Chris Studenka does not hold back when it comes to his latest film’s director, Justin Rose. He is effusive in his praise.
“He's brilliant,” Studenka said, invoking a word he uses liberally when talking about Rose. “I've been on $20 million films and big-budget films and big-budget commercials. I've worked with a lot of directors. He has something special. And I saw that right away from the very first project, and I was like, ‘Wow, if I can work with this guy, we can maybe make something.’”
It is almost as if Studenka were speaking about Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. But he’s not. He’s speaking about a 30-year-old from Gilbert with a day job who made his latest film, and first venture into a feature-length movie, on a $500 budget.
Studenka, who lives in Scottsdale, has now worked with Rose three times, first on two short films and now on that feature-length one, “Run Rabbit.” He pumps up his friend because he is loquacious while Rose is quieter.
But it is not false praise. Rose’s projects have not been released in theaters but frequently been chosen for showings at film festivals. Run Rabbit has earned nine awards along with 15 other nominations at those festivals. It has earned those at festivals both foreign and domestic, with Best Feature Film wins from Los Angeles to Prague.
It also was chosen as the closing film at director Kevin Smith’s inaugural SModcastle Film Festival last December in his hometown of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. There, Rose and his filmmaking partners, Studenka and actor Greg Wave, got a distribution deal for next year.
Run Rabbit’s next scheduled showing is closer to home at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival with a prime spot: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, at the Liberty Theatre in Jerome. The festival, which Studenka said has been voted one of the “25 coolest” film festivals in the world, runs Sept. 7-10.
It is that sort of success that means more to the pair than making big blockbuster hits.
“We don't care about the fame,” Studenka said. “We don't care about the glory. We love making movies — and thoughtful films.”
Growing up in Gilbert
Rose moved from California to Gilbert as a child, and though he was surrounded by the filmmaking industry in the Los Angeles area, it was in Gilbert where the love of film was cultivated.
“When I first moved out here as a kid, there was a Blockbuster (Video) around Gilbert and Guad(alupe), and we came out here, just me and my parents, and my mom worked overnight,” Rose said. “And so me and my dad would pull across the street to the Blockbuster movies out every weekend. … So that's where pretty much it all started was Blockbuster on Friday and Saturday nights with my dad.”
At first, they watched a lot of science fiction. But as he got older, Rose opted more for drama from directors like Tarantino or Stanley Kubrick.
Rose was not a theater kid at Gilbert High School, more of an admittedly bored student. To overcome that, he wrote.
“I was always constantly writing,” he said. “It was pretty much an obsession. Even in class, I was always writing. I'm not a school person. School bores me. And so to get through it, I was just constantly writing.”
He liked to write short stories as a child, but as he grew older, he started writing and sketching scenes.
“It wasn't really until after high school, I was like, ‘I really want to get more involved in this,’” Rose said. “So I started actually watching more in-depth films, more drama, more of those Kubrick and Tarantino, those kinds of films. And so eventually I just started using that as a study guide. So when I finally got to college, I started, I began really kind of writing out the scripts.”
Rose mostly studied film on his own as he did not stay in college long.
“As I grew older, and I progressed, I definitely began to hone my craft and really just got to a point where I could actually manage to fine tune it,” he said. “And I’m fortunate enough now I have people I could do script reads with. I could point to certain errors here and there and then build on those. But yeah, overall, I was always, always, always writing.”
Eventually, he wanted to do his own thing. That’s when he met Studenka, whom he cast as the male in a two-person, dialogue-heavy short film, “Red Velvet Evening.” They immediately connected. The 20-minute film from 2019 was shown at many festivals and picked up several awards.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, putting a stop to the world in 2020. Studenka prevailed upon Rose to make his next project a film Studenka had written, a “quasi-autobiographical” piece called “Father’s Day,” which they released in 2021. It too was a big award-winner on the festival circuit.
“He (Rose) didn't want to make ‘Father's Day,’ my film, at first,” Studenka said. “And then when he agreed to do it, I said, ‘Listen, Justin, if you do it’ — because it's really just a narrative drama — I said, ‘If you can make ‘Father's Day,’ it'll just prove that you can make anything.’ And ‘Father’s Day’ played everywhere.”
Studenka credits much of its success to Rose.
“It's the filming,” Studenka said. ‘I mean, we wrote it, but the way he shot it, the way it flows, we've had so many people get affected by it, which is the idea of a short film. It should have an impact of some nature.”
“Father’s Day” introduced Rose to more of Studenka’s acting friends and began to have the duo think bigger.
“We were naive, brash enough to think we could make a feature film,” Studenka said. “It's a whole different quality, but the script was brilliant.”
They brought in a third person, Greg Wave, who had worked with Studenka on a couple of failed TV pilots. Rose met Wave during the “Father’s Day” run and wrote a part for him in the movie. The trio began to plan the making of “Rabbit Run.”
The film is really a triumph of economy. Rose wrote the script, did the cinematography and directed. Studenka and Wave, when not involved in a scene, did some of the grunt work normally done by a crew, like moving lights.
Actor friends who knew of Rose’s quality work agreed to be part of the cast for free, some even coming in from Los Angeles on their own dime. Scenes not shot in the desert near Gilbert were shot at other friends’ homes or offices. They also shot at Sunset Point and in churches in Flagstaff and Tucson.
Rose, who works professionally doing photography and videography, and Studenka, who works in higher education, did the shooting around their day jobs, which meant when they did shoot, no time was wasted fiddling with equipment or lighting.
The project took about more than a year from pre-production to post-production. In the end, the cast often told them that the film called for things that they did not think the filmmakers could pull off, but they were impressed that Rose somehow did it.
Rose describes the film as a dialogue-driven, cat-and-mouse drama where a vigilante chases criminals to punish them for their crimes against children while an undercover cop chases the vigilante.
Like a Tarantino film, Rose wrote it with five chapters.
“It's just opening up different surprise moments,” he said. “And so you're just following the characters as they're intermingling with one another and unraveling this whole conspiracy. … It was mostly getting into the mindset of these characters and what pushes them, pushes them through their limits, almost taking the audience through that journey of unraveling this whole crime.”
Studenka praises the script for the way the different chapters come together in the end.
“As you see it in the chapters, you think it's completely different,” he said. “Then you'll see how they all intersect in the end. That's the brilliance of this writer — and with a lot of twists and turns.”
Studenka said the ending leaves audiences cheering but oddly wondering if they should be.
After Jerome, the pair are thinking about their next project. A script is ready to go into pre-production.
“We're really proud of what we were able to do, and that's awesome,” Studenka said. “I think Justin really should be showcased. He's right here in Gilbert — and nobody knows.”
Tom Blodgett can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @sp_blodgett on X. We would like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.