Alumna Turns Her MFA Thesis Into an Indie Film

Posted: July 25, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: July 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm

By Jason Jacks

Mason alumna Jenna St. John. Photo courtesy of Jenna St. John

Jenna St. John, MFA Creative Writing ’08, is a dancer and actor. And now that she can add filmmaker to her bag of theatrical tricks, she’s a bona fide triple threat.

On Sunday, July 31, St. John will premiere her first full-length movie at the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Va., not far from her old Mason stomping grounds.

St. John wrote and coproduced the movie, called “Conquering the Rose,” and has a supporting part in this dark drama filmed in Northern Virginia and Maryland.

“It feels awesome, but also a little nerve-racking,” she says of the thought of seeing her work on the big screen for the first time. “I’ll probably be watching the audience more than the movie.”

The plot goes something like this: Drenching rains uproot the coffin of an aspiring dance student who took her own life. Dramatically reminded of her death, members of the small college town where the film is set grapple with the circumstances that led the student to suddenly commit suicide. Among the residents most affected by the student’s death is an art professor whose obsession with her leads to turmoil in his own life.

St. John, who plays the deceased girl in flashback scenes, says she originally had plans to write novels for a living, which is why she enrolled in Mason’s creative writing program. However, she says, she soon learned in school that she wasn’t the novelist she thought she was.

So, after graduation, she turned a novel she wrote for her MFA thesis into a screenplay and showed it to a few filmmakers in the area. They liked what they read, and after a few re-writes, the making of “Conquering the Rose” took off.

St. John, who has acted in several independent movies and teaches ballet at Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, D.C., says she had worked previously with many of the people who ended up working on her movie.

A scene from St. John's new movie, "Conquering the Rose." Photo courtesy of Jenna St. John

With the help of fellow Mason graduate PJ Megaw, BA Theater ’09,  (actor) and current Mason film and video studies major Ian Albetski (associate producer), the movie was shot in Alexandria, Va., and Arlington, Va., as well as in Baltimore and several other Maryland locations.

Some of the funds to make “Conquering the Rose” came from family, friends and through the online fund-raising site, (St. John wouldn’t divulge what it cost to produce.) However, the bulk of the financing is riding on St. John herself, as she took out “multiple” bank loans to help make the film a reality, she says.

“It was kind of a realization,” she explains, “that it was up to me to make my dreams come true, and I couldn’t rely on others to make it happen for me.”

As for the movie’s future, St. John says producers have begun submitting the film to festivals throughout North America, including Toronto, Sundance and the Ivy Film Festival at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

If the film is accepted by festival organizers and well received by audiences, a movie distributor will pick it up, she hopes, and release it in other theaters or on DVD.

Movie deals aside, though, she still must get through the premiere and the reviews that will invariably follow.

“It’s a little daunting to spend so much time on something and then let the critics see it,” she says. “But that’s part of being a filmmaker.”

Cinema Arts Theatre is located at 9650 Main St. in the City of Fairfax. The premiere on July 31 begins at 8 p.m. A Q-and-A with filmmakers will take place afterward. Tickets are $6 and may be purchased through the theater’s website.


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