The trailer for Sand Castles, a new film by upstart director Clenét Verdi-Rose ’04, tells just enough of the film’s painful story to make a parent’s heart and head ache: A young girl kidnapped, swept away at the squeal of tires and held captive for a decade, abruptly returns home to her dysfunctional and broken family, forever scarred by her disappearance.
It’s a somber and challenging story for a young filmmaker. However, Verdi-Rose’s commitment to the craft of filmmaking, not to mention the effusive praise of his supporters, suggested that Sand Castles would not miss the mark—long before it was screened at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in April.
Sand Castles is Verdi-Rose’s most recent effort as a director. The film is written by and stars Jordon Hodges, whom Verdi-Rose befriended while they worked together on another film, a comedy called Minor League: A Football Story. For Verdi-Rose, Sand Castles presented an opportunity to grow as a filmmaker, working closely during pre-production with Hodges on script changes, with the cinematographer on planning shots, and with the actors preparing for their roles. The film has been received well at festivals, winning the Grand Jury New Visions Award for Feature Films at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, Fla., and receiving two nominations in acting categories at the Milan International Film Festival.
Verdi-Rose made his feature film debut in 2008 directing Skyler, about a college senior wrestling with personal demons. He won numerous accolades for the film, including best director and first-place feature film from the Los Angeles Art-House Film Festival; a merit award from the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood; a silver award for best feature film in the California Film Awards; and Sklyer was selected as the world premiere feature film in the Los Angeles Film and Music Festival.
Prior to the most recent success as a director, he spent years hard at work paying his dues in Hollywood: He has been a first or second assistant director on more than 30 film and television productions, including the Sundance Film Festival nominated Little Birds, and the drag-racing biopic Snake & Mongoose.
None of it has come easy. His first few months in Los Angeles were rough. In show business, it’s a familiar story. He slept on friends’ couches, and scanned the Internet for any available work, scraping around for just a chance. He finally took an unpaid position in 2009 working on a $5 million independent film called Little Hercules in 3D, starring Elliott Gould, Judd Nelson, Robin Givens and Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan).
His hard work on the production got noticed. As Verdi-Rose recalls it, “By the second week of shooting, the production company started me on payroll, and I have been luckily working consistently ever since.”
Some of the connections he made working on Little Hercules have helped him to secure more work, but ultimately it’s his work ethic and commitment that have led to some terrific breaks so early in his career.
That Verdi-Rose, who majored in studio art, is making a name for himself in film comes as no surprise to Professor of Art Andrew Howard. Howard taught him in a senior seminar course and encouraged Verdi-Rose in his pursuit of a career in the arts.
Professor Howard remembers that Verdi-Rose had a “laser vision,” even when he first began at Wheaton. “He always said, ‘I’m going out to Hollywood, and I’m going to make films,’” Howard recalls, “and he went out to Hollywood, and he’s making films.”
Verdi-Rose’s says that Howard and former Visiting Assistant Professor of English David Hopkins were two of the most inspirational professors he had at Wheaton, and notes that his independent study work with Hopkins helped point him in the right direction for a career in film. (Hopkins passed away from cancer during Verdi-Rose’s senior year at Wheaton.)
As a college senior, for his independent study, Verdi-Rose produced a documentary titled Life Off the Floor about a Boston-based breakdancer who leveraged dance to help youths on the street. He did it at a time when Wheaton had not yet developed its Film and New Media major. So he had to build the project on his own.
The breadth of experiences like this one, and the intimate engagement with the community at Wheaton, made it the right college for him, Verdi-Rose said. “I wanted a broader education than a strictly art school would have provided me with. I took classes I probably wouldn’t have at other schools, and was challenged and engaged by some really great professors and students.”
He studied painting at Wheaton in addition to filmmaking, and painting remains an important part of his artistic expression even as he focuses on a career in film.
“Painting is a therapeutic thing for me. It has definitely influenced me in my filmmaking, and I will always do both,” he said.
Though he sharpened his focus at Wheaton, Verdi-Rose’s passion for film began early in life. His mother, Margaret Verdi ’76, helped inspire that interest. An urban studies major at Wheaton, she later was involved with Falmouth Community Television and taught media production at Falmouth High School.
As a 5-year-old, the filmmaker toyed around with the family video camera, and occasionally acted in small music video productions for his mother’s high school classes. At age 12, Verdi-Rose hosted his own public access television show about comic books on Falmouth Community Television. By the time he was in high school, he was already working on his own video productions.
He credits his Wheaton education for helping to get him to where he is: “Wheaton did a great job preparing me for my career as a filmmaker because it prepared me for problem solving, along with offering the artistic support.”