Driving back home to Los Angeles from the east coast three years ago, filmmaker and BMCC graduate Ester Brym and her producer, Tom Duty, decided to steer clear of interstates and take a less traveled route: old Route 66. Their off-the-grid odyssey yielded some surprising insights—and became the basis of an award-winning film.
Built in the 1920s as one of the country’s first highways, Route 66 in time became a cultural icon, made popular in novels, movies, songs, and a long-running TV series. Growing up in Prague, Czech Republic, Brym was always fascinated with Route 66. “To Europeans, this is what America was all about,” says.
Learning her craft
Brym emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1990s and got an early exposure to the basics of video editing at BMCC. After graduating in 2000, she went on to earn an undergraduate degree and then spent five years interning with documentarians and cinematographers, learning as much as she could about the craft of filmmaking. In 2007 she moved to Los Angeles where she made her first film—“Butterflies,” a documentary about YouTube celebrities. She set out on Route 66 the following year.
Ester, Tom and her dog Rocco started out from Chicago. Tom drove, while Ester filmed, using a simple, handheld “flip” camera. “The idea wasn’t to plan out a rigid shooting schedule or set up formal interviews, but just to see what would happen wherever the road took us,” she says.
There were many unexpected detours. “Route 66 isn’t on any maps, nor is it always marked clearly,” Ester says. No longer a highway in any conventional sense, the road is well-maintained and treated like a museum in some states, neglected and ghostlike in others.
Over the course of two weeks, Ester, Tom and Rocco stopped often in towns along the way, chatting with the people they met and exploring the hidden and forgotten byways of middle America, “Route 66 is more than just a road,” she says. “It’s a community.”
Transforming footage into film
Back in Los Angeles, Ester faced the daunting task of shaping and pruning two weeks of footage into a feature-length film. “Before I started editing, I was surprised at the power of the story that the footage told,” she recalls.
To be sure, “Autumn of Route 66” is hardly the first film about it’s subject. But what sets it apart is a unique and beguiling spin—the narration was written from Rocco’s point of view. “In a sense, Rocco is the story teller,” Ester says “Casting him in that role also helped to make the movie child-friendly.”
“Autumn of Route 66” had its premiere this past August at the Action on Film International Festival in Monrovia, CA—half an out hour outside Los Angeles and close to Route 66. More than 300 films from across the U.S. and around the world were screened at the festival; “Autumn” placed second for Best Film and received First Prize in the “Female Filmmaker” category.
“The response at the festival was incredible,” Ester says. She is quick to note that none of this—the trip, the film, the critical acclaim, her career—would have happened had she not attended BMCC.
Casting BMCC in a starring role
“Around the time I started here, the Media Arts and Technology department had just acquired 10 new film editing stations,” she recalls. “I was given free rein to use them as much as I wanted—and also the privilege of learning the craft from teachers who were incredibly helpful and generous with their time and knowledge.” She takes issue with those who suggest that the only place to train for a career in filmmaking is at a name-brand school like NYU or Columbia.
“Had I gone to a bigger school, I wouldn’t have had the learning opportunities—or the personal guidance and mentoring—I was given at BMCC,” she says.
With Route 66’s 2,448 miles behind her, Ester is contemplating the next phase of her journey. “I know that I love making documentary films and want to keep doing it,” she says. “I love to bring stories to people.”