Inspired by their father’s acting career and passion for the film industry, two Riverton brothers — Boone and Copeland Williams — have their eyes set on the silver screen, but only if it means they can work together.
“We’re kind of a package deal, I guess,” Boone, 21, explained. “It works well, because I can push his buttons and he can push mine, but we’re family, so we can’t give up on each other.”
The film industry can be a difficult trade to break into, especially for two brothers living in the middle of Wyoming — a state known for its vast landscapes, western culture and lack of representation in film.
But as fortune would have it, the middle of the state is the perfect, and possibly only, place for someone pursuing an education in cinematography.
Central Wyoming College is the only post-secondary school in the state to offer a degree in film production, according to Jeremy Nielsen, CWC’s associate professor of film.
“There’s not a large film industry here in Wyoming,” Nielsen said. “As far as I know, I’m the only film professor in the state.”
The Williams brothers are slated to graduate from the program in spring, and with degrees in hand, Copeland said they will either transfer to a university with a film production program or join the military, but they won’t go their separate ways.
“I’m not sure we’d find better success if one of us were to go one place and the other to another, because the best ideas we’ve put forward, we worked on together,” Copeland, 25, said. “We’re probably far more likely to be successful together than apart.”
Wyoming doesn’t have a strong presence in the film production industry because, in part, residents don’t place high value on arts careers, Nielsen theorized.
“The things that Wyomingites tend to value are not always artistic endeavors,” he said. “Convincing people to sign up for a course that isn’t seen as productive as engineering or business can be a challenge.”
In his seventh year at CWC, the 42-year-old film professor said he is working to change that. When Nielsen first started at the community college, he said the film production program averaged about six students a semester. Nowadays, around 24 students could be enrolled in the program at any given time, Nielsen said.
Shortly after he moved to Riverton from Utah, the Wyoming Office of Tourism recognized the potential of the film program’s ability to build film industry infrastructure within the state, increasing the likelihood of attracting large movie producers, and it invited Nielsen to join the Wyoming Film Finance Committee.
“The Wyoming Office of Tourism wanted to boost the number of films shot in Wyoming,” he said. “They came up with a multi-prong approach — we need infrastructure, a film school and to incentivize film production.”
One of the largest challenges to shooting movies within the state is a lack of experienced camera crews, lighting specialists and stage hands, but the film production program could remedy that.
“If you bring people in (from outside the state), you have to start paying them on a different structure and housing them and it gets a bit complicated,” Nielsen explained. “In some cases, film companies will bring their own crews, but it’s often just for a day or two.”
A large production set could employ more than 100 people at a time, and even independent film companies often hire about 20 to 30 production specialists, he said.
“It’s an incredibly public art form — it is consumed by the public, but it is also created by the public in that it is not a single piece of art created by single person for a specific audience,” Nielsen said. “The jobs are very specialized. There’s a crew on a set that’s responsible for the lights, but there’s also a whole other crew responsible for the shadows.”
Being able to provide people experienced enough to fill these rosters is an important factor in attracting film producers.
Enter stage right: Nielsen’s students.
“On the first day of class, I put a camera in their hands and tell them we’re making a movie today, and we’re watching it today,” Nielsen said. “The film industry is more about experience than anything else, and I want my students to feel competent around all the equipment they may encounter when they leave here.”
One of the ways he’s recently helped CWC film production graduates further their career is by changing the nature of the program.
“The degree has changed from a technical studies certificate — offered in the same vein as automotive or welding courses,” Nielsen said. “I’ve worked to develop the program into a transfer degree.”
Unfortunately, the University of Wyoming doesn’t offer a film production degree, so Boone and Copeland will need to transfer elsewhere to continue their education.
Leaving the state isn’t what Boone had in mind when he started the CWC program last semester.
“I’ve lived in about 20 different places,” he said. “But this is where I was born, and this is the place I like the most, so this is where I’m from.”
After moving to Riverton, Boone and Copeland’s father decided to dabble in some college courses, Copeland said.
“I had just moved back in, and I was kind of directionless,” he recalled. “My dad used his GI Bill to take some of the film classes and told me to give a shot, even if for just one semester. And that kind of started all this.”
The family has talked about starting a film production company, but Boone and Copeland need to finish their education first, which means leaving home.
“I see Wyoming as having great potential,” Boone said. “I don’t know how exactly to go about it, but I’d like to put my experience to use here and open some of that potential.”
Boone said the brothers have their eyes set on the University of Utah’s film production courses, but if the school doesn’t take both of them, they’ll join the U.S. Air Force and use their service benefits to further their careers.
“Either we both go to Utah, or we both join the military,” he said.
Copeland said the two developed a strong bond early in life when their parents divorced, but while other siblings often grow independent through the years, he and Boone’s relationship brought them closer together.
“Since we were kids — I was like 11 and Boone might’ve been 4 — we spent a lot of time together,” he explained. “We share a lot of the same interests. Working together, we know how to bounce ideas off each other and move toward something we both like.”
While the brothers bump heads on occasion, they fervently agreed the CWC film production program was one the best choices they made.
“I’m taking these classes because I want to learn the stuff, not because I need it for a degree,” Copeland said. “One of the things I like most — I hate homework most of the time — but the assignments in the film program are things I actually care about.”
Boone added, “I love this program. Most other college classes don’t really engage me, but more than that, they don’t offer the hands-on learning opportunities I get in film production.”