Smile Politely

Finding the avenue through Protagonist Pizza Productions

About a week ago, I arranged to sit down with the founders of the local film company Protagonist Pizza Productions, Janjay Knowlden and Nic Morse. I’ve been paying attention to their work for around a year now, and with exciting new works in development, I wanted to know more about their company generally and how it works. I have known both Janjay and Nic individually for years, but honestly, seeing them together is a whole other ball game. A few questions soon became a two hour conversation about everything from cookies to interpretive dancing to a full re-enactment of a scene from a movie that I have never heard of, but was told I simply must see as soon as a I can. I laughed so much at every new turn of the conversation. It felt more like hanging out with friends than an interview for an article.

While they may seem like just two goofy dudes, when you start talking to them about film, it quickly becomes evident that they’re also knowledgable, passionate and driven. They have lofty goals for Protagonist Pizza Productions, and they’re taking legitimate steps to make them happen. During our conversation, they often repeated their aim of “giving people an avenue” to pursue scripts, stories, experiences and film generally in a way they might not have been able to before. In fact, PPP really got on its feet with monthly general meetings, where anyone was welcome to come and learn about the basics of filmmaking — how the camera works or lighting set ups — and to bring new scripts or share their ideas. Nic Morse said, “It was meant to inspire attenders to do something on their own.” Those meetings actually lead to multiple projects, including their first annual Pizza Party film festival, which took place in May 2017. “We took six scripts, about five to ten minutes each, as well as actors, writers, and directors — anyone who wanted to be the on the set. [We] put it up at the Art Theatre, had pizza, had a party.” They were very excited and proud of their first Pizza Party so much so that they plan to do it again. In fact, they’re currently taking submissions for next year’s Pizza Party, which they hope to have in April 2018. “This year things will be different” they said, “We’ll have much more pizza.”

So how did they get this pizza theme? When I asked them about the name, their immediate response was laughter and “Oh that took hours!” Apparently they sat in Nic’s living room and talked forever, considering many other names, eventually landing on a name very similar to Protagonist Pizza Productions, but when they launched their Facebook page, it was brought to their attention that they were using something that was already copyrighted. So they came to Protagonist Pizza Productions. They obviously loved the alliteration, and they wanted a name that could handle the “dichotomy of their goals.” Protagonist evokes something weighty and serious, and pizza? Well, pizza is just fun. Everyone loves it. Thus, the name actually reflects them perfectly.

Today, Protagonist Pizza Productions consists mainly of four young men: Janjay Knowlden, Nic Morse, Jon Murphy, and Ethan Perry. While Janjay and Nic technically founded the company, Jon and Ethan are invaluable members of the team. When I asked them how they all work together,  they said that generally Nic and Jon work on the more technical side of the filming process, while Janjay handles the logistics of what scripts to work on, when, where, and with whom, and Ethan always works on the “big picture.” Both Janjay and Nic pointed out that he often has the company’s future in mind and is often the one pointing to where they want to go next. The four seem to work together well, and I heard many times about how their group chat is “lit.” Beyond these four, they have many talented members of the team who are contributing in various ways, and their constantly adding new members.

As of right now, they have a few major projects going. In fact, they recently finished filming a corner for august, a short film by Sofia Fey and Luke Worland which they say deals with “the dichotomy between pleasing other people and pleasing yourself.” The film deals with moving to a new location and not really knowing your way around, both literally and metaphorically, which is why they hope to release it when the new school year starts, as many people will find themselves in new classes, new apartments, and new friend groups. They hope the film will resonate with people finding themselves in these new situations.

Their other major “big ol’ project” at the moment is a web series called Young Dems. There are 11 episodes, which are about ten minutes each, and include about 40 actors, so it’s a major undertaking to organize. The series is written and directed by Cedric Jones, who brought multiple scripts to their early monthly meetings and has been active with the company since. The basic premise of the series is imagining what would happen if Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders were all in the same room — and in college. But the aim of the show is more than just an interesting premise; with this series, they want to give young people the “authority and agency to make changes in their community.” Furthermore, there’s the element of social media, which is so inherent in how young people not only interact with each other, but also how they perceive the world. Nic said, “It’s about getting stuff done and actually doing something instead of just posting about it.” Filming for this project will take place this fall, with the expected release of early 2018.

Besides these considerable projects, their also exploring and expanding into working with local businesses. They’re creating videos for the Station Theatre, developing trailers or behind the scenes footage to help promote their shows. In September, when Pygmalion Festival rolls around, they’ll be creating lots of new content to cover the many artists and events. Additionally, they’ve expanded to have a whole vlogging team for Smile Politely; in fact, PPP will soon have seven vlog series for Smile Politely, covering a variety of topics, with lots of new members contributing.

With all of this going on, I asked them what their mission statement was. What’s the goal here? They told me that they’re focused on three main pillars: a passion for filmmaking, the community of Champaign-Urbana, and positivity. Janjay said, “Everything we put out is in favor of those.” Combine this with an attitude of welcoming in people with new ideas and a willingness to help make it happen, and you end up with a diverse set of projects. But I found their commitment to Champaign Urbana both compelling and touching: both Janjay and Nic grew up here. “This is home to us,” they said.

Nic Morse and Janjay Knowlden at work

Actually, they spent a while telling me how they viewed Champaign Urbana’s size as a strength, as opposed to an obstacle. “People come from all over the world to the University of Illinois and create this wonderful melting pot” and “it’s the perfect size for a town,” they told me. Furthermore, there’s a more vibrant filmmaking scene here than I was previously aware of, and PPP is making use of the small, tight knit community as well. Most importantly, there are a lot of young students and artists here who have not yet had the proper outlet to get their ideas across.

“We want to be that outlet.”

Top photo (from left to right): Jon Murphy, Nic Morse, Ethan Perry, and Janjay Knowlden

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