Indian Springs: The Movie


The most effective way to flood the ISS front office with new admissions applications, from all over the U.S. and beyond, and to continue doing so for several decades into the future with no further effort or expenditure by ISS, is to utilize the American mass media.

Specifically, we need to produce a blockbuster motion picture, which depicts Indian Springs School as the setting for a story that's dramatic and appealing about teenagers -- something that would be booked into commercial movie theaters in every city and that (hopefully) might be nominated for an Academy Award. I am thinking of past films (like 'Dead Poets Society' or 'Fame' or 'Stand And Deliver') that deal with serious issues of educational philosophy and teaching methods, but in the context of a dramatic story about profound life-and-death issues of personal identity, authority, tradition, rivalry, idealism, and the peer-pressures, temptations, and moral dilemmas which teenagers face.

It is my conjecture that the 'raw material' for a compelling movie script is already out there aplenty, in the lived experiences of Indian Springs graduates, faculty members, and even some current students; but that this dramatic material presently exists only in people's memories or diaries, and would thus need somehow to be coaxed forth, written down, edited, rearranged, and turned into some kind of coherent artistic and fictionalized adventure-story for the big cinema screen.

Producing a movie for commercial release is obviously an endeavor of enormous magnitude, and amateurs would be well-advised to look to persons who have contacts and experience in the Hollywood film industry for advice and guidance. If we think long and hard, maybe we can identify such an individual from among those whom ISS has directly touched and who would be able to understand the school's unique founding vision from having been a direct participant, and who could therefore explain persuasively to potential investors just exactly what it is that ISS has to offer to the nation by way of a fresh vision for educating future citizens and leaders.

Once a movie about Indian Springs has been made, it can be shown and reshown for many years without added cost or effort -- that's what I mean by a "low maintenance" recruitment strategy. And by "high impact" I am obviously referring to the power of mass media to reach audiences everywhere, to "show" rather than just "tell," to stir the emotions of young people and to excite the enthusiasm of parents and potential school benefactors.

Setting out to make a movie on the ISS campus could be done in a way that has an immense educational impact upon current students, even if all they did was just watch the process in a passive way; but it would be much better if they were to become involved, as movie "extras" or bit players, as technical helpers, as content advisors, as "scouts" for outdoor locations, or as "focus groups" for early film rushes. By word-of-mouth they could stir up great interest among residents in Mountain Brook, Birmingham, or beyond, which would then trigger media coverage of this project locally, and probably nationally -- it would be a story of intense human interest that high school students at a small school in Alabama were helping make a Hollywood movie as a school-project! That kind of publicity would build an advance audience for the film, it would no doubt spark TV talk-show invitations and trigger many more inquiries about the school than Mr. Ellis could ever hope to cope with by himself. College admissions committees would be charmed and fascinated by the prospect of enrolling a graduate of this unique school. Careers could be launched, etc., etc.

After the Alumni Town Meeting in December, as some people were standing around talking informally, obviously not eager to rush away, it was mentioned by a faculty member that the location of ISS in Alabama poses a problem in trying to recruit students from other parts of the U.S., and that this is due to some 'hillbilly' stereotypes, and George Wallace recollections, that people from other regions have absorbed without ever having actually visited Alabama. Where do such impressions about Southerners come from? Well, obviously, they come from the mass media. Newspapers, TV, movies, magazines, novels -- these have created a combination of myth and legend in the minds of people from New York or Colorado or California that is adverse to Alabama and to anything that is linked with Alabama. So what force exists that could conceivably CHANGE these widespread perceptions, and replace them with images that are favorable ones? I think the answer is apparent.

Would Hollywood ever be likely to become interested in making a film that portrays Birmingham in an attractive and positive way? My Ninth-Grade ISS classmate, author Charles Gaines, already has answered this question: his novel 'Stay Hungry' was indeed filmed in Birmingham, using several of the Magic City's more colorful real-life characters in various supporting roles, and using local students from Birmingham-Southern College (including my brother) as movie "extras", making Mountain Brook look utterly charming, and launching the film career of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the process. So, yes, it is not far-fetched to imagine that a film could be made in Birmingham about unique things happening there.

About a dozen years ago I helped finance a movie about some tragic events of historical signifance here in San Francisco. It dealt with the assassination of two city officials by an ex-policeman, who was himself an elected official and a "good Catholic." Look for my name among the film-credits for "The Times of Harvey Milk" which did receive an Academy Award in the year it was released.

Can a movie change people's minds? A movie can.

Now, just for fun, I have been thinking about some of the great little moments in Indian Springs history that might be turned into scenes in a movie, and I have been thinking about who among the well known Hollywood stars might be suitably cast in key roles for a story about ISS. I will mention a few of my thoughts, in hopes of stimulating additional suggestions from those of you whose acquaintance with the School is more recent than mine.

