First-year medical residents don’t exactly have time on their hands, but Sean Ackerman is particularly busy. When he isn’t practicing psychiatry at Fletcher Allen Health Care, the 34-year-old is overseeing the release of his indie feature film.
The Diary of Preston Plummer, written, produced and directed by Ackerman and starring Trevor Morgan, Rumer Willis and Robert Loggia, will play for a week at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas and nine other theaters around the country, starting this Friday, April 20. Shot on Amelia Island, Fla., in 2010, it premiered in March at the Miami International Film Festival.
The title character is a brilliant but troubled recent college graduate (Morgan) who keeps a “diary” to send to the mother he hasn’t seen in years. A chance encounter with a fellow student (Willis) leads Preston to a lush Florida island, where his new friend’s parents run an inn and her estranged grandfather (Loggia) hopes to preserve his land from development. A physics student, Preston is obsessed with entropy, or how things fall apart — and, soon enough, he will witness the process firsthand. The film is “really about how, for all of us, there’s light and there’s dark,” Ackerman says. “How do we decide what we’re going to actually see?”
While the story is relatively simple, the performances in Preston Plummer are moody and rich in nuance, and so is the setting. Ackerman used a Canon 1D digital camera for 90 percent of the film, he says, but occasionally switched to a Panavision 35-millimeter-film camera to emphasize “points where the character is starting to see the world in a different way.”
Ackerman graduated from New York University’s film school in 2001. But, working in the film industry, he says in a phone interview, “I felt like there was part of my brain that wasn’t being satisfied.” He began buying science books, then working with kids with autism.
The Chicago native ended up attending med school in Seattle, but he still thought about producing Preston Plummer, which he’d written at NYU. Back then, an LA studio had optioned the screenplay, but “they wanted to take it in a direction I was uncomfortable with, so I put it on the shelf,” Ackerman says. In those days, making the film he envisioned might have cost a prohibitive $2 million, he notes. Advances in digital film technology changed that, and, in 2010, Ackerman was able to take a year off from medicine and make Preston Plummer for just $125,000.
Not that it was easy. “It was a movie that I think people just wanted to make, and that we made sort of as a filmmaking family,” Ackerman says. “There was a lot of jerry-rigging of equipment and work-arounds and begging people for things.” Everyone in the crew of about 20 worked multiple jobs — even the stars. “Rumer made us dinner a few times,” says Ackerman. And her mom, Demi Moore, visited the set and brought the whole crew Southern-style fare.
To get known actors to work in an ultra-low-budget film, Ackerman says, “You have to find somebody that’s going to fall in love with the script.” Once stars come, sponsors follow.
Warner Brothers has purchased digital and On Demand rights to Preston Plummer, which will be available in those formats starting Friday. “Ninety-eight percent of viewers and profit comes from digital releases these days,” Ackerman points out. Theatrical distribution — the result of “just us calling theaters,” he says — is mainly a way to get indie films on the public’s radar.
What’s next for Ackerman, besides his residency in child psychiatry? Though he has another film project in mind — a violent thriller set in Montana — he’s “still emotionally traumatized from making this one,” he says with a chuckle. “I am so much happier in the hospital than I am on set. But it’s a compulsion. I really have a need to make movies, at least once in a while.”
It certainly beats golfing.
The Diary of Preston Plummer runs April 20-26 at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas in Burlington; see Movie Times. Catch a Q&A with Ackerman on Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, at the 7:15 p.m. screening.