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Cinematic Conversations: Kyle Blumenthal's 'Pray for Me' and Mental Health Explored

Updated: Jan 3

Writer-Director Kyle Blumenthal

Join us today as we chat with Writer-Director Kyle Blumenthal, delving into his recent release, 'Pray For Me.' Hailing from Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, this film has garnered acclaim at multiple film festivals.


Blumenthal breaks down the nitty-gritty of taking a script from concept to creation, offering insights into the film's underlying message.


Get ready to uncover the practical aspects of filmmaking and the deeper layers within 'Pray for Me.' Let's dive into the conversation about the art and process of bringing stories to the screen.


 

Lights, camera, action! Tell us about the inspiration behind your latest short film and how it connects to your personal journey as a filmmaker.


Pray for Me is about the mental health stigma in young adults, specifically men. The story follows isolated Harry (Kyle Blumenthal), who, after making the unhappy acquaintance of the critical skeleton, Jerry (P.J. Witkowski), rediscovers sensitivity and self-worth. 


The story's inspiration stems from my personal mental health struggles and the healing power of nature. As it is my first original film I feel incredibly fulfilled and grateful for the opportunity to tell this story.


In this dramatic short film, a lonely traveler pitches camp with a skeleton whose cause of death is unclear. Harry, tired of isolation, chats with the skeleton- until one day the skeleton talks back. As Harry tries to get answers, he only gets more questions as a nearby cave seems to come alive...


 

We're dying to know: what's the story behind the story? What sparked the idea for your film, and how did it evolve from a mere concept to a fully-fledged production?


CW: topic of suicide


Post-Covid, self-imposed isolation is at an all-time high. Our nation is experiencing a mental health epidemic and for some healing from our grief, traumas, and stressors feels impossible. The stigma of depression and suicide, specifically in men, remains an urgent issue in modern America. 

"Over 6 million men suffer from depression per year, but male depression often goes underdiagnosed" (adaa.org)

The deeper story behind Pray for Me is a young man's illusory fantasy to escape from society only to find a nightmare in isolation. Nightmares only perpetuate when you believe you can't wake up- which is why I made this film. It is easy to feel beyond the help of prayers or treatment and forget that mental health help is available and healing is achievable. 


This project is meant to suggest that talking about your feelings is the first- and usually the most difficult- stepping stone to healing. It urges those suffering in silence to seek help. Isolation inherently neglects basic human needs and leaning on others is, in fact, a deep sign of strength.


We need to maintain conversations about mental health and suicide awareness as it remains a troubling, urgent issue. 

“Suicide is a troubling public health issue that leaves a lasting impact on families and communities. Between 1999 and 2019, the suicide death rate increased 33%… [In 2020,] 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan and 1.2 million attempted suicide” (American Health Rankings)

 

Filmmaking can be an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. What were some of the most memorable and fun moments you experienced while bringing your short film to life?


The first time it felt real, like 'wow, we're really doing this thing!' was being awarded the June 2022 Awesome Grant from 3 Dots... Downtown in Happy Valley, PA. The Awesome Foundation awards $1,000 monthly to 'awesome' projects that contribute positively to their community.


This catalyzed getting our production on its feet: campsite fees, compensating our artistic collaborators fairly, equipment rentals, and more. The grant was the kindling that sparked the fires of Pray for Me!


Another small anecdote of roller-coaster energy I felt during production occurred the evening before our first day of production (the tent scenes). We picked up some gear at Appalachian Outdoors in downtown State College.


Kyle Blumenthal preforms his monologue during a take on set.
"It was an insignificant moment at the time, but as I can't help but smile as I reminisce of Pablo and I careening around the aisles of the store- pure 12 year old at Toys R Us energy. An incredible intersection of fulfillment and joy. It was one of those, 'I want to be involved filmmaking for the rest of my life' moments."
 

As they say, the devil's in the details. How did you go about crafting the unique visual style and atmosphere of your film? Any creative techniques or special ingredients you'd like to share?


We did a lot of work early on exploring color palettes and gradients (nature tones, reds to blues over the course of the film), crafting vision boards, and carefully selecting cinematic references that align with the essence of what we were trying to make. Some reference of ours include Into the Wild, Castaway, Swiss Army Man, and Fleabag.


Color Palette Inspiration.

Something magical clicks when you put a lot of work into streamlining a specific aesthetic atmosphere, implementing alternate forms of abstract tools (color palettes, vision boards, Spotify playlists, references, etc.) to not only hone in on the look and tone of your film, but to also then clearly communicate that to a team of others.


 

Behind every great film is a dedicated team. Could you introduce us to some of the brilliant minds and talents that helped bring your vision to the screen? Any fun anecdotes from the set?


