Illustration by Dustin Goebel

Dreams of the Big Screen

Meshach Malley adjusted the knot of his friend’s tie as the rest of the group inspected each other for oversights in their outfits. No detail was too small for his personal attention.

Their parents huddled together, clutching their cameras, carrying the anxiety of the evening on their faces. This close clique of teenagers was all grown up, and all dressed up—mostly in a mix of modest suits, with one ruffled tuxedo that favored nostalgia over convention. The fear was pervasive, but no one was brave enough to say it aloud.

After all this fuss, would they be stood up?

But this wasn’t some school dance these students had been strong-armed into attending, worried their dates might never arrive. It was a movie premiere—their movie premiere. All that was missing was the audience.

Imagine the bookish charm of a boyish Benedict Cumberbatch and you have Meshach Malley—right down to the slim blue suit and narrow necktie. An uncommon name isn’t the only thing Malley shares with the BBC sleuth turned Star Trek villain. His passion and personality are equally magnetic—so much so, he managed to write, direct, and star in his first feature film before most of his peers were old enough for a driver’s license.

“I started making movies when I was nine-years-old. My parents were pretty strict about what movies and TV shows I could watch, so I decided to make my own,” explained Malley, whose early stop-motion efforts with LEGOs and clay characters quickly evolved to live action projects.

Malley’s film, The Red Crystal, was inspired in part by another group of fearless filmmakers his age. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation was a shot-for-shot remake made entirely by teenagers, over several years in the early 80s. It was an underground legend that eventually earned the attention and admiration of Spielberg himself before making the rounds at art houses and film festivals.

“There was a screening at the Wexner Center, and several friends and I met the filmmakers afterward,” noted Malley. “We decided if they could do it, so could we.”

But Meshach (16) has always been a bit of a storyteller. His parents, Michael and Ali, recalled how early he could recite entire nursery rhymes from memory. The Red Crystal was a story before it was a film, one that he’d revisited and revised over several years. Meshach is homeschooled, where creative writing and practical problem solving are priorities. His parents were both elementary school teachers since before he was born, so immersive education has been a constant for the entire family.

“My parents were very committed to me finishing the film and they even made it part of my curriculum,” he explained. “I think having more time to think and work creatively was definitely a big reason why we decided to make it. The home-school schedule was the only way I could have finished the project.”

Filmmaking is predicated on the suspension of disbelief, and The Red Crystal is no exception. The thematic influences are as apparent as the technical aspirations are ambitious. Beneath the archetype of a boy learning his otherworldly origin story are the intrigue, espionage, and Saturday matinee swashbuckling of classic American cinema.

The result is an ensemble of amateurs with a bootstrap budget who somehow produced a family friendly film with techniques ranging from hand-drawn illustration to digital animation. Sure, there were shortcomings on sound, which is actually quite common with many independent films.

But The Red Crystal is far less derivative than George Lucas’ science fiction remake of Seven Samurai, and far more accessible than the self-indulgent THX 1138. Better yet, Malley is surprisingly self-aware and committed to improving his craft.

“We had trouble with on-set sound at times. If I had it to do all over again, I would try to improve the sound quality,” Malley admitted. “I love coming up with stories, and I think it is something that comes naturally to me. The challenge is to translate that to the screen.”

In stark contrast to several of Speilberg’s films, The Red Crystal isn’t a story about reckless youth and absentee parents. It’s about finding purpose with the guidance of elders. Though most of the actors and actresses are still too young to buy a ticket to an R-rated movie, Malley marshaled a supporting cast of grown-ups on- and off-screen as well.

This isn’t Malley’s first foray directing a cast of characters, balancing a budget, and honing interest into enterprise. His parents revealed Meshach had thrice—at ages 10, 12, and 14—turned their home into a pizza restaurant, with their consent.

Not some overgrown lemonade stand either. He and his friends planned the menu, contacted distributors, grew ingredients, connected with local farmers, created advertising, learned safe kitchen practices, prepared the food, even cleaned the dishes. The third time out they had more than a hundred customers and earned in excess of $1500. Not a blockbuster weekend by film standards, but a lot of dough for a bunch of kids making pizza.

That’s exactly the kind of infectious force of will it takes to make it in the movie business. And yet, Meshach Malley seems to have tempered the arrogance of adolescence and audacity of art into something novel in an industry and generation that both value sameness over substance.

By the way, that audience everyone wasn’t sure was going to arrive? They did, even exceeding the expectations of the Gateway Film Center, and perhaps the kids and parents who wondered whether the The Red Crystal would ever see the big screen after years in the making.

If Malley had any doubts, it didn’t show. He was as cool and calm as his slim blue suit—another skill that will serve him well should he decide filmmaking is in his future.

“If it is economically feasible for me to be making movies or online video content when I’m 26, I would really like to be doing that,” he admitted. “Entertainment and story creation are things I’m very passionate about. If that can be the way I make a living, that would be fantastic.”