Ben Russell, the first Commissioner of Development, leading the school's students and faculty through piney woods to the site of the new power-line right-of-way, which they would together try and clear-cut as an ambitious school D-Day project.

Jerry Lanning, at a Town Meeting in 1958, presenting his formal 'indictment' of the ISS faculty for having violated the School Constitution by changing school rules over the summer without first consulting students.

Charles Robinson, leading the first ISS basketball team to its ninth consecutive win, and later into tournament competition.

David Huggin buying a washing machine, so he could set up business in the dorm circle providing laundry services to those ISS boarding students whose moms were tired of ironing blue jeans every weekend.

Tim Brumlick driving onto campus in his own brand new automobile that he purchased with profits the from shrewd stock-investments he made while still just a high school student at ISS.

Neely Bruce, stunning an audience of Birmingham's musical elite by substituting a daring new composition of his own for the one that had been announced on the official recital program.

Lara Hoggard conducting the joint Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and ISS Glee Club at the old Temple Theater, totally upstaging the regular conductor, Arthur Bennet Lipkin, who was left fuming and sputtering with jealousy as his own musicians expressed their ecstatic preference for being led by a "real" conductor from ISS.

Doctor Armstrong standing up to Bull Conner in the early '60s, when the city's racist Police Chief attempted to bully the ISS Board into overturning an invitation that Mr. Warren had extended for one of Birmingham's prominent Negro spokesmen to come to the ISS campus and speak to a 10th-Grade Basic Studies class.

Birmingham Juvenile Court Judge Tuttle, addressing ISS students at an evening Town Meeting in the old gym, explaining to them what usually happens eventually to teenagers who decide to embark on a spree of petty crimes, like stealing 45rpm phonograph records from downtown stores.

An anonymous team of stealthy student pranksters, who successfully sneaked past Jack, the nightwatchman, with a horse in tow, to be left grazing on leaves-of-literature in the ISS Library.

Here are some of my tentative casting ideas:

          Doc ..........................  Richard Dreyfus 
          Sybil ........................  Angela Lansbury
          Lara .........................  Tom Hanks
          Coach Cameron ................  Danny DeVito
          Mr. Watkins ..................  Leonard Nimoy
          Mr. Pieh .....................  John Travolta
          Mr. Warren ...................  Robin Williams
          Nursie .......................  Louise Fletcher
          Mr. Fleming ..................  ???????????????

Ok, I am stuck! There's no one, it seems, who could ever come close to capturing the qualities of this ISS faculty icon! So we will just have to see if he would agree to play himself.

Allan Cruse '59

As a working concept for a movie 'theme', how about using a notion that professor Joseph Campbell called "finding your bliss"?

That's really what a multi-talented youngster's main job is, to somehow figure out what it is that he or she truly loves and most wants to do in life, that thing will give them their reason for being here on earth. (Isn't this more or less what you intended by your phrase 'survive and prosper', simply recast into a more mystical, spiritual, metaphysical terminology (to make sure it isn't misconstrued as being purely about earning a living?)

I can think of several examples, among our own ISS classmates, where an experience at the school can be seen to have set one or another of us on a particular path, which we then continued pursuing. Just take ourselves as examples.

Remember, at our reunion last May, you and I were eating lunch at ISS with Coleman, Haskell, and Asimos, and I asked you how it happened that you had decided to pursue a career in psychiatry. Without even batting an eye you replied that it all started from a remark Doc made to you one day, at the Dining Hall I think you said, when you were telling him about something you were reading which had gotten you thinking along those lines, and Doc had commended you, saying: "Now Bob, you just keep thinking about that."

In my case, as Allen Hill pointed out when I posted my little story about using my algebra-knowledge, learned in 9th-Grade at ISS, to debunk some absurd claims being made by a Sunday School teacher in my hometown that he possessed divine mindreading powers, and Dr. Payne had then commended me for what he called an example of "effective thinking" on my part. I had never thought of it, but Allen noted that this remark by my teacher might have been the thing subconsciously that set me on my career-path in mathematics.

One can imagine that Jerry Lanning's legal challenge to the ISS faculty, at a dramatic Town Meeting, charging them with (accidentally) violating the ISS Constitution, may have been a defining moment that set him on the path he subsequently pursued, building one of Birmingham's most respected and successful law firms.

Would David Rinald (or Neely Bruce) have devoted their careers to being a conductor (or a composer) without the charismatic influence of Lara Hoggard and the ISS Glee Club? What about Jessee Shearin -- would he have devoted his life to 'pusuing noble causes' (as was mentioned at our reunion Roast), including running for Congress, if he hadn't had certain formative experiences at Indian Springs, including student-run government, the ISS Alma Mater, and the ideals of Thomas Jefferson we sung about over and over in the Testament Of Freedom?

