Alumni produce award-winning web series

The cast and crew of “West Montclair High East” film the series.| courtesy TIM HARRIS
The cast and crew of “West Montclair High East” film the series.| courtesy TIM HARRIS

When Zach DiLanzo began collaborating with Jon Schifferdecker in creating an award-winning satirical ‘90s high school web series, he didn’t know what to expect from it.

“I think the goal the entire time was to make something funny and weird,” DiLanzo said.

But before they could could start the project together, Schifferdecker passed away in a car accident in August 2012. This became a motivational factor for DiLanzo, a 2011 film grad, and friends of Schifferdecker, to make the web series “West Montclair High East” a reality.

“After [Schifferdecker] passed away, the motivation was to make it happen – we just felt really passionate. He worked on this – we should really make this happen.”

DiLanzo was joined by Emily Diego, Tim Harris and Carly Christiansen as co-producers, Temple students and friends of Schifferdecker in undertaking this project. The result of their efforts is four 10-minute webisodes that premiered last month on YouTube, with plans to take to screenings, festivals and different websites – “Just to see where else it can go,” Harris said.  The series also won a 2014 WitOut award on Jan. 26.

They cast the project early in 2013 and shot during the summer, using a Catholic high school and the area of Cape May, N.J., as locations. Schifferdecker hailed from Cape May, and “West Montclair” producers aimed to put as much of Schifferdecker into the show as they could.

“We shot in his house and in his bedroom,” said Diego, who had been Schifferdecker’s girlfriend. “[The lines], ‘I hear your brother’s pretty good at basketball,’ ‘He’s really good,’ ‘That’s hot,’ and then he kisses her – that’s from Schifferdecker’s real life … Everything that we could do for him and with him, we did.”

Schifferdecker’s parents were major contributors to the production, also feeding and providing sleeping arrangements for the group during production.

Temple Smash, Temple’s variety show, had a significant part to play in the production of “WMHE” as well, providing a large portion of the talent pool that was involved.  Harris was a director and a part of the writing team during his senior year for Smash, and Schifferdecker had been the head writer.

Andrew Weigel, a junior media studies and production major, played Bobby in the production as well as edited the introductory video.  He performed such feats as gorging on lasagna for 45 minutes and having a love affair with his reflection in the mirror. He said he was impressed with the project.

“I’d never been involved in such a professional production,” Weigel said.

Rob Gentile, senior media studies and production major and Smash’s head writer, who played a serial killer in Weigel’s dreams, agreed.

“The commitment level of everyone involved was crazy,” Gentile said.  “It was one of the most high-end productions I have ever been a part of.”

The producers seemed equally impressed with the work of the cast.

“If we had had to do it over again and been able to use a bigger cast… we would have kept the same cast list,” Harris said.  “Everybody brought their A-game every day of shooting – on and off camera.”

This was a great encouragement to the producers, some of whom felt like they were just getting their legs under them after graduation.

“It was important for us to do something like this after college, because in college you’re just doing things for assignments,” Diego said.  “But after, you have to sort of be brave – ‘I want to make something, who wants to support me?’ That can be kind of scary, but we had such a lovely turnout in actors and support donors and people who were willing to look at our work.”

The current pursuits of the “WMHE” producers have landed them in different areas, but with similar goals. Diego recently moved to Chicago with some of her Temple friends to pursue comedy, sketch and standup.  DiLanzo is living in New York, working in TV and film, while Harris and Christiansen have remained in Philadelphia, with Harris starting a production company called Seven Knots Productions. Though there are no plans for a sequel, they do not see this as the end of their work together.

“We’d all love to work with each other again, and we all definitely had a blast doing it,” Harris said. “I want to keep doing things like this with everyone as much as possible.”

“We’re trying to build upon what we created during college,” Diego said. “Especially since we made such amazing and talented friends, why not continue to work with who and what we already have?”

Nathan Landis Funk can be reached at nathan.landis.funk@temple.edu.

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