NYU's Snuff Film

A campus-wide clampdown on last year's student film death won't keep us from giving you the whole picture

NYU's Snuff Film
A still from Lamensdorf's short film, Only Criminals

This week, the film department at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts holds its annual spring showcase for student work, the First Run Film Festival. Beginning Thursday, and over the course of four days, more than a hundred films will be shown.

Near the end of the program, on early Sunday evening, a short film will be shown that's titled Only Criminals. According to the festival's website, the 12-minute film is about a couple of guys who come across a wrecked and abandoned car, search through it, and find a handgun.

Only Criminals was directed by John Hunt Lamensdorf, who was killed last May while working on the set of another NYU student's movie at a shoot in Georgia.

Lamensdorf
Courtesy The Monticello News
Lamensdorf
Cover illustration by Chris Short

Deaths on movie sets are rare enough for professionals, but the electrocution death of an NYU student—and serious injury to another—seemed particularly tragic, and resulted in news stories both here and in Georgia.

But since those early stories, there's not only been no detailed public account of what happened on the movie set, but students and employees at NYU say there's been an active campaign on campus to clamp down on any discussion of what occurred.

The students who were on the set that day don't want to talk about it. NYU encourages them and anyone else connected to the students not to speak publicly.

Part of the reason for that campaign of silence: Several people with involvement in that day's shooting (and NYU itself) are being sued by Lamensdorf's parents, including Lamensdorf's friend, Andrés Cardona, who not only tried to resuscitate him after he was mortally wounded, but went on to finish his friend's film so it could be shown this Sunday.

Cardona, like the others at NYU, won't talk to the Voice about what happened in Georgia.

One of the people on the scene, however, is talking about what he saw.

Jason Welin is a particularly important eyewitness to what happened. The Atlanta-based filmmaker was at the controls of the aerial lift that made contact with overhead power lines and created a powerful explosion of electrical energy on the set. As Welin explains it, he contributed to the errors that led to Lamensdorf's death, but, almost a year later, he's unhappy that people believe he has "blood" on his hands.

NYU doesn't want this story told, but Welin isn't waiting for the school's permission.

Shortly after commencement last May, a crew of about 20 NYU students and local actors prepared to set off for Georgia to help recent NYU graduate Stephen Michael Simon direct a movie he was going to call Lovely Lying Lips.

Hailing from the nearby Atlanta suburbs, Simon had chosen Monticello, a Jasper County town of 2,500 souls, for the shoot.

Most of the students were from Professor Ezra Sacks's Advanced Production Workshop; they included producer Rachel Fung, cinematographer Andrew White, and the grip and electric crew of Brian Streem, Cardona, and Lamensdorf. Cardona and Lamensdorf had recently finished shooting footage for Only Criminals, which still awaited editing.

For a junior like Streem, the road trip was a chance to work on a senior's large-scale thesis film. Simon's project was being produced in NYU's premiere filmmaking class, utilizing the school's best production gear, and the crew would be renting even more equipment locally. For recent graduates like Lamensdorf and Simon, it would be the final shoot before leaving student-level work and heading into the professional world.

For the NYU students, who had spent years producing films in and around Washington Square Park, the Georgia location promised a lush and exotic break from what they were used to. But in fact, Welin says, the place Simon had chosen turned out to be "a nightmare."

"We might as well have gone to the Philippines to make Apocalypse Now," he says.

The spot is so remote that even in the Jasper County Sheriff's incident report, the place is referred to as the "old house at Clay Road."

The dilapidated house, overgrown with vines, was certainly an apt setting for some sort of movie production. (Repeated requests for a Lovely Lying Lips script or even a synopsis were denied by those involved. Cardona told the Daily News that it was "a violent film about a group of kids.") And the house was so far away from anything that there would be no obstructed views from which to shoot it.

But for all those reasons, Welin says, the old house "couldn't have been a worse location. There was no cell service. There was no electricity. They hadn't alerted [local law enforcement] that we were coming. And without the lights we trucked in, it was black as night out there."

At least, Welin believed, there was no source of electricity in the area. He turned out to be wrong about that, with deadly consequences.

The job had come at a good time in Welin's life. The 37-year-old had already spent time in the Army and as a chef before he decided to pursue movies full-time after the untimely death of his wife less than a year before. "Other than Halloween II, it was the biggest shoot I'd worked on," he says.

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