Other examples: Sandy Petrey, excelling in Mr. Draper's French class; now he is Professor of French and Comparative Literature of at SUNY. Or Roy Knight, building his collection of rocks and minerals at ISS; then he becomes a Protessor of Architecture (and later the Dean).

In this regard we really only know about a few folks in our own era at ISS, and some of them might but I'm betting that many, many alumni could come forward with similar examples of "turning points" in their growing up at ISS, experiences that epitomize Doc's 'Learning through Living' approach to education.

Which leads me to propose that we take a look at an old movie which had this very title, "The Turning Point (1977)," as a source for some possible inspration about how a dramatic story might be told involving close friends in childhood who make very different carrer choices. (That movie, incidentally, received 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay). Something along those lines might work, for an ISS-based plot as well. A film could explore the long-term consequences (perhaps via the device of attending a class reunion) of those graduates who had applied ISS-taught values (integrity, community, creativity) with what happened to others who had resisted adopting ISS precepts, or who had simply taken a lot longer to "find their bliss."

By the way, I think 'cherchez la femme' could easily get included under the broader category of 'finding your bliss.'

Allan Cruse

Also -- the above thoughts are obviously drawn from a 1950s perspective; today the school has changed in important ways -- girls,diversity, etc. -- and so we urgently need the viewpoints of younger alums if we are to portray the School's values as they are today.

I was thinking along somewhat similar lines (and I definitely plan to check out "Turning Point" when I can. I missed it the first time around.) But as a "unifying storyline element" (not necessarily the same as the "theme", for which your suggestion sounds most excellent), how about this:

Scene: Howie's NY apartment, Sunday Morning. Howie's checking his email while his partner's making breakfast. All of a sudden, Howie wails/groans,

"Ohhhhhhhh, NO!"

His roommate rushes to see what's the matter. Turns out Howie (a reasonably successful and acclaimed cartoonist) has just read that his old Alma Mater Iss is considering deep-sixing boarding. When he explains this, his partner, sounding like this is just the latest episode in a long string of puzzling, bordering on exasperating, incidents re Howie and his "old school", says,

"What is it with you and that pissant little school in Alabama? I've known you too long to believe you're just some kind of sentimental jerk with a hard-on for High School nostalgia, but I just don't get it. As long as I've known you, in the strangest circumstances, it's been 'Indian Springs this' and "Indian Springs that.' What the hell is it about that place that's still got you so wrapped up in it 30 years later?"

Howie starts to answer, then pauses, starts to speak again, pauses again, and finally says,

"You know, that is a DAMN good question. I don't know if it can really be explained to someone who wasn't there, but if you've got a few hours, I'll give it a shot."


"A few HOURS? Well, what the hell. I wasn't really planning on doing much today anyway. Go ahead, lay it on me. But this better be good."


"Well, did I ever mention that if it wasn't for Indian Springs, I probably never would have had the guts to seriously try and become a cartoonist?"...

Howie talks for awhile, shown on the screen mostly as flashbacks to earlier action, eventually including as many of the type of individual epiphanies Allan mentions as seem to fit. Meanwhile, action regularly bops back to "the present", where he begins to simultaneously try to find out what's actually happening at the latter-day ISS, explain to his roomie why boarding matters in particular, post missives to the online boarding debate list, and begin to get inklings that "something may be seriously wrong in the state of Shelby County". Since he really has stayed in contact with the school, and with grads from many generations, his contacts begin to include all the necessary characters to tell all the stories that need to be told. This middle section I envision as something somewhere in between "Sneakers", American Graffiti, and the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate movie, the name of which escapes me (or some other investigative story where "the awful truth" - and the cover-up - gradually unfolds, while Our Hero learns to play "Who Do You Trust", and "What am I to do with this potentially explosive information?"). Whether, in the end, the "awful truth" turns out to be no more scary that the Wizard of Oz, or on a par with The China Syndrome or Dr. Strangelove, seems mostly immaterial. The important part is ISS itself -- what it was, what it is, and what it deserves to become -- and the stories of those who made it that way, be they student, teacher or visionary.

If indeed the awful specter of "Corruption and Coercion at the Top" is eventually found (theatrically at least) to be more than baseless rumor, then obviously our Fearless Howie must rush right in, windmills atilt, and save the day, heedless of his own personal safety (hey, it's a movie -- hero's have to do this stuff, like it or not)...

It's very sketchy, but it works for me (allowing for all I'm thinking but NOT writing)...

