Reaching vets with a message of hope
Perhaps you remember giggling at an educational film that featured a stentorian narrator's warning about the perils of, say, becoming unpopular in high school.
Melodramatic message movies of this sort seemed ludicrous to classroom viewers, even in the pre-ironic 1960s and '70s.
So imagine Richard T. Wilson's challenge in making educational films for the young, media-savvy, uber-skeptical audiences of 2014.
"I used to be one of the people giggling," says Wilson, 50, the married father of a daughter who attends Eastern High School in Voorhees. "You really have to dig deep to keep it real."
Wilson's Berlin Borough company, OutreachArts Inc., has made 35 short docudramas about issues such as bullying, suicide, and Internet safety. The latest, "He's Not the Same," tells of a young American combat veteran who is a compulsive gambler. Spoiler alert: After some tough scenes between the addict and his family from which he's stealing, the young man decides to seek help.
The 20-minute film was shot in Camden County this year and was commissioned by the New York Council on Problem Gambling. It will be shown on WGTE, a PBS station in Toledo, Ohio.
"The prospective audience is veterans themselves, and their loved ones who also are being negatively affected," Mariangela Milea, the council's assistant executive director, says from Albany, N.Y. "The film also has been picked up by a lot of treatment providers to show to clients."
The actors, four of whom are South Jerseyans, give strong performances. And Wilson's script rings true about the nature and consequences of addiction.
"What really excited me about this film from the get-go was the script," says actress Melissa Connell of Marlton. "It was well-written and believable, and wasn't trying to shove an agenda down your throat. It just shared this guy's journey."
I catch up with writer-director Wilson and two more of his collaborators at a Starbucks in Cherry Hill. Zach Ziegler, 27, is the film's star, and David Yeager, 47, contributed an essential perspective.
"I'm a U.S. Army veteran who struggled with gambling addiction," says Yeager, who self-published a book, Be Happy With Crappy, about gambling addiction and recovery. The Reading resident was treated at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Cleveland and credits the 12-step program of Gamblers Anonymous with helping maintain his recovery since June 18, 2007.
"I just pray this movie is seen by the right person at the right time," Yeager says.
Ziegler, who lives in Glenside, also is an Army veteran. While not a compulsive gambler, he knows the challenge of having to reenter the civilian world.
"This has been a year of drama and emotion in my life, so it was easy for me to put my emotions into the role," says Ziegler. When not acting, he's a singer-songwriter -- his tune called "Time Heals All?" is on the film's soundtrack -- as well as a Temple University history major.
"I wrote this [film] with Zach in mind," says Wilson, noting the intensity Ziegler brought to earlier OutreachArts productions.