Chicago Tribune: Aurora filmmakers shoot sci-fi TV pilot episode in Fox Valley

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Andrew Bennett and Kenneth Stevenson have made a film I hope to catch one day on Netflix.

And that’s not just because “Cerebral” is the kind of show I tend to gravitate toward — a psychological thriller that puts emphasis on character development.

What makes me really cheer on the success of these two young filmmakers — Bennett is 26, Stevenson is 27 — is the fact their production company is located here in Aurora. And like the gritty urban indie film “Adios Vaya Con Dios,” which was screened four years ago at the Bel Air International Film Festival, all the filming for “Cerebral’s” pilot was shot in the Fox Valley with some local talent used in key roles, including child actors Robert Drewke and Isabella Jilek, and Naperville comedian Dave Sinker.

And this sci-fi supernatural anthology series very well could be coming soon to a streaming service near you.

That’s because the pilot of “Cerebral” beat out hundreds of entries to be a finalist at SeriesFest, which according to its website, is the “Sundance of TV” — recognizing the world’s best television series now in production.

The two young men, who own Versa Media, located in an industrial park right off Sullivan Road, were notified about a month ago their pilot will make its international debut and be judged by an all-star jury at the Denver festival June 22-27.

I had hoped to meet up with Bennett and Stevenson at their Aurora production studio, but settled, instead, for a conference call from Los Angeles, where they were shooting a commercial video and doing what’s necessary to make it in the ever-changing entertainment business: shaking hands and knocking on doors.

The pilot episode that will be showcased, titled “Skookum,” follows a man named Neil who returns to the wilderness after many years to save loved ones from a Sasquatch-type creature, they told me. And according to the filmmakers, it centers on “hard core loyalty and tribalism,” where the government has given up control and squatters can claim their land by setting fire to it.

They went on to describe “Cerebral” as a supernatural anthology series that embraces the “what ifs” of life by reaching into the dark recesses of the human psyche. It’s also sprinkled, noted Stevenson, with subtle socio-political messages he and his partner hope will give their work meaning by getting us to think about “abandoning our extreme positions” and coming to the center where “people can open themselves up to finding the truth.”

“We try to ground it in reality by putting an intimate spin on psychological thrillers,” he added. “We stay close to the character and allow them to be the vessels to experience the narrative.”

It is, of course, a low-budget sci-fi thriller, which is one reason the focus is more on people and their relationships than monsters and special effects.

Still, the team hopes this important Denver TV festival will open doors to more money and bigger projects that will allow them to expand their reach.

The duo, known professionally as the Versa Brothers, met as students at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where Stevenson, winner of a David Letterman scholarship, led a posse of talented classmates, Bennett included, in the making of a feature film over spring break that was eventually distributed in parts of Europe, Africa and Vietnam.

The friendships that formed in college continue to make up Versa Media’s team, and the two men are quick to credit their cinematographer, director of photography and composer, all former classmates, with their current success.

The filmmakers ended up in Aurora four years ago because Bennett’s father Jim is founder of Cyl-tec, a manufacturing company on Industrial Drive, who rented space to the young filmmakers’ then-fledgling business that also specializes in industrial videos.

The partnership was a natural: Both come from tight-knit families — Bennett is from Morris and brings more theater and acting to the team, while Stevenson, whose family was in the carnival business around Louisville, Kentucky, says his strength is the technical aspect. And they both feel most comfortable centering their projects in what they describe as the “forests and corn fields” of America.

“We take landscapes we are familiar with,” said Bennett, “and make western frontiers out of that.”

Which, of course, noted his partner, means the Aurora area is a great “sand box” in which to play. And they offer a special shout-out to the Fox Valley Park District and Kane County for allowing the use of such places as Blackberry Farm, Red Oak Nature Center and Oakhurst Forest Preserve.

“We are very grateful,” said Stevenson, “to the Fox Valley.”

And they are optimistic Aurora will continue to grow as a hub for artists like themselves who, armed with cameras, are ready for their talents to shine.

It is, after all, they both point out, “The City of Lights.”

Twitter @dencrosby