John M. Merritt '67

Can we build in a car chase (about a hundred laps around the dorm circle at 100+ mph will do) after which the villain (whoever he might be, ahem) will end up being driven mad after being cornered in the Truth House by a torch-wielding mob (dressed in maroon blazers and singing The Testament of Freedom) and being forced to confront his demons while bumping into tilted walls and conducting his own very hellish "Search for Self"?

Howard Cruse
Class of '62

Sounds more like David Lynch than Rob Reiner, but it's sure strong on visual imagery (and IRONY - I think Vincent Price would approve)...

Maybe we could go the "SCREAM" series one better, and make ours a spoof of every major genre ever:

We could do each major character's story in whatever genre best fit their character. Recurring villains could alternately be cast as Darth Vader, Professor Moriarity, Mr. Hyde, etc. Recurring good guys could be likewise recast from "leading men/women" (in their own episode) to various "Sidekicks" (when appearing in someone else's flashback... (always the same actor, but with the role played in a different style).

One other little detail I omitted in the "Howie the Hero" plot outline:

Howie's partner could act as the recurring "foil" allowing things that need to be said directly to be pointed out AFTER a particular flashback segment was presented. He would more or less go,

"Wait a minute, I don't get it. Why did so-and-so do such-and-such, and why should I care?",

and then Howie would enlighten him (and the audience) with pithy and heart-rending homespun philosophy and zingy one-liners.

As the old magician's rule of thumb states:

"Tell 'em what you're gonna do, then do it, then tell 'em that you did it."

The idea is that people often miss the important points of a purely dramatic presentation unless you "spell it out for 'em", while at the same time most people resent any implication that they can't figure out things (at least things that MATTER) on their own. So you have to try to "spoon-feed" 'em, but soft-pedal it by making it look like it's only for the benefit of this "clueless" character who is nothing-at-all-like-them...

John M. Merritt '67

Some ideas for a movie

Suggested title: Frost

[This story is fictional: no resemblance to real events, nor to actual persons living or dead.]

The proposed title "Frost" has multiple meanings.

During the film's opening credits, seen overlaying a stunning dawn view of the ISS Dining Hall in late-January, it refers to a lovely frozen dew that covers the grassy lawns, sparkling in early rays of sunlight, as boarding students in heavy coats trudge toward breakfast, each rosy face intermittently hidden by little puffs of fog as their breath condenses in front of them in the chilly morning air. A tall lanky blond-haired freshman (Bob Watson?) sings "Be-Bop-A-Loo-Lah" at the top of his lungs as he walks along, carrying a cage that contains his pet snake, oblivious to whether anyone is listening to him or not, his tenor voice echoing faintly across the Cahaba Valley landscape as lyrics are reflected off the surrounding hills.

During a later scene it refers to a famous and charismatic poet, who visits the campus from his home in New England, and who delivers a stirring reading, for students and teachers gathered in the Town Hall, of his well-known "Road Not Taken," then speaks to this audience about what it means to be a writer and artist. In a facial closeup, we observe that the words of this poem have a special effect on one boy in particular, who by hearing it is deterred from carrying out his intended plan for suicide. (Here the importing of poetic ideas from north of the Mason-Dixon Line harks back to a legal provision of the founder's Will.)

Later the school's beloved founding Headmaster suffers a sudden heart attack, and the Board of Governors convenes an emergency session to plan a funeral and launch their search for a successor. The funeral draws a large attendance, as the school's illustrious graduates return to Birmingham for this emotional memorial, their eulogies providing cinematic opportunity for some "flashbacks" to their teenage days as students, and to significant moments--at a class, a meal, a concert, a ballgame--when something was done or said that had a formative impact. Among those reunited at this funeral are two dorm roommates whose adult lives have followed contrasting paths; as they pair off to engage in an intimate catch-up conversation, we learn of a "frost" in the marriage of one of them, and an impending divorce, which will impact the son and daughter who both currently are boarders at the school.

But the main significance of the 'Frost' title is depicted in the changes that ensue at the school, as its new headmaster dismantles, piece-by-piece, each element of the school's unique program that had made it seem great in the memory of its alums. We watch as this frost sets in, figuratively speaking: as morale declines, standards drop, ideals are forgotten, traditions fade, donations dwindle, facilities are locked, assets are sold, and what once seemed a happy place slowly is transformed to a chilly, tense, mistrustful one.

Hopefully there can be an upbeat ending, with one last opportunity for our proposed title to make its connection with the story-line (although admittedly this one might seem to be a stretch): it's the 'frost'-ing on a birthday or wedding cake, depicted during closing screen-credits, as joy and optimism are seen to have been successfully ressurected on the Shelby County campus.

Does this sound like anything that might work, Bob?

Compiled by Allan Cruse, but incorporating some ideas and themes suggested by various Indian Springs graduates and students.