Kira Daniels watches, and listens through a headset, as the Pigasus Horizons cast and crew film a scene from her screenplay. (Staff photos by Brett Eppley/beppley@madisoncourier.com)
Kira Daniels watches, and listens through a headset, as the Pigasus Horizons cast and crew film a scene from her screenplay. (Staff photos by Brett Eppley/beppley@madisoncourier.com)
Most likely to succeed in filmmaking isn’t a typical high school senior-year accolade, but Kira Daniels has earned the title.

Daniels’ screenplay “Through the Window” is being made into a short film by Pigasus Horizons – a nonprofit dedicated to Indiana filmmakers – and will be released this fall and shown across the state, nation and quite possibly the world.

This past week, an independent film crew of nearly 30 made its way to Madison to give the Southwestern High School student the experience of a lifetime.

Last fall, Daniels, 17, entered a screenwriting contest she learned about from her art teacher Darrin Means. Daniels had not written much before, but studied the elements of scriptwriting and gave it a shot. She finished her 11 pages before the November deadline, wondering if she’d hear back from the organizers.

Finally, she got a text: Can we call you at this number?

“Are they calling me to tell me I didn’t get it?” Daniels asked herself.

Beyond asking about the weather and telling her she’d won, Daniels can’t remember much of the phone call.

“They were telling me all this stuff they were going to do with the film. I wasn’t comprehending any of it,” she said. “I was in a state of shock. So, it was a really good day.”

Pigasus Horizons, the nonprofit arm of independent film company Pigasus Pictures, is producing Daniels’ film following its first high school screenwriting contest.

Pigasus was founded by Indiana University alumni John Armstrong and Zachary Spicer, who both grew up in Indiana but moved to New York following graduation to pursue careers in the film industry. Pigasus was created, Armstrong said, as their way of “revitalizing the film industry in Indiana.”

Pigasus Pictures has produced its first feature, “The Good Catholic,” which stars Spicer alongside Danny Glover, John C. McGinley and Wrenn Schmidt. The film was made in Bloomington and is set to be released in September, both in theaters and online. It should arrive to streaming services, such as Netflix, by Christmas.

“Catholic” won the Panavision Spirit Award for best independent feature at this year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival in February – right around the time Armstrong and Spicer called Daniels with news of her win.

Daniels’ short film will be shown alongside “The Good Catholic” at screenings across the state, released online and entered into a variety of film festivals.

“We want to work with young people and show them that stuff’s not so far out of your reach,” Armstrong said. “You don’t have to be from a big, major metropolitan area to be able to have access to this. Because the technology is there. The cameras are there. The locations are here. You can write – that comes right out of your own heart. So it’s accessible now.”

Along with Daniels, who worked closely with Spicer as her director for the three-day shoot, students from Hanover College, Southwestern and Madison Consolidated High School shadowed the film crew for the duration of their stay. Indiana University interns also made up part of the entirely Indiana-bred crew. For each of the 25 or so professionals on set, just as many students worked alongside them.

Lila Smith and Brooke Barker, the two actresses cast in the film and chosen by Daniels from online submissions, are also Hoosiers. Both have had experience in community theater and high school productions, but “Through the Window” will be their first short film.

“The experience for our children is just priceless,” Daniels’ mother Stephanie Fey said. “I mean, where else would she have gotten this experience? Absolutely priceless.”

Daniels’ screenplay for “Through the Window” is a character-driven story of two sisters. One night, the two sneak out of the house. They bond over secrets shared and one surprising interaction in a graveyard.

It seems simple, but her screenplay stood apart from the pack of entries Armstrong and Spicer read.

“She writes with a specificity and a clarity that seems beyond her years,” Spicer said of the choice to produce Daniels’ story.

“I wrote a bunch of stuff when I was in high school and it followed the same pattern of being either stereotypical or so larger than life that it lived completely in the imagination. You read these characters and you read the environment and it felt so familiar to me. I read it and I didn’t have to imagine how I would shoot it – I saw it.

“It’s just so specific and creates a time, and a place and people. So it just makes my job so much easier.”

On set Saturday in a home on First Street and later in Springdale Cemetery, Daniels was there soaking up every moment. During filming, she wore headphones connected to the actresses’ microphones so she’d never miss a beat. On occasion, she’d ask Spicer to try something a bit differently or make a suggestion when he turned to her for comment.

Along with a few revisions to her original screenplay with “The Good Catholic” screenwriter Paul Shoulberg, Daniels said she has been involved in every step of the project. The advice she’s received has been helpful, and often, she and Spicer are on the same page with choices on set.

After filming is complete and files are taken to Bloomington for editing, different versions of the final product will be sent to her for approval.

For Daniels, who calls herself a “control freak,” all the better.

But that hands-on experience, giving Daniels and her non-professional peers the tools to work with and the answers to any question big or small – that’s exactly what the Pigasus guys had in mind.

“I grew up in a real small town in Indiana and I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what could be some day,” Spicer said.

“I think when you’re from a small town those daydreams stay up there in the sky, they stay really far away. It seems almost impossible to obtain. It was important to me to be able to come and bring this type of environment to a place that isn’t usually exposed to it and show Kira that if this is something that she wants to do and that she wants to continue doing in the future, she’s completely capable. It’s something that she can actually obtain if it’s what she wants to do.”

As the project has gone on, Spicer sees just as much value in it for him and his professional peers as for the students learning the craft.

“We didn’t set out to do this, but it’s keeping us in check and it’s keeping us grounded in the excitement and the passion that Kira has for doing all this stuff. My hope is that that informs every single project that we do and that we remember what all of this is about,” he said.

The effect this has had on Daniels is already apparent. She plans to attend Ball State University this fall and study animation, but now she thinks adding creative writing to her studies might be well worth it. After all, come time for summer’s freshman orientation, she’ll already have her first film nearly complete.

“This opens so many windows for me,” she said.

Darrin Means, the teacher who presented this opportunity to his students last year, said Daniels’ win was both a surprise and not one. It’s a long shot to the win in a small town, he said, but he knows the talent is here.

“We’ve got some really bright intelligent young students that have come out of our school in many areas and this is just another example,” he said.

Even one of the film’s crew, Joe Sailer, is a Southwestern graduate.

After a week in Madison, Pigasus cast and crew consider themselves lucky to have found their winner in Madison. Along with a warm reception from area leaders, some financial support has come from the Community Foundation of Madison and Jefferson County and others. A receptive, engaged community, Armstrong said, was essential to the project.

“Madison has really set the bar,” Armstrong said of the inaugural Pigasus Project.

The addition of idyllic scenery, Spicer said, makes it no wonder why the city already has a place in movie history.

Madison served as the backdrop for 1958’s “Some Came Running” and “Madison” in 2005.

And now, Kira Daniels’ “Through the Window” is Madison’s latest bit of cinematic history in the making.

“This is something I will keep with me for the rest of my life,” Daniels said Saturday sitting on set. “This is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

To learn more about Pigasus Horizons and more about the release of “Through the Window,” visit www.pigasushorizons.org.