Undergraduate film students produce sci-fi noir film, “JAMES OUTLAW”

Cody Sean Morgan (James Outlaw) and Lauren Parket (Detective Korie Kohen) film a scene from "JAMES OUTLAW: The Epiphany." Photo credit: Jeremiah Chaparro

With only $1,424 in donations, a student-led film crew will create futuristic costumes and sets for “JAMES OUTLAW: The Epiphany,” their science-fiction short film that begins production in late March.

The crew aims to mimic billion-dollar talent to prove great storytelling doesn’t have to break the bank.

Director Jeremiah Chaparro and producer Megan Marley’s film follows James Outlaw, an ex-police officer grieving over his past partner’s death. He begins to investigate ritualistic crimes connected to a malicious cult’s search for supernatural connection.

The masked vigilante battles paranormal forces besides Detective Korie Kohen. Audiences see Outlaw’s tragic past and road to redemption as the film highlights his inescapable past.

Military veteran and past criminal investigator Cody Sean Morgan plays Outlaw.

“He’s such a dynamic character that has so much more to him behind the mask, and I’m excited to be able to bring the best version of James I can,” Morgan said.

Lauren Parker, an alum of the University Center for the Performing Arts, stars as Kohen. Previously starring in productions such as “Of Mice and Men” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she hopes to bring emotional depth and witty sarcasm to her multidimensional role.

Chaparro has been creating Outlaw for years. He recalled making brief sketches of the rugged and stoic avenger during church.

“I’ve been trying basically for the past four years of my life to find out who James Outlaw is,” Chaparro said.

Since transferring to UM from the Borough of Manhattan Community College, Chaparro has crafted a character he finds as human as himself.

“I think he’s someone that I hope a lot of people can get behind and relate to and keep going forward and find their own kind of redemption through living with this character,” Chaparro said.

Chaparro remembered seeing people’s eyes light up when describing the project as a mix of “True Detective” and “Blade Runner.”

The passionate filmmakers work to show that science-fiction films deserve Oscar-winning notoriety. Despite the genre creating the most dedicated fandoms, Chaparro noticed that such films are often ignored by Hollywood’s elite.

“If you watch through the Cannes Film Festival or different levels of classes, how often do you see people attempting a high-concept sci-fi and police procedural story?” Chaparro said. “People are fearful of how it’s executed, fearful of coming across as cheesy.”

Chaparro started writing “JAMES OUTLAW: The Epiphany” in his advanced screenwriting class. Feedback from Professor Barbara Leibell inspired Chaparro to expand Outlaw’s motivations and personality. As Marley brainstormed the film’s world with Professor Rosario Cuellar, their high-concept vision became tangible.

Marley has also been creating fundraiser ideas and contacting businesses to feed more than 25 crew members, ranging from script supervisors to equipment managers. Creating schedules and location scouting have been some of her biggest challenges.

“As much as we want to go out and do the biggest thing that we can, we have to be realistic,” Marley said. “We don’t have years to do this.”

Renting equipment from the School of Communication’s film equipment room and meeting with professors outside of class became second nature to the filmmakers.

Professor Jon Gorchow’s $200 donation and their GoFundMe supporters empowered the filmmakers to cherish every cent. Contrary to modern productions, they aim to send viewers to a thrilling and fantastical world with practical costumes and sets, not just special effects.

“We demonstrate how we’re going to the future with how people are presenting themselves through their identities, sexualities and preferences,” Chaparro said. “It gets really strange, almost malevolent.”

Mimicking seasoned sci-fi writers’ techniques, the filmmakers will reimagine modern technology to show viewers a possible future.

“I want to ask the audience, is this a world you enjoy seeing? Is this something you don’t want to see?” Chaparro said. “Even a lot of the world-building issues are related to hot topics now.”

Chaparro and Marley encourage student filmmakers to never doubt their stories. As the duo creates their high-concept spectacle, they remind students that they only need to be the best versions of themselves.

“I don’t want to be the next Martin Scorcese. No one should ever be concerned with that,” Chaparro said. “You’ve got to go for it because if you don’t, then you’re really depriving yourself and others of something that could be great.”

For Marley, intertwining current projects with sparks of personality starts a filmmaker’s path to success.

“Be open to the possibilities of the world and just see what’s out there,” Marley said. “That’s what I like to do in film is to show people what things could be like or where they can go.”

Once filming and pre-screenings conclude in early April, “JAMES OUTLAW: The Epiphany” will hit the film festival circuit, hoping to premiere at the 2024 Canes’ Film Festival.

Supporters can donate to the “JAMES OUTLAW: The Epiphany” GoFundMe and follow their Instagram @jamesoutlawfilm to get behind-the-scenes looks and see where to watch the final product.