May’s movie helps fine-tune budding film careers

‘Life Fine Tuned,’ shot locally, premieres at the State Theatre Saturday

If you go

“Life Fine Tuned” premieres at 6:30 p.m. this Saturday (Dec. 14) at the Culpeper State Theater (305 S. Main St., Culpeper). Tickets for the 120-minute film range from $7 to $15 and can be purchased online at culpepertheater.org, or by contacting the box office at 540-829-0292 or tix@culpepertheater.org.

Despite the fact that her first feature-length film, “Life Fine Tuned,” has already received plenty of accolades from the independent film circuit, it’s still all about the kids for writer-director-producer Nina May.

Following a spoiled young pop star who runs away to rural Virginia, “Life Fine Tuned” is the first feature-length film produced through May’s Renaissance Women Productions internship program. The program is run by the nonprofit Renaissance Foundation founded in 1983 by May, who, with her husband, Washington lawyer Colby May, has had a farm just off U.S. 522 near Boston since 2001.

The production side was started 15 years ago as a way to help students get an early leg up in show business. Much of May’s cast and crew is composed of interns, from actors to cameramen, and they participate in everything — script writing up through post-production. May says most of the program is made up of home-schooled students or those on summer break, though some are also adults looking to change careers.

Importantly, everyone shadows a professional crew member — all of whom, in turn, May stresses, have to be willing to teach.

Writer-director-producer Nina May wore many hats during the creation of her first feature-length film, “Life Fine Tuned.”Matt Wingfield | Rappahannock News
Writer-director-producer Nina May wore many hats during the creation of her first feature-length film, “Life Fine Tuned.”

“It’s a learning experience for all of us,” May says. “Everyone from the crew has to be in front of the camera at least once, and everyone has to behind the camera at least once too . . . The whole purpose is to learn, and if they don’t get experience with everything, what kind of teacher am I?”

Even more impressively, May has a strict policy that all her actors have to be undiscovered talents — no agents or unions are allowed. “It’s kind of like ‘American Idol’ for acting,” she says. And it’s worked — a number of those May has worked with have moved out to California and found success in Hollywood, including several who have opened their own production companies after learning on the job with May and her crew.

And though she happily employs them, May herself is no amateur. She started out doing daily radio commentary 18 years ago, right on the cusp of the advent of streaming. One of her producers was interested in video production and floated the idea of putting May in front of the camera and streaming the results.

A barn-dance is shot for the Nina May film Life Fine Tuned at Trinity Springs Farm near Boston, Va. In this scene, Alveda King plays a character named Tune Toss Granny, who’s making up a song on the spot from random words tossed out by the crowd, extras played by more than a few locals.Keith Donaldson
A barn-dance is shot for the Nina May film Life Fine Tuned at Trinity Springs Farm near Boston, Va. In this scene, Alveda King plays a character named Tune Toss Granny, who’s making up a song on the spot from random words tossed out by the crowd, extras played by more than a few locals.

Despite never appearing in front of the camera before, May found herself adjusting well and added a teleprompter to help her more easily remember her lines. She soon found herself hosting and producing her own TV show and “hanging out in the editing room — and I loved it!” After she learned how to edit, May started filming documentaries and founded Renaissance Women Productions.

While that would normally be enough for any resume, May decided to try her hand at feature-length films because she “was tired of all the documentaries. I needed a new challenge.”

“I was actually pretty naive about how easy it’d be,” May laughs. “If I had known how hard it was actually going to be, I don’t think I ever would have done it.”

Rather than start small on her first project, May leapt right in, acting as the writer, producer and first-time director on “Life Fine Tuned.” The 22-day shoot in 2012 included a number of key scenes shot in and around Rappahannock — including Rock Mills, Gid Brown Hollow, Roy’s Orchard, the Copper Fox Distillery and the Castleton Festival (on whose board of directors she now serves).

“I can’t imagine writing without directing,” May says, in part because when she’s writing she’s also picturing exactly how she wants it to look. “It’s just telling people what I see in my head.”

One of the things May admits she wasn’t prepared for was the clearly defined roles each person on set inhabits. “It’s actually a lot like the military,” she says. May says she had to find a first and second assistant director — “The first A.D. is mean,” she laughs, “and the second is sweet. They’re there to make sure there are no distractions for the director.” — as well as gaffers, a director of photography and a data wrangler — a position May admits she didn’t know existed before filming.

All of that hard work has paid off handsomely for “Life Fine Tuned,” which premieres at 6:30 p.m. at the Culpeper State Theatre this Saturday (see box). While being screened at the International Family Film Festival in Hollywood earlier this year, “Life Fine Tuned” received the Top Applause Award — the show’s highest honor.

“I was thrilled just to be invited,” May recalls, “because it’s kind of like the Oscars.” Among the films “Life Fine Tuned” triumphed over were offerings by such major studios as Dreamworks and Disney. “And then we won and all I could think was, ‘Look how I’m dressed, this is horrible.’ ”

Afterwards, May’s film was invited to an even bigger film festival: The Chinese-American Film Festival, which also featured “Men In Black 3,” “The Hunger Games,” “The Avengers” and more that year.

“It was all because we beat them out [at the International Family Film Festival]. So they looked at us and thought, ‘They must be good.’ ”

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