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Facing the Music: Students sacrifice sleep to film music video about love

Video Professor Samara Halperin aids senior Morgan Johnson in filming the music video for the song “Boy From Leeds.” (All photos by Melodie Miu)

Brontez Purnell, a bespectacled, young black man with three neck tattoos of the word “Love” makes a mad dash into the World Ground Cafe in Oakland. In a long line at the cashier, he spots a head of dark dreads. He grabs onto the man’s shoulder, only to find that it is the wrong person.

Purnell runs out of the cafe and comes to a halt after he passes the view of the video camera. The frightened look on his face softens to a calm expression as he awaits more instructions from Director Michaela Ellis, a senior and Intermedia Arts major at Mills.

“Let’s have you run up to him and stop here,” she says to Purnell.

Brontez Purnell acts in his band’s video.

Ellis and her film crew are on their last day of a two-day shoot to film a music video for Purnell’s local punk rock band The Younger Lovers. The video will dramatize the true story of a boy Purnell met — and never saw again — when he was touring with his last band, Gravy Train!!!!, in Leeds, England in 2006. After discovering that he didn’t have the boy’s phone number or even his name, Purnell wrote the song “Boy from Leeds” about being in disillusion over losing “the perfect guy.”

For the last six years, Samara Halperin, the video professor at Mills and Purnell’s friend of nearly 11 years, has assigned a music video every semester as part of her Video II curriculum. She scouts bands and brings them in to brainstorm their plans with the class. When Halperin asked Purnell if her students could shoot his music video, Purnell agreed, to Halperin’s joy.

“The Younger Lovers have great energy,” Halperin said. “I’m excited to see them work together with my class.”

“Boy From Leeds” is an ambitious two-month project that required nothing less than group effort. When filming everything from the club scene in Lisser Hall to the green screen animation, every classmate played a crucial role in production. Their jobs went from camera lighting to transforming an empty space into Purnell’s messy bedroom, complete with a mattress and punk rock posters.

However, many of the crew members, graduating seniors like Ellis, had to compromise their sleep and free time. Since the crew had to turn in their final video projects alongside “Boy from Leeds,” many students found juggling so many different projects exhausting. Yet everyone, including Professor Halperin, found working on the music video worthwhile.

“When the video is done, it’ll be on their resumes,” Halperin said.

Senior Sarina Wensel had dark circles under her eyes when she came into the Intermedia Arts editing room after filming “Boy from Leeds.” She and Ellis were preparing to curate the Senior Show last Friday and finishing their video theses. Wensel looked dejectedly at her thermos, which was quickly running out of coffee. It was already 10 p.m.

“I’ll sleep in my car,” Wensel said, smiling tiredly at the prospect of an all-nighter. “I have to go to class in the morning.”

Although she was exhausted, Wensel found satisfaction in knowing she and others were helping The Younger Lovers produce a quality video.

“We’re helping (Purnell) market. The gay culture in Oakland can be shocking for people unfamiliar with the scene but we’re making it more relatable with a love story,” Wensel said. “This is a job for us.”

Students film a scene for the documentary on the making of the music video.

Wensel is the cameraperson for the documentary about the music video, which is something Halperin has never done before for her video classes. Operating in a small five-person crew, Wensel carried a third camera and a long boom microphone to record all the behind-the-scenes action during the main filming.

The behind-the-scenes documentary will be directed by senior Lauren Soldano (also the Opinions Editor for The Campanil). Soldano organized makeshift confessionals in a restroom stall while the crew was filming scenes of Purnell meeting the love interest at a club. All the members and actors, decked out in grunge-style outfits, sat on the toilet next to a toilet paper dispenser and joked about the music video on camera.

“I shouldn’t be here,” an actor said, shaking her head. “I got class: women’s studies.”

“You told me I was going to make out with (Purnell),” senior Jules Shendelman said to Soldano, who laughed behind the camera, during her “toilet confessional.”

Filming was not without its difficulties. Ellis had to organize a carpool for about 16 people to different film locations and had to keep track of additional actors added at the last minute. The crew struggled for days to find the right person to play the love interest, finally settling on Najee Rene five minutes before the shoot who came along with another extra.

Rene was a handsome young man with dreads and wore a black jacket with diagonal zippers, reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” attire. Many in the crew were blown away by the perfection of the casting. They said Rene was not only gorgeous, but on-point and camera-friendly.

After working with Video II for the last month, Purnell had nothing but kind words for the students.

“They were way more professional than the other crews I dealt with,” Purnell said, admirably.

The admiration was mutual. Many students were happy to work with a band so friendly and so open to the students’ ideas.

“There was a moment where I was thinking ‘Oh My God! I made (Purnell) laugh,’” Soldano said. “I wish all my future clients will be as cool and radical as him.”

Sophomore Carmen Elster edits the footage filmed during the club scene, filmed in Lisser Hall.

The students wrapped filming for “Boy from Leeds” last Wednesday and intend to finish it during a Video II “editing party” by the end of spring.

“Last year(‘s Video II), we slept in here,” Carmen Elster, a sophomore and co-editor, said.

She pointed to the empty floor that’ll soon be strewn with slumbering bodies.

“(Halperin) saw the sleeping bags,” Elster said. “But she didn’t care. She just said ‘I’m so proud of you guys.’”

The music video for “Boy from Leeds” will be premiering at the Video II final screening at Danforth Hall in the Art Center. UPDATE: It’ll be held on Saturday, May 7 from 8 to 11 p.m.

Video courses — Video I and Video II — taught by Samara Halperin will be offered in the Fall.

For course times and information, visit the Mills College website.