By Ron Wagner
For more than seven years, Amanda Dillingham worked side-by-side with Spenser Fritz to make the feature-length film Cecil. For those same seven years, the Watkins graduates were also working to make a life together, first as girlfriend and boyfriend and then as a married couple.
So, when Cecil — a comedy loosely based on Fritz’s childhood about a fourth-grader named Cecil Stevens who struggles with a speech impediment that prevents him from saying his name correctly — was finally released in January of this year, she thought the plot twists would now be reserved for audiences.
“We’ve been getting some press nationally, and there have been a couple of things I’ve heard Spenser say and I think, wait, that’s for real?” Dillingham says. “Kids come up and ask Spenser what his name is—which is also a scene for the character in the movie—just to be able to tease him when he says it wrong … I still feel like I’m learning from the film about his experiences.”
In Cecil, the protagonist changes his name to Michael Jordan to avoid being teased for pronouncing his own name “Thethil Theventh.” Fritz’s real-life struggles as a child were slightly different, but certainly a lot less funny at the time.
“I couldn’t say my ‘Rs,’ so ‘Spenser Fritz’ was a little bit difficult to say,” Fritz remembers. “I always wanted to change my name to my middle name, Michael.”
Fritz left the speech impediment behind as he grew up but carried with him an idea for a movie. A pitch class at Watkins inspired the screenwriting and directing double-major to bring it to life.
“One of the big pointers was at the end of the pitch you should be able to tell them ‘…and I’m the best person to make this movie because I have this personal relationship to it,’” he says. “So, in the class I was like, ‘Well, maybe this would be a good pitch.’”
That wasn’t the only pitch Watkins inspired Fritz to make as an undergraduate. Dillingham was also a student at Watkins (her father is Director of Facilities Martin Dillingham), and she did work-study in the Community Education department. Fritz, meanwhile, made extra money as a custodian, which gave him the opening to break the ice with his future spouse using a line that wouldn’t work just anywhere.
“One day I just asked if she needed her floor vacuumed,” he says. “We started talking from there.”
Dillingham went on to earn a fine art degree, and after she completed her master of fine and studio arts at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the two settled in Nashville. Amanda does freelance production coordinating, “UPMing” (short for unit production manager) and producing for a variety of companies, and has been a part of projects including an iTunes commercial, a Carrie Underwood video, and a commercial for the Billboard Music Awards.
Spenser shoots videos for a variety of clients including Metro Arts and MEINL Cymbals as the two try to build their company, Behind the Curtain Media. During the NFL season, he also shoots and edits “Titans All Access,” a 30-minute magazine-style TV show produced by the Tennessee Titans. It’s a perfect gig for a “diehard” Titans fan.
“I was already living and breathing football, so it was definitely a dream job,” Fritz says.
No matter what they were doing, however, all roads kept leading back to Cecil. A chance encounter with a child actor while working on another project inspired him to finish the script.
“We ran into this kid who would have been perfect for the role,” Spenser says. “It didn’t work out with him, but now I had a script to work with.”
“Work” was the operative word. “I’m probably Spenser’s biggest supporter and critic. The writing process was a lot of ‘This sucks,’ or ‘This is great,’” Dillingham says. “In the final draft, I took a lot more liberties in actually sitting down with the script and writing too.”
One of the hardest aspects was knowing where to draw the line between “inspired by” and “based on a true story.”
“I wasn’t worried as much about the speech-impediment stuff, because I’ve moved on from that,” Fritz says. “But the other personal stuff was kind of difficult to find the balance in terms of my parents getting divorced. There were times where Amanda was like, ‘Are you sure if this movie gets made that you really want your parents to see that scene,’ or ‘Do you really want to portray that person like that even if it’s true?’ … I ended up dialing it back a ton, trying to make those characters a little more funny and overdramatic.”
The next challenge was raising enough money to actually shoot the film. A Kickstarter campaign in early 2015 brought in $17,000 — just enough to get started. Fritz directed, Dillingham produced. It was a familiar arrangement — she produced all of his films at Watkins — that they agree brings out the best in them.
“We might take it personally at the moment, but later on we’re able to get over it and realize any comments being made are being made for a reason,” Dillingham says. “If I say I don’t like something or something isn’t working at the time, he might get mad at me, but later he’ll be like ‘I have to figure out why this isn’t working for you even if it is working for me.’”
They ended up casting 10-year-old Nashville actor Sark Asadourian as Cecil and shot the movie over 21 days in 2017 on a $100,000 budget. It was officially released on January 22, 2019 and is available on-demand at Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and other sites.
“From the filmmaking standpoint, we’d love to start brainstorming for the next one,” Fritz says. Note the “we.”
Check out the official trailer for Cecil here.