, which produces gorgeous high-definition footage,” according to Greusel. But it wasn't enough: Steve wound up getting not one but two RED ONE digital cinema cameras, a camera so advanced it has its own name. You can almost hear Greusel's chuckle as he explains “this is typical for Steve — get rid of a video camera that is used all over the world on professional assignments in order to acquire a bleeding-edge, gamechanging camera that is revolutionizing the film industry!”
The movie dream wasn't Steve's alone. Mary “was busy writing — and rewriting — the screenplay” that evolved into Works, Greusel adds. And she found that writing suits her well.
“I believe everyone was born to create,” she says. “Writing has helped me be more aware of the present, of my surroundings, of the people with whom I share this earth. I love the opportunity to share something I've learned with others. It is one more way to connect with people.”
That said, making Works In Progress was anything but easy.
“I consider myself fortunate to have been a part of this,” she says, “but making a full-length feature film — when you've never even made a (movie) short before — has one wicked learning curve!”
Mary also dealt with the bank on financing, served as the make-up artist, helped pick locations, worked on props, set the production schedule and provided “hourly sustenance for the cast and crew,” according to her husband.
They both vividly recall shooting scenes “guerilla style” in and around Kansas City, without the usual Hollywood luxury of closing down streets or parks or neighborhoods. For Works, the call for “action” meant working around real life.
“Making any low-budget independent
movie with high production values is an
— Steve Pruitt
Festival game plan
Their focus now is on entering Works In Progress in the various film festivals across North America. The Pruitts submitted their film to the biggest festival of all, Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival last month, but weren't one of the 16 U.S. fictional films chosen.
They knew getting into Sundance getting into Sundance were long — over 9,000 entries were submitted for 120 available slots. “And we knew they prefer edgier themes,” Steve says. “But it was great just to submit.”
“Our film is a G-rated romantic comedy, and not usually the type of film Sundance prefers,” he says. But hope springs eternal, and to Mary, entering is worthwhile.
“Steve thinks he's being realistic, but I say a realist is just a pessimist in denial,” laughs Mary. “It's true, our film may not be edgy enough for Sundance, but regardless of what they think of the script or the theme, it IS beautifully shot.”
One festival they are determined to enter is one near and dear to their hearts: Indianapolis's own Heartland Film Festival. “That one fits our film to a T, and it would be terrific to be entered in Indy,” says Steve.
The demands of collaborating on a movie have caused some stressful moments, but it's also given each of them insights into the other that even 28 years of marriage haven't offered.
Mary, for instance, marvels at her husband's directing abilities.
“Steve sees the film, already shot, scene by scene, in his mind's eye,” she says. “It is amazing to watch him work with the director of photography to flesh out the shots. To see him bring ideas that we wrote come to life is special.”
Steve admits feeling a bit of intimidation turning Mary's relationships and characters into three-dimensional people. “Mary has an uncanny way of capturing moments — in a conversation, say, or a quiet moment — and turning them into insights into why people do the things they do,” he says.
They're already at work on their next cinematic collaboration, Terminal, which they are already writing and expect to start shooting in September.
“We are just about done with the first draft of the script, but the lessons we learned in making Works In Progress mean that the first draft of Terminal will be a whole lot more 'finished' than the 10th draft of Works,” Steve says.
“After Terminal, I want to make a movie about making our first movie,” adds Mary. “It would be a comedy, for sure. I believe being able to laugh at yourself is a prerequisite for life. The beautiful thing about working with others is this: if you don't know your shortcomings before a project, you'll surely be aware of them afterward!”
As far as they are concerned, no “shortcomings” will spoil their debut movie: after all, any romantic comedy worth its salt ends up with the guy and the girl together — especially if there's a second film in the offing.