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Action!: Boyd 9-year-old writes, stars in zombie film

By David Talley | Published Published Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017
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READY FOR BATTLE — Taven Epps (center) created, wrote and starred in “The Last Kids.” Epps stands at his kitchen table where the movie was written with his grandmother, director Sheril Rodgers and mother Ciara Tidwell, who coordinated the film’s fight scenes.

Boyd’s adult population is gone, transformed into mindless hunters that prey on the community’s remaining children who can only run and hide from the deadly horde.

The children band together, but escape is hindered by the hunters’ ability to move with total silence, meaning there’s no telling where they’ll strike next.

That’s the apocalyptic premise of Boyd 9-year-old Taven Epps’ “The Last Kids,” a zombie movie shot in and around the town. Epps’ grandmother, independent filmmaker Sheril Rodgers, helped him create, write and star in the film, which is now in the editing phase after wrapping up filming in July.

Rodgers said the movie included more than 100 actors playing either the adult zombies or hardened child survivors.

Like his character on the screen, Epps wears hearing aids. But in the film, his handicap becomes his special power.

“The thing that’s unique about this story is these zombies don’t make noise,” Rodgers said. “He’s the only one that can hear them because he has a hearing aid, so therefore he knows where the zombies are. We tried to make it a little different than the zombie movies that are out there.

“From the big picture, you’ve got a child who is handicapped who is the hero, so all the kids follow him because he knows where the zombies are.”

Epps’ mother Ciara Tidwell said the family first started noticing he was dealing with hearing issues in second grade. While his mathematics scores were strong, his reading and comprehension suffered due to the hearing loss. After Taven got hearing aids, Tidwell said the family started looking at activities they could do at home to bring Taven back up to speed with his classmates. They focused on things that appealed to his personal interests.

“… so he came up with the movie,” she said. “What we saw when we were doing all this is he learned the entire movie word for word, so if any of the kids were like, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ he was like, ‘you say this.’ It helped him read. When we’re going through lines with the actors, he was reading along with it. It was basically a learning curve for him, and by the end of it he was able to read a lot better.”

As an independent filmmaker, Rodgers works primarily in Atlanta and has helped Tidwell and Epps get smaller parts in other movies in the past. After taking the back seat in other films, Epps said he decided he wanted to make and star in a film, collaborating with his grandmother, who has filmed seven movies in Boyd since 2009. The three got together in June, with Epps dictating as Rodgers wrote out the movie’s script on her laptop in the family’s kitchen.

“I called her and said, ‘I want to make a movie with you this summer,’ but I want to be in it,” Epps said.

The movie was filmed three weeks later. Rodgers said Epps continued to call the shots as the crew picked locations, finalized scripts and worked through rehearsals.

“We gave him creative approval on just about everything,” she said.

MOVIE MONSTER — A zombie in “The Last Kids,” an independent movie filmed in Boyd, shows off her most terrifying face. The film cast local actors for most of the zombie roles.

While many Wise County locals volunteered to play zombies for the film, Rodgers said Epps’ cousins and friends were cast as the apocalypse’s child survivors, meaning the film had a very diverse cast of zombie fighters.

“We’ve got a very diverse family, so you’ve got kids that don’t exactly look likeTaven as his cousins. We wanted to show as well, that everyone can get along,” she said.

Rodgers used her industry connections to help secure cameras and a professional crew for filming, she said. After explaining the movie’s concept and asking for quotes, she said her film family all volunteered to make the movie happen without charge. She and her daughter, Haley Tidwell, designed the film’s wardrobe, which needed to be made dirty and bloody to fit with its theme.

“We had a drone. We had two cameras and all these makeup artists and all these people and they didn’t charge anything. One of those cameras is $1,500 a day,” she said. “Everything was donated, the only thing I’ve had to spend out of pocket for was a hard drive. We even had people donate water and food.”

Filming went off mostly without a hitch, she said. The crew was challenged by the heat, as temperatures sometimes soared to almost 100 degrees, and also working with inexperienced cast members.

“Everyone acted so well, even though most had never done it before. What the kids kind of didn’t understand is why we didn’t do it in order,” Rodgers said.

The crew also had to bus the kids out into the countryside for several scenes, meaning they were away from their parents for some time. Rodgers said this was crucial because having parents there could have distracted the young actors and actresses. She said she posted photos of the film’s adult cast and crew in a private Facebook group, so everyone could see who they’d be working with. Filming was completed in one day, which Tidwell said lasted from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

“I got some good sleep that night,” she said.

In addition to supervising the cast and crew, Tidwell was also in charge of coordinating the film’s fight scene and said that was her favorite part of the movie.

After banding together, the kids take on the zombies in a massive battle at Boyd ISD’s old rock gym. The fight is filmed by aerial drone. Rodgers said the total product should run between seven and nine minutes after editing. She’s planning a screening and red carpet ceremony for its cast and crew in Boyd in January.
But for now, satisfaction comes from knowing that Taven is a capable writer and creative thinker.

“One of the things the school was telling us was that Taven wasn’t retaining things, which we learned from this experience is not accurate,” she said. “I had a shot list of all these shots we had to take. I’d felt like we’d missed a couple shots and we were talking about it and he goes, ‘no, Nana, we got that shot.’ He remembered everything.”

Tidwell said Taven also has plans for more movies, including a sequel featuring ninjas. Thanks to ‘The Last Kids,’ he is officially a registered member of the Writers Guild of America.

“People don’t believe me, they think I wrote it,” Tidwell said. “We would throw ideas at him, and he’d say no. This was what he wanted to do. He can write. He wrote the dialogue. This is his movie.”

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