Barrett Dennison once thought a graduate degree in film would be his golden ticket to becoming a producer.
“I wanted to be the boss who wears the suit and gets to throw the money around,” Dennison said in a Kentucky drawl.
This soon fell to the wayside as Dennison, 25, sharpened his writing, directing and editing skills while earning his Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Miami.
Professor Thomas Musca, who teaches courses on screenwriting at UM, discovered that Barrett not only had the “DNA” of a producer, but also a skill for screenwriting.
“As I taught him in different classes, I noticed now his writing skill set has taken an enormous leap, I thought, between his first and second year,” Musca said. He has produced, written and directed major films such as “Stand and Deliver.”
Dennison is in his third and final year of the program. Before he graduates in May, he plans to screen his thesis project titled “The Black Card” at the Canes Film Festival taking place May 1-3. He wrote and directed this lighthearted comedy about race relations in Miami.
The short film tells the story of Charles, a “tragically white guy” who cannot communicate with African Americans. He earns a job in an “urban” shoe store and decides to apply for a black card, a physical object that would allow him to interact with African Americans.
Dennison worked on the project with a multicultural production team that included people from various ethnic backgrounds such as African American, Colombian, Chinese and Egyptian. “We tried to hit as much of the racial commentary as we could,” Dennison said.
Luis Galvis, who is originally from Santander, Colombia, was the film’s producer. He did not question his faith in Dennison’s story after a diverse focus group read the script.
“Everyone was laughing and giving notes,” Galvis said. “You always have second doubts, but with the reading table, it’s great.”
Musca says writing about race is difficult because “a lot of people immediately take offense.”
“Let’s hope people find it funny,” he added.
Dennison took this into account, penning more than 20 drafts for a 10-page script. He says the film explores ideas that are funny to all cultures, such as what it means when people say, “Gosh, you are so white,” or “What does it mean to be African American?”
“You want to push the boundaries, but you don’t want to overstep the boundaries,” Dennison added.
This is not the first time Galvis and Dennison have collaborated with one another.
Before Dennison moved to Miami from Glasgow, Kentucky, he had never met a Colombian. Now, Galvis is one of his best friends.
“I see him every day. We work together until we yell at each other,” Dennison said.
Dennison and Galvis, along with fellow graduate students Chantale Glover and Nick Katzenbach, were recognized for their documentary “Romana,” which was screened at the Miami International Film Festival and won best documentary at the Cinemaslam student competition.
“Romana” tells the story of Romana, an Ecuadorian woman who wants to offer her daughters the education she could never afford to have. Dennison and Galvis’ team filmed on site in Ecuador during MFA’s program annual trip offered to second-year students.
Dennison never expected to enjoy documentary filmmaking, since he came from a broadcast journalism background.
“You can be very creative while sticking to a good story,” he said.
Dennison is originally from Glasgow, Kentucky, a small town located between Nashville and Louisville. He joked that he grew up on a culture known for bourbon and horse racing.
Dennison can be considered an oddball in his family. Both of his parents are physicians and his brother and sister pursued more traditional careers, such as accounting and pre-dentistry, respectively.
“They [Dennison’s parents] have always been really supportive,” he said. “They just really want me to have health insurance.”
He has been making films since high school. These were mostly short comedies such as a “Real World” parody starring Dennison’s and his friends’ dogs, or a feature on someone’s obsession with their Pontiac Firebird.
Dennison then enrolled at Western Kentucky University where he majored in broadcast journalism and took film classes. He soon realized he preferred the creative side of film when he interned for a Louisville-based production company that made commercials about bourbon and horse racing.
Dennison decided that film school was the next step. He says he felt more comfortable with the technology used in filmmaking than the creative process.
“I didn’t really how to write. I didn’t really know how to craft a story. What producing actually meant,” he said. “So that’s what led me here.”
He also hopes the MFA degree will provide him more security in between gigs as a freelance filmmaker.
“I would like to go work hard for a long time and see what I can do and then hopefully I’ll know enough to be able to explain it some people younger than me,” he said.
Dennison’s adviser at Western Kentucky recommended he apply to Miami. He drew from his own experience to write “Black Card,” too. He recalls having a hard time navigating Miami.
“For my first year and a half here, I really did not feel comfortable in Miami,” he said. “I didn’t understand how it worked. I didn’t really understand the culture, the people.”
After graduation, Dennison plans to spend part of the summer in Los Angeles to help shoot a horror comedy. His next stop will be in Atlanta where he expects to work in the long run so he can be close to home.
“Atlanta’s kind of the LA of the South,” he said. “I’ve been this far away from home that I kind of wanted to start making my way back and be closer to my parents as they get older, and as my brother and sister start getting settled and having kids.”
His passion project would be to tell a Kentucky-based story about a family that owns a small craft bourbon business.
“I think it’s a very unique place that’s rarely seen in TV and film,” he said.
For more information on the Canes Film Festival, visit canesfilmfestival.com.