Milledgeville-made short film wins big on festival circuit

May 6—The short film "SPARE" has been seen on screens in California, Arizona and New York, and has garnered awards in Paris, Houston and Atlanta.

The far-reaching work had its humble beginnings right here in Milledgeville with a lot of local hands involved.

"SPARE" is the first film endeavor of local creatives and Blackbird Coffee-owning couple Jimmy and Iona Holder. Known for their acumen when it comes to playwriting and directing for the stage, the duo tried their hand at film a couple of years ago.

Wouldn't you know it, they're pretty good at that as well.

The story was born out of a play written by Jimmy during the COVID-19 pandemic. As he often does, he submitted it to some national play competitions. When plays are submitted for competition, they are performed as well. That was during a difficult period for theatre as play producers had to find creative ways to get around COVID restrictions.

"They either performed it with masks on in front of cameras with no audience, or they just performed it on Zoom," Jimmy said.

"Which was awful," Iona interjected.

"It was a terrible time for theatre," Jimmy said. "Watching stuff on Zoom just isn't the same."

"It's heartbreaking to theatre people," added Iona. "The point is that our heartbeats are syncopated when we're all in the room together."

But from the unconventional experience came a silver lining. One of the festivals produced Holder's piece sort of like a film, which got some wheels turning. The couple felt they were up for the challenge of really turning the play into a short film for camera. With a little help from some friends, of course.

"We realized we were going to have to step everything up and do it right," Iona said. "We have been to film festivals and seen the difference between good film and not-so-good film. We knew we needed to hire professionals rather than have us as amateurs do it."

That's where close friend Bryan Rucker came in. He spent four years living in Milledgeville working on TLC's "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," and elected to come on as director of photography for "SPARE."

"Getting him on board and letting him take over the technical side of things was crucial for the film's success," Jimmy said.

Rucker's bandmate Ryan Connelly served as sound designer, which is an important role as well because the Holders say sound sets many entries apart when they are shown at film festivals.

Other needs were met through local connections. Madison Junod, a former Georgia College & State University student of Jimmy's was the casting director. Lead actor Ansara Lee is a local resident, and wardrobe was provided by GCSU Chair of Theatre, Eric Griffis.

Then there was the need for a location. As hinted in the name, "SPARE" is set at a bowling alley. The Holders approached Lake Country Lanes owners Bob and Cynthia Binkley to see if filming at the bowling center off Roberson Mill Road would be possible. The sides worked out a deal, and so, on a summer 2021 morning, the "SPARE" production team set up for a day of shooting at Lake Country Lanes. It was an early start at 5:30 a.m., but the Holders came with Blackbird Coffee in tow to get everyone moving.

"SPARE" features two main actors, the aforementioned Lee and Atlanta actress Annie Cook. The film begins with Lee's character Billy entering Lake Country Lanes and approaching Cook, who plays a bowling alley employee named Cheryl. As Billy pays for some time on a lane, Cheryl notices the name on his debit card. It's slowly and tactfully revealed that the two have somewhat of a shared history, which won't be entirely given away in this news piece.

"I just like the idea of second chances, and that plays off the film's title," writer Jimmy said of the message behind the story. "You can step up and try again. That looks different for different kinds of people. You have a character who's there to express gratitude and another character that's absolutely frightened by this idea that you have this new life. I was just kind of playing around with those emotions and feelings — the idea of moving on, forgiveness, and what that looks like."

Good art can often be viewed through different lenses, and director Iona had a slightly different take when she first read her husband's work.

"What I presented to the actors was sort of a cautionary tale about reserving judgment," she said. "I feel like we led the audience to judge, judge, judge, and just as soon as you think you've got something figured out, you're wrong. So many moments of life are like that. Maybe if we just reserve more of that judgment, it would save us all some suffering."

Less than 12 hours after arriving on set, the crew had everything it needed from a shooting and performing standpoint. After that came the lengthy post-production process, which included editing picture and sound. Work was completed in 2022, and "SPARE" was placed on the 2023 film festival circuit where it was shown at 11 different locations and won awards at three. It won gold in the dramatic short film category at Worldfest in Houston, Texas last April, Best Local Short at Atlanta Shortsfest in June, and Cook's performance as Cheryl won her Best Actress at the Paris Awards Film Festival last July.

Many film festivals have restrictions on showing entries outside of the events, but "SPARE" is now off the circuit, and can be viewed online for free at Runtime is nine minutes total. The story is told in about seven minutes before the credits start rolling.

With their first filmmaking experience behind them, the Holders say they are open to doing more in the future, but nothing is in the works as of yet. Whenever they do tackle another project, they can do so knowing they already bowled a strike in their very first frame.