Tag Archives: Tom McCauley

A Portrait of the Filmmaker as a Young Man

March 14, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Knights in shining armor go searching for a legendary spoon. That was the concept of Sam Senser’s entry to the Canadian-based 50-Hour Film Competition. The contest’s theme was “twisted fairytale,” and all entries had to use a wooden spoon prop and include the phrase “you fool!”

His short film, “The Quest for Excalispoon,” won for best costume. A re-edited version is the 20-year-old Senser’s third short film to be accepted and screened at the Omaha Film Festival. The 2017 festival takes place March 7-12.

In 2016, Senser received honorable mention in the festival’s “Best Nebraska Short Film” category—a juried prize—for his comedic heist film “Van Man and Truck Boy 2” (also known as “The Adventures of Van Man and Truck Boy”). Senser’s younger brother Wrenn, the sidekick in “The Quest for Excalispoon,” also plays Truck Boy.

The up-and-coming filmmaker is accumulating an impressive collection of awards. In 2015, Senser won a national anti-texting-and-driving competition—Project Yellow Light—with his short video, “It’s Not Safe for Anyone.”

His advertisement, set in the dark of night, featured a distracted youth crossing a remote country road while looking down and texting on his phone. An oncoming car screeches to a halt. The kid looks up, caught in the headlights. The camera cuts to the vehicle. A deer sits behind the steering wheel, driving the car. Then the kid bolts, running into the darkness.

Surely, the deer-caught-in-the-headlights scenario is a familiar nighttime danger for drivers in Senser’s neighborhood, on the rural fringe of the Omaha metro. The simple danger captures his aesthetic.

“It’s a simpler life in a small town, and I like simple films,” says Senser, who is taking a class at Metropolitan Community College and keeps busy year-round with commissioned video work.

He hasn’t gone to film school (and probably doesn’t need to). He actually paid for his first camera with money from a freelance project for his grandfather’s insurance company. Then, during his senior year of high school, instead of seeking parental help with college tuition, Senser emptied his college fund to upgrade his camera to a $5,500 Canon C-100.

“It was a little bit of a risk, but that’s what he was passionate about,” says his father, John Senser. “He immediately went and bought the camera, and it paid off.”

The first thing he shot was the PSA with the driving deer. An early edit won a contest hosted by WOWT Channel 6 News for Omaha-area schools; the finished version earned $5,000 in prize money from Project Yellow Light.

When he won, Senser and his parents received free airfare to New York City. He stayed for free at the Waldorf Astoria. They had to scramble to find tuxedos and formal attire for the black-tie Ad Council Public Service Award Dinner (which normally costs $3,000 per seat to attend).

Then in 2016, Senser entered the contest again. He also helped his brother enter a video. Coincidentally, the Senser brothers were arriving in Boston for a family vacation with their uncle the night before Project Yellow Light announced the 2016 winners at Times Square in New York City.

After flying from Omaha to Boston, their uncle drove them four hours to the outskirts of the Big Apple. They learned the good news in-person when their videos played on the Times Square Jumbotron on the morning of Friday, July 8.

Senser won the college division for the second year in a row with his next entry, “The Cost of Distracted Driving.” Wrenn also won in the high school division. So, they swept the contest and each took home another $5,000.

The expensive camera had proven itself a wise investment for the family.

Senser says he has been making movies constantly since he was a little kid—maybe third grade, maybe fifth grade. He can’t remember exactly when he started in earnest. “They used to be stupid little short films that we’d do for fun on our family’s camcorders,” he recalls. “We wouldn’t do any editing. I’d hit record, stop it, put it up on the TV, and we’d watch it.”

The young filmmaker lives with his parents at the YMCA’s Camp Kitaki (his dad is a property manager on the grounds, and they are the only folks living year-round at the camp), which is located between Platte River State Park and South Bend.

He still documents his surroundings. In fact, he has made several promotional videos for Camp Kitaki (where he works in the summer, making slideshows for campers).

To make a big deal of Senser’s relative youth would seem patronizing. When it comes to filmmaking, Senser isn’t so much “on his way” as “already there” in terms of skill. His films would prove notable for an auteur of any vintage.

Audiences feel likewise. “His crowd reaction has been fantastic over the last several years,” says Marc Longbrake, program director of the Omaha Film Festival.

The Omaha Film Festival exhibits new independent films and lauded cinematic masterpieces alike. The event organizers also offer educational programming related to film (including a two-day academy geared toward high school students and open to the public); though Senser was never a participant.

Senser’s age did not factor into the festival’s decision to exhibit his work, Longbrake says.

“Based on its own merits early on, Sam’s films were doing well competition-wise compared to the other Nebraska filmmakers,” Longbrake says. “The fact that he was young and in college at the time that he submitted his first film doesn’t play into it. The fact that he was making quality films was the thing that we dug.”

Perfectly executed farce drew Omaha Film Festival jury members to his winning submission last year. “His movies are kind of ridiculous, but in a hilarious way,” Longbrake explains. “And you can screw that up. If you go to a comedy that’s sort of a farce, if it’s done poorly, it’s a struggle. For some reason, he hit the right beats and the right notes with the first couple films that we saw of his.”

“Van Man and Truckboy 2,” focuses on a small-town crime-fighting duo working to apprehend a villain who robbed the local bank with a drone. The film features gorgeous aerial and long shots of southeastern Nebraska countryside. To capture such breathtaking views, Senser worked with Wrenn (who recently completed Navy bootcamp), to operate a camera mounted on a drone.

