Leave it to a veteran film student to make his thesis project a war movie. But it's more than that.
University of Southern California student Jordan Michael Martinez' 17-minute short isn't just a shoot-em-up action flick. "The Gatekeeper" is also a thoughtful, often poignant take on veteran suicide.
Even he didn't realize how pervasive the problem of veteran suicide was until someone he knew took their own life.
"I knew this had to be taken seriously and be portrayed in an authentic manner in order for military personnel and veterans to fully embrace the film's messaging," Martinez told Military.com. "Creating a film that military and civilians could both relate to was difficult but massively important to me."
That dedication to authenticity pervades every aspect of the film's production.
Martinez, a former U.S. Army paratrooper who served in Afghanistan, is the director and co-writer of the movie, as well as the inspiration for many of its scenes. The military adviser for "The Gatekeeper," retired Sgt. Maj. Daniel Stroud, served with both Martinez and Christopher Loverro, the film's lead actor.
A military thriller, "The Gatekeeper" stars Loverro, an Army Iraq War veteran, as a first sergeant who accepts a deployment to Iraq he could have avoided. He will have to confront the violence of his time there.
When he returns, he grapples with the regret and remorse he experiences over his decisions in Iraq, along with the anger experienced by the families affected by those decisions.
He also has to find the strength to reach out to his increasingly estranged wife, played by Navy veteran Jennifer Marshall.
"The effects of the fallen's family was something that needed showing," says Martinez. "Many of us don't think twice about how those individuals' lives are truly affected."
This is not your average student thesis film. The movie is complete with real Humvees and small arms, and on-location shoots at Los Angeles National Cemetery and Edwards Air Force Base, California. It even has an original score.
As a student, Martinez put up a lot of money to make the movie. He drew on crowdfunding, his scholarships, a few donors and, of course, his own cash on hand. In all, the film cost an estimated $40,000.
"But that's the average budget of a student thesis film at USC," he says.
Martinez says the film incorporates everything he learned as a film student. It is also the first student film in the history of the school to use motion-capture technology.
But the real strength is in the film's cast.
"Seeing the lead actors, who are themselves actual veterans, portray raw emotions was incredibly powerful," the young director says. "Each actor had a personal connection to their role and were drawing from their own experiences."
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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