A-List: Cedar Rapids sci-fi play is reborn on film

Ben Whitehair and Angela Billman — still from ‘Amelia 2.0’

World Premiere: ‘Amelia 2.0’

Collins Road Theatre — Friday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m.

Cedar Rapids writer Rob Merritt has seen his play, The Summerland Project, premiered as part of the Underground Festival in the intimate Grandon Studio at Theatre Cedar Rapids, produced on TCR’s mainstage and staged by the Olathe Civic Theatre Association just outside Kansas City, Kansas. This month, he’ll see the film adaptation, Amelia 2.0, on the big screen.

Merritt crafted a compelling story of a woman whose consciousness is moved into a new body while those around her — including her husband — grapple with the philosophical, moral and practical conundrums of her transformation. The playwright became a screenwriter for a time, but eventually found himself less involved in the project.

“In the early days, I was heavily involved,” he said. “After opening weekend of The Summerland Project at Theatre Cedar Rapids in 2013, producer Mary Meisterling invited me to coffee to talk about making a film version. I had worked with Adam Orton on a film previously, and so I recommended him to Mary as director. From there, we worked to recruit more people and get some momentum going for the film. We even shot a movie trailer and one full scene, with Angela [Billman] playing Amelia and me playing Carter. Those two clips made the rounds for a solid year as we worked to get investment for the film. And once we had a green light, I spent another six months adapting the stage play into a screenplay. Which was kind of fun and exciting, because I was able to create a lot of scenes that hadn’t been possible to do on stage.

“But to be honest, once I delivered the screenplay, my involvement was pretty minimal from there. I make a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in one scene, but other than that, I wasn’t ever on set, I wasn’t on the production team and there were a lot of rewrites that other people made to the script once they started shooting.”

While Merritt’s day-to-day interaction with the project may have waned, the actress who played Amelia Summerland in the 2013 production of the play was reprising her role in the film. But she wasn’t just handed the part.

“I was cast in the movie after a rigorous audition process with the director of the film, Adam Orton,” Billman said. “Because I had played the role in the most recent stage production, I was asked to read … for the part of Amelia. I did several reads with Adam before we shot what they call a screen test. The screen test gives the creative team the opportunity to see you on film and get a feel for how you respond to direction.

“After that, I worked with an acting and movement coach to determine if I was able to meet the physical needs of the role. Once that was completed, I was offered the part and began working with Adam on conceptualizing the character and bringing her to life in a new medium.”

Because Amelia is sometimes fully human and sometimes a blend of her humanness with technology, Billman had to train herself to play the character at various stages in her journey.

“I spent nearly four hours a day for three months working independently on perfecting Amelia’s nuances,” she said. “I filmed myself doing all sorts of ridiculous things from walking like a robot to re-teaching myself how to sit and stand in a mechanical way. Watching back, I could refine the movement to suit our concept of who Amelia was. Let’s just say it took a lot of trial and error!”

Both Merritt and Billman believe the project was good for Cedar Rapids — and Cedar Rapids was good for the project.

Merritt remembers the excitement around movie-making in Iowa before a film tax credit program was ended amid scandal in 2009.

“[W]hen The Summerland Project/Amelia 2.0 was filming here, it felt a little bit like that again,” Merritt said. “Investors who believed in the original play lined up to support this movie. Hy-Vee did catering. Ed Begley Jr. [who plays the character of Paul Wesley in the film] was popping up at Theatre Cedar Rapids events. People volunteered as extras for crowd scenes. The mayor proclaimed ‘Summerland Project Day’ during filming. Local actors and crew got to prove, once again, that they can get things done. It was good to see that we could make that happen here again, even without the tax credit.”

For her part, Billman was proud of everyone involved in the project, especially those with a local connection.

“Everyone came to work ready to give the film every bit of their time, attention, talent and heart. I have never been so inspired. I was also moved by our amazing community. The entire film was shot in Cedar Rapids — how cool is that? People came out of the woodwork to share their talent and expertise. You will see many familiar faces in the film and, remember, there are just as many behind the scenes making it all look good! This experience made me love my city even more. Anything can happen here with the support of the community.”

Rob Cline is an arts professional, writer and freelancer who covers the Cedar Rapids arts and culture scene for Little Village. He is reasonably certain his brain is not in a vat. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 225.

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