Cinematographer Pablo Lopez on Set of 'Pray For Me'

Yeah! First off is Pablo, founder of Dark Mind Productions and the film's cinematographer. He made the movie's execution a reality. If you don't know Dark Mind Productions, they are a local State College production house dedicated to helping independent filmmakers create with production resources and experience. I was blown away with Pablo's direction of photography. He captured the stunning beauty of Central PA. To learn more visit their website.


PJ Witkowski

Next is PJ Witkowki, the voice of Jerry and former acting classmate of mine at Penn State. PJ brought Jerry to life so well that you eventually suspend disbelieve and forget you're looking at a skeleton. PJ understood the direction we wanted to go and knocked the role out of the park. 


Microbudget filmmaking, you know, we do what we can with what we have to pull the audience in. It required intricate teamwork to keep the conversations scenes with Jerry interesting and suspend the audience's disbelief.



 

Since we recorded PJ's lines before physical production, Actor and Penn State alum Ritul Katoch (Traveler) served as our script supervisor, reading Jerry's lines with me on set. To keep the acting choices consistent with what PJ did, the three of us worked meticulously to have a mutual understanding of the story, pacing, and acting choices.


Their talent and brilliant responsiveness to direction made the Jerry scenes feel as natural and realistic.

Ritul Katoch and Director Kyle Blumenthal go over notes.

Finally, sound is so important to any film- we are thrilled with our film's sound design and mastering from Garage Creative Studios in Brecksville, OH. They helped design and polish the sonic world of Pray for Me and they were essential in elevating the quality of our film.


 

Filmmaking often involves overcoming challenges and obstacles. Can you share a particularly hilarious or unexpected mishap that occurred during the production of your short film?


On our second day at the Hipcamp campsite, we had just wrapped on the rain scenes for dinner. As we waited for the rain to pass, teeth chattering from the rain, we huddled in Pablo's van to get dinner at a pub in a nearby town. It was not the finest establishment, but we were so relieved to be indoors and grateful for the warm food, that retrospectively those were arguably the best chicken nuggets I've had in my life.



The rain stopped by the end of our meal, thankfully. On our way back to set we passed a hardware store so I made a last second call to run in and pick up lighter fluid, worried about getting the fire going again. We get back to set, I remove our makeshift rain cover, and soak the wet firepit with fluid. Spark.


WOOSH!


It immediately roared back to life and kept strong for the rest of the night... and the lead almost lost his eyebrows. Phew. Stay safe out there pyro's- it's not worth your eyebrows.


 

Your film is a true labor of love, but we're curious: what keeps you motivated and passionate about storytelling in the ever-evolving world of filmmaking?


Films carry valuable lessons and the power to alter perspectives and save lives. We’re at a super interesting place globally where fiction remains the leading genre and our abstract literacy as a society is strong enough to put incredibly unique and powerful stories in the American big picture box office. Stories that are reminders of our humanity and conversations starters inspire people to create kinder and more accepting realities.


Happy Valley from Mount Nittany

With this film I'm excited to give back to the thriving world of the arts in Centre County, PA. The Blumenthal family has been making art in Happy Valley for three generations, including my late grandmother Dee Blumenthal. Dee Blumenthal was the driving force behind the creation of Penn State's Art Fest and also battled personally with mental health. I am honored to continue her legacy of creating art in the State College community. 


Despite being raised around Philadelphia, my family and community in State College is one of the reasons it's always felt like home. 


 

With your latest short film under your belt, what exciting projects or future endeavors do you have in store for us? Any genres or themes you're eager to explore next?


I've been super inspired in environmental activism stories lately. As an avid hiker and outdoorsperson I cherish the natural spaces remaining on Earth and hope stories about them will help in conserving them for as long as possible. 


Director Kyle Blumenthal prepares his prop for his scene.

This year I would love to publish my new play that takes place in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch about environmental waste, immigration, and classism. It would be incredible to see this play fully produced. Working on some TV shows and feature films as well. Also, always hoping for exciting acting opportunities out here in LA!


 

We all have our cinematic influences. Which directors, films, or movements have inspired your artistic journey and influenced your approach to storytelling?


Stories for social change have always been key to my storytelling. The start of this journey was working with Tectonic Theater Project (The Laramie Project) at Penn State on #HERETOO, a devised performance about gun violence. Their ideas of Moment Work influenced the way I approached stories containing intense subject matter. 


As this is my first written film to be produced, I want to include some of my favorite writers: Bess Wohl, Brendan Brandon Jacobs, Simon Stephens, and Donald Glover. 


 

Lastly, what message or emotion do you hope your audience takes away from experiencing your short film? Is there a particular reaction or impact you're aiming for?


Hope perishes when the little miracles are taken for granted. There will always be more good things. Everybody matters to somebody. 


I am so grateful, fulfilled, and affirmed by our final product and hope that it gives at least one person enough light to keep on keeping on.


"Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here on this Earth today. We need you."


Behind the scenes photos captured by Jonathan Hsieh of Motion Lighthouse Photography.

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