Temple students travel to Iceland to film senior thesis

Eric Burleson and Conor O’Mara made a short dystopian film together their senior year.

Emily Ruth Johnson, a 2014 theater alumna, is the sole actress in the film “Return Safely” created by two film and media arts majors in Iceland. COURTESY LUKE RIHL

Along a coast dominated by black sand and rugged terrain, two senior film and media arts majors found the setting for their thesis film: Iceland.

Eric Burleson was the film’s writer and director, and Conor O’Mara, who has a concentration in cinematography, was the director of photography. Burleson and O’Mara spent two weeks around Laugarvatn, Iceland shooting scenes for their film, “Return Safely.”

Burleson and O’Mara’s film is a fantasy, dystopian piece about a woman’s quest through a strange land. She is traveling to return a mysterious, sacred object to its home while encountering creatures that can not be found in the real world.

Each senior in the School of Theater, Film and Media Arts can produce a film that reflects what they learned during their time at Temple. Over the years, students have done their thesis films around the world, in India, South Africa, China and now Iceland, said Paul Swann, a film and media arts professor.

“A thesis film demands vision, discipline and perseverance,” Swann said. “Temple’s thesis films are distinctive in being highly collaborative, drawing on skills and talents of many students.”

“It’s no simple matter to arrange an overseas shoot,” he added. “It’s a challenge, but a valuable experience to assemble resources and make contacts from one’s own turf.”

The two started planning their thesis film in June, but scratched all of their original ideas, like a film set at a lighthouse, when O’Mara saw that plane tickets to Iceland were relatively cheap.

“We realized that we wanted to do something different than what we had been doing,” Burleson said. “I wanted to push a fantasy experience. A lot of the inspiration was Iceland itself.”

They said they were stunned by the scenes they found in Iceland.

“You could look in any direction and see nothing but views for miles,” O’Mara said. “It’s just unreal.”

Those views included signs that warned against volcanic rock and mountains in the distance at every angle, they said.

Shooting locations for the film included the site of a World War II plane crash and Thingvellir National Park, which sits on a continental divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

The setting isn’t the only defining factor of “Return Safely.” The film has no dialogue.

“If you do it correctly, the viewer should be able to watch the entire film without realizing that there isn’t any dialogue,” Burleson said.

The two said they are confident that the viewer will not need dialogue to be captivated by their film because of its setting and the talent of their lead actress, 2014 theater alumna Emily Ruth Johnson.

The crew dealt with unpredictable weather, which changed from clear skies to blizzards in a moment, but they said it only added to the wonder of Iceland.

“It really is unlike something you can find back in the states,” Burleson said.

Burleson and O’Mara said they tried to save money by shopping at “an Icelandic 7-Eleven” while abroad, but the trip was still fairly expensive.

They turned to the Greater Philadelphia Film Office for funding and gained nonprofit status through the organization. They were accepted to the organization’s Fiscal Sponsorship program.

“We also reached out to friends and family and tried to get people excited about Iceland,” O’Mara said.

Burleson and O’Mara have known each other since their freshman year and have produced several short films together, most of them being horror films shot in their homes.

O’Mara said he hopes to have the film finished before the end of the year.

As they both approach the end of their careers at Temple, Burleson and O’Mara see no end in sight for their collaborations in filmmaking. They said they hope to write and produce a feature film one day.

“We absolutely plan on continuing to work together,” O’Mara said.

Patrick Bilow can be reached at patrick.bilow@temple.edu.

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