Along with Wrenn as Truck Boy, Senser’s friend Jake Bruce was Van Man, and Senser’s father was the villain. All of Senser’s films so far have been collaborations with friends and family.

His editing is crisp, coherent, and expertly timed. The acting is understated and natural, sure to keep audiences laughing with wonderfully absurd exchanges like:

“The bank’s been robbed … by a drone … there were explosives, probably two pounds of C-185 trinitrotoluene wrapped in a flaked hydro-combustion chamber with a powder organic nitrate packed inside.”

“The red kind?”

“Yes.”

“Oh no. That’s the worst kind.”

Devoid of condescending parody, both of Senser’s “Van Man and Truck Boy” films offer up a recognizable, slyly humorous small-town Midwestern sensibility, where someone could earn a lasting nickname for the flimsiest of reasons, like having a truck. They’re worth a watch (and are available on his personal website).

Where is Senser headed? He says he plans to make a larger-scale short film this spring and summer to submit to festivals around the country. But he’d really like to direct a feature-length film—hopefully around here.

“I don’t know if California would be my thing,” Senser says. “But if they called—if I needed to—I would do it. Although, I’d rather make movies with this kind of setting. I just like the whole small-town feel, forests, open space, ranches, farms. It’s just simpler. Plus I know it. I grew up here. So I kind of know how things work.”

Visit senserfilms.com for more information.

Sam Senser at Camp Kitaki

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Great Unknown

September 23, 2015 by
Photography by Sam Herron

 

 

 

 

 

Sam Herron’s life would make an interesting movie. The synopsis almost pitches itself: a millionaire-turned-homeless-man finds himself living on the streets of Omaha and seeking redemption in the unlikeliest of places—through the lens of a pawnshop camera. Will he find it?

“That is the great unknown,” Herron says. “Yet to be determined.”

Since 2012, the Omaha-based photographer’s haunting-yet-tender work has been steadily cultivating an international audience and the admiration of his colleagues. Now he’s about to publish his first book: Street Life Fragments: Stories and Photographs from Homeless America. Slated for a 2016 publication by Loyola University-Maryland’s Apprentice House Press, the book combines photography and memoir into an unflinching examination of what it’s like to be down-and-out in a thriving city.

The project evolved from a dark period in Herron’s life. Having lost the considerable fortune he’d made as a self-employed daytrader, he moved here from the Greater Chicago area to get his life back on track.

At first, the move was a success: he quit partying, got a job in a factory, fell in love. It was a dramatic about-face for a man who had spent his youth playing bass in a Los Angeles hard rock band that recorded two albums while signed to MCA/Universal.

(Even after he could afford to eat at restaurants where most of us could never score a resevation, he still rode with motorcycle gangs in his spare time.) But he welcomed the change of pace.

Then a work-related injury cost him his job. His relationship failed. He was asked to move out. With no savings or support network, he started sleeping in his car. He shaved in restroom sinks, carefully applying the façade of a man who sleeps in a bed at night, so he would be ready for that elusive job interview. To keep the panic attacks at bay, he began to drink heavily. Often going days without eating, he entered a mental state he calls “borderline seizureland.” He wrote about these terrifying episodes for the blog he started to document his homelessness. Eventually, despite never having considered himself a photographer, he took out his cheap digital camera—one of the last items that hadn’t been sold—and started taking pictures of people he found interesting: rail-riding old men, teenage vagabonds, etc.

Thus began the project that would lead to the publication of his first book, which is written in the streetwise style of Henry Rollins and Charles Bukowski.

Herron’s work can be seen at Lincoln’s LUX Center for the Arts in the “About Human” group exhibit, which runs September 4 through October 30. You can view the photos and read excerpts from his forthcoming book at the Street Life Fragments Facebook page.

Count among his fans the influential documentary photographer Janette Beckman, whose photographs helped immortalize the burgeoning punk rock and hip-hop scenes in England and New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s. During her residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts last year, she took an interest in Sam’s work.

“[He] takes beautiful, gritty portraits of people on the streets of Omaha,” Beckman says. “His powerful portraits of faces tell unheard stories about life on the streets. He is the real deal.”

Photographer Atiim Jones, whose ongoing Face of Omaha project has portrayed thousands of visitors to the Old Market, also attests to the power of Herron’s portraits. “I’ve been following his work for a while now,” Jones says. “It’s intense.”

Herron appreciates the kind words, but he might be too focused on his work to take them to heart.

“From a humility standpoint, I can’t allow myself to even begin to think of myself as some great photographer,” he says. “I want to be as egoless as possible. That said, I do have people say it frequently, which is astounding to me.”

Still, his living situation is tenuous. He often forgoes meals just to save gas money to make it to the coffee shop where he edits his photographs. And although he was recently promoted to assistant director of the Siena/Francis House Miracles Treatment Program—an inpatient addiction recovery program—Herron remains technically homeless, albeit with a bed to sleep in.

Now that his career as a photographer is picking up, the disconnect between his budding success and reality is especially striking. He has a book coming out, but he also has to spend his days breaking up fights. Thanks to the wisdom he’s gained from his experiences, he’s been able to maintain a Hemingwayian grace under fire. Chalk it up to the redemptive process of his photography, which he says has deepened his understanding not only of the human condition, but of each individual as well. As he works to document the lives of the marginalized, he says, “I literally can feel myself becoming a different photographer, a different person.”

Tom McCauley, the writer of this story, has helped Sam Herron with the writing and editing of Street Life Fragments.

Sam Herron. Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Sam Herron. Photo by Bill Sitzmann.