Film based on YSU prof’s novel vies for a top prize at Sundance ‘JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD’


Carter Smith came across “One for Sorrow” by chance.

“I saw it in a bookstore while browsing randomly, and I bought it and read it,” said the movie director.

“What stayed with me is Adam, Jamie and Gracie, the three main characters. Six months later, I was still thinking about the scenes between them.”

Smith is referring to the 2007 novel written by Christopher Barzak, a writing professor at Youngstown State University.

He could see the story in his mind, and knew it would be his next movie.

“I thought, ‘This is a story that is powerful, touching,’” said Smith in a phone interview. “It affected me and stayed with me. It’s a truthful and tender telling of a ghost story and a coming-of-age story.”

The Maine native rewrote the story as a screenplay and shot the film early this year in Monticello, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley.

Last month, the film — which Smith named “Jamie Marks Is Dead” — was accepted into the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it will get its world premiere.

Even more impressive, it is one of 16 feature films named finalists in the U.S. Dramatic category.

Sundance will take place from Jan. 16-26 in Park City, Utah. The influential festival is the top global launch pad for independent films.

The young protagonists of the story was a powerful lure for Smith.

“I’m always attracted to material because of the characters,” he said. “There is something special in the ones [Barzak] created. They are outsiders but there is something in them that everyone can relate to. It’s about what it’s like to not fit into the strict boxes that exist for high school teens.

“The majority of people can see a little of the outsider in themselves. I think people can connect to the story, even if they didn’t have a high school experience like Jamie or Adam.”

The film is a faithful, albeit condensed, adaptation of Barzak’s book.

Set in Youngstown and rural Trumbull County, it follows a troubled teen as he seeks acceptance and friendship in a strange existence between life and death. He roams through the buildings and byways in the YSU area.

The cast includes Cameron Monaghan as Adam, the main character; Noah Silver as Jamie Marks; and Morgan Saylor as Gracie; plus Judy Greer, Madisen Beaty and Liv Tyler, who is the biggest name in the cast.

Although Smith shot the film in upstate New York, all place names from Barzak’s book have been left intact.

“While the novel is specifically saying Youngstown, the story works on a number of levels, and it could be in any number of post-industrial towns,” said Smith.

Smith has never been to Youngstown but knows well the type of city, its people, its depressed economy and its gray look. The part of Maine where he grew up, he said, had a similar feeling.

“Small-town life in winter can be pretty bleak,” said Smith. “I’m also a photographer and I tend to see things [in my mind] when I’m reading about them. The color palette and textures and mud and snow and dead grass [of “One for Sorrow”) ... all of this stuff is palpable.”

During shooting, Mother Nature cooperated by providing the daily dose of the winter gloom that permeates Barzak’s novel.

“It was overcast,” said Smith. “Every time we stepped outside during filmmaking, it would snow. There was a wonderful consistency of falling snow ... great luck of shooting at the right time that adds to the image on the screen. It’s not a summer movie, and it was putting knots in my stomach fearing that we would have to [extend shooting] into the summer, but we didn’t have to.”

Smith will be heading to Utah soon for Sundance, but he’s no stranger to the festival. He won the jury prize in 2006 for his short film “Bugcrush.”

His most famous film is “The Ruins,” a 2008 sci-fi thriller released by Dreamworks.

Smith said he’s excited to return to Sundance with a product as personal as “Jamie Marks.”

Barzak will also fly to Utah to see the premiere of the film, which will be screened at least five times during the festival, with the first at 8:30 p.m. Jan. 19. He admits to being floored upon learning that it is vying for a top prize at Sundance.

“I am shocked in the best way and excited and shaken, although the nerves haven’t set in yet,” said Barzak. “I’m excited that people are now going to see it. I hope a wider audience likes it as well as I did. [Smith] brought great sensibilities to it, in terms of imagery and the essence of the characters.”

The Sundance premiere will be the first time Barzak will see the finished product. He saw a rough cut of the film in September before the director tweaked it.

After Sundance, the next step for “Jamie Marks is Dead” would be to secure a distribution deal that would put the film in theaters. Both Barzak and Smith said they would be working to bring screenings to Youngstown if its theatrical run doesn’t bring it here.

Barzak, meanwhile, has already sold his next novel to publisher Knopf Inc. Titled “Wonders of the Invisible World,” it is slated for a 2015 release.

Like “One for Sorrow,” the new novel is also set in Youngstown.

“It’s the story of a family in which there is a boy who is under a curse that he is trying to unravel,” said Barzak.

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