Filmmaker Robert Keith Kelly said he felt intimidated when he attended the London International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema in February, where his film “The System” was an award finalist.
“I was kind of thinking, maybe I’m out of my league,” he said after seeing the other filmmakers.
More than 150 films from 70 countries around the globe were selected for the festival. Kelly’s film took home the jury selection award.
Kelly, who lives near Pendergrass, shot some scenes in Rome High School in Floyd County. But the final scene featuring characters watching a television newscast detailing events of the movie was filmed at Moonie’s Texas BBQ in Flowery Branch.
Kelly described his satirical film of modern education as a relevant and clever comedy that takes on the media, politics, zombies and the school board. The film chronicles celebrity journalist Ed Moore for a week as he works on a story at a local high school. Moore discovers illegal activities and is tempted to trade his integrity for money. He recruits savvy students as mentors for moral direction and is transformed through the eyes of the next generation to become an agent of change and to battle bureaucracy.
Rusty Smith, who plays Principal Rich Profane, accompanied Kelly to the film festival in London.
“I believe this film sheds a much-needed spotlight on what happens when money and politics merge,” he said. “Even at the sacrifice of our students’ education.”
While Kelly’s film focused on the American school system, he said it’s relatable to anyone.
“I think everybody has a system they don’t like, everybody is under the system,” he said. “This is talking about the school system, but it’s kind of the metaphor for all school systems.”
Kelly spent 26 years in education, teaching mainly in Gwinnett County. He said he tried to make teachers look good on screen since typically teachers are made to look unfashionable and not very smart.
“I wanted to enhance the image of the teaching profession,” Kelly said. “I sort of wrote it for teachers, and a lot of the humor is inside humor. Teachers get the joke and the general public doesn’t.”
Some of the insider humor will be removed from the final version of the film to shorten it by 12 minutes.
The film is available to rent, stream or download on Vimeo at vimeo.com/ondemand/thesystem. But Kelly hopes to have “The System” available on iTunes.
“If I could use one word (to describe the film), it would be change,” Kelly said. “How some people adapt and embrace it and some people don’t. If you really think about it, it’s kind of what’s going on in society. The whole world is changing and a lot of people can’t adjust or won’t adjust.”
Kelly was grateful for a cast and crew who helped make the production what it is.
“I was lucky I had really good acting, didn’t do casting, just started shooting,” he said.
Smith was pleased to participate in the film and play a character, who is a self-serving individual with little concern for the well-being of the students or faculty.
“I’ve had the opportunity to play many different types of characters in film and on stage, but I must confess, playing a bad guy is kind of fun,” he said.
The 55-year-old Dahlonega man said working with Kelly was a pleasure.
“There was a lot of talent brought in to make this happen,” Smith said. ”Putting together a feature film is not an endeavor for the weak, especially with such a large cast.”
A surprise on set was Luke Donaldson, a child actor who has appeared on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
When Kelly heard Donaldson, who played Luke in season 4 of “The Walking Dead,” was available for the film, he wrote a scene specifically for him.
Donaldson appeared on “The Walking Dead” for four episodes before being killed. Kelly said “The Walking Dead” cast never found Donaldson’s character’s body, only a bloody shoe.
In “The System,” Donaldson appears in a graveyard, relays information to the main characters and then disappears.
“It infers he’s a ghost,” Kelly said. “When he walks off, his left shoe is missing, so ‘The Walking Dead’ people, they’ll get that.”
Kelly began writing “The System” in fall 2015. It took him about three months to complete it. He said his inspirations were the movie “Office Space,” the animated television show “The Simpsons” and the TV sitcom “Seinfeld.”
“They say write what you know, and I knew a lot about the school system,” he said. “I thought I could do a story about the school system and not have to spend a lot of money.”
Plus, Kelly said being a filmmaker is similar to being a teacher.
“Teachers have lesson plans and they try to communicate this big message every day,” he said. “Really a movie was a long, expensive lesson plan. I think I was more prepared than a lot of people (who make films).”
Just like teaching, sometimes those plans change on the fly. The movie’s ending changed after the script was written.
“Things come up and you need to be able to adapt on the fly,” Kelly said. “Teaching kind of provided the background for that.”