OSWEGO - When Peter Mahan retired a few years ago as high school art teacher for the Hannibal School District, little did he know he’d be head-over-heels in love with screenwriting and eventually participate in a local indie film production as co-writer, director, and editor. “It’s been a dream, actually, to have that much creative freedom. It’s one of those times when you say to yourself, ‘If someone told me I would…,” said Mahan.
But here he is smack dab in the middle of editing Under the Mercy, a short drama he co-wrote with Syracuse-based writers Eric Scott and Joe Cunningham, and marveling at what he’s witnessing on screen. “Nobody will believe we worked with almost no budget,” said Mahan.
Besides teaching, Mahan has had a long involvement with the Art Association of Oswego as an exhibiting photographer. And patrons of the Oswego Players, Inc. will recognize him immediately for his many contributions as a stage performer at the Frances Marion Brown Theatre over the past 12 years. All of which, Mahan believes, contributes to his success as a filmmaker.
This new chapter of his life began in the fall of 2017 when he met Scott and Cunningham in Syracuse at a writer’s roundtable group run by Joleene Moody, known locally as the Pulaski-based writer/producer of Sticks, a TV pilot shot in and around Oswego County a month ago. “Joleene,” said Cunningham, “is the Godmother of this passion project, no question. We hope she loves it as much as we do.”
As the group’s screenwriting mentor, Moody decided to have attendees co-write a short film script together, in the hopes these would someday get turned into films. “When Joe, Eric and I met we were total strangers,” Mahan says, “who shared at least two things in common: a talent for writing and a natural skepticism about collaborating on what we assumed was a solitary art. Specifically, how do three independent creative minds craft a single story?” They eventually settled on a formula that worked: break the story up into three acts with each writer taking sole possession and artistic ownership of their pages. “Then we’d meet for constructive feedback and respectfully address what we thought were the rough edges.”
The three met several times at coffee shops around Syracuse and immediately sensed they could indeed create something not only compelling but cohesive. The title of their piece was the brainchild of Cunningham but the theme was decided for them through a “Mad Lib” process (collective ideas plucked randomly out of a hat).
The class had enough members to create four distinct writing teams based on genre (comedy, drama, horror, and thriller), but all four groups were given the same logline: When an apartment complex is foreclosed, a young liberal must find his purpose in life, or else his drug dealer will steal his kidney. “Since we chose to be in the drama group,” Mahan confides, “the kidney stealing element was definitely going to be a challenge. But we rose to it, and now I think it separates our story from others that deal with heroin addiction.”
What would eventually become a 15-page script took several months, but all three felt they had crafted something special. “The real question then became whether we had the will to turn it into a film. We had no budget!”
Zoom ahead to late winter of 2019. That’s when the team decided to go for it using the talent they had from the fellow filmmaker friends they knew. And no crowd-sourcing was used to obtain funds, according to Mahan, as all were willing to work for free. “Joe’s natural talent for schmoozing and getting a ‘yes’ from people immediately earned him the title of producer,” Mahan quips, “and soon enough all cast and crew slots were filled.” Key among the eager recruits was local musician Dave Welsch, who agreed to do sound capture, sound editing, and create an original music score for the anticipated 30-minute film.
Pre-production for the trio of writers lasted three months. The limited cast and crew of Under the Mercy started filming in early June, and most of that was done on weekends. Since principal photography wrapped a couple weeks ago, Mahan has turned his focus to editing, claiming he’s about half done with what’s known in the business as a rough edit. “We owe those hard-working, dedicated souls a wrap party. But we want to have something for them to see, so my goal is sometime the first week of September.”
And what comes after that? The team is hoping to have Under the Mercy fine-tuned and ready for submissions to film festivals by Christmastime, and eventually available on Vimeo and YouTube.