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Indie film bonds 7 Pinellas alumni

New York spawns plenty of independent films, including the recent award-winning work, “Lies I Told My Little Sister.”

But when the film was screened during the Gasparilla Film Festival in March, walking away with “Best of the Fest” honors, it marked a Tampa Bay homecoming for the people who created it.

All seven of them.

They came together as New Yorkers, each taking a different path to the Big Apple then finding one another there. But they credit their success to the training and inspiration they received at a young age in the same place — the Gibbs High School magnet program known as the Pinellas County Center for the Arts.

“I think our film shows what a great program the school offers,” said the film’s director, William Stribling, class of 2008.

The seven graduated from four different classes at Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, and they weren’t all friends there. They came together while pursuing careers either behind the camera or in front it.

Once joined, though, they went to parties, bars and clubs as a group.

They attended concerts and Broadway plays.

And, of course, they made a movie.

“Lies I Told My Little Sister” has been screened at seven film festivals during the past three months.

Stribling was the maestro of the film, the common link among the seven and the man who sold the film’s producers on hiring his friends.

“I didn’t only choose them only because they are my friends,” Stribling said. “I can’t be so loyal to my friends that I work with them even if they perform their jobs badly. Luckily, my friends are also talented.”

The friends are Dylan Glatthorn, composer, class of 2006; Alex Jennings, actress, class of 2008; Austin Ruffer, production assistant and actor, class of 2008; Alex Whittenberg, production designer, class of 2010; Jacob Stewart, second assistant director, class of 2010; and Bekka Walker, actress, class of 2011.

“We are so thrilled with what they have done,” said Karen Bail, who taught all seven at the Center for the Arts, which offers a focus in dance, music, theater, technical theater or the visual arts. “I use them as an example to my current students that the friendships they make now could impact their careers for a long time.”

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The new filmmakers are waiting to hear back from more festivals and hoping to sign with a distributor.

“If we succeed, it will be even sweeter because the success would be shared with longtime friends,” Stribling said.

Count Joe Restaino, program director for the Gasparilla Film Festival, among those expecting big things for “Lies I Told My Little Sister.”

“The story has a lot of heart and the cast really delivers on enabling the audience to connect with the story,” Restaino said. “The film sold out both of its screenings to audiences that really connected with it. Gasparilla is very proud to support filmmakers like these from the Tampa area.”

The seven colleagues who made the film came together from different places.

Composer Glatthorn, for example, had a car in high school.

“I needed rides to the beach,” Stribling explained with a chuckle.

Their drives in the cheap rig opened Stribling’s ears to the talent and whimsy of his new friend.

The brakes would squeal so loudly, for example, they could be heard for blocks away so Glatthorn tried to match their tone with his singing voice.

In high school, Stewart, the assistant director, was like a younger brother to Stribling, who was two years older.

“On my 18th birthday, Jacob gave me a manila envelope as a present,” Stribling recalled. “Inside were real adoption papers he’d found online somewhere.”

The adoption never came to pass, but Stribling did serve as a groomsman at Stewart’s wedding.

Production designer Whittenberg and Stribling forged their friendship on trips to Disney World.

“He’s a Disney nut,” Stribling said. “He knows everything about the company and the park. He’s the best person to go with.”

Jennings and Ruffer were known as two of the more talented thespians in high school, Stribling said.

And he met actress Walker while helping a friend cast a play.

Each gravitated to New York after graduation.

First was composer Glatthorn, who attended New York University.

Strilbing was next, also enrolling at NYU.

When he began his freshman film, Stribling turned to Glatthorn seeking payback for posters he designed him years earlier.

Whittenberg arrived in New York two years later, majoring in theatrical design at Purchase College with the goal of working for Walt a Disney Imagineering – the creation and construction arm of Disney theme parks worldwide.

“He’ll do it,” Stribling said. “He has the talent and knowledge.”

The others trickled into the city one by one.

“A lot of the kids from our school had big ambitions,” Glatthorn said. “And those ambitions bring us all to New York.”

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Lies I Told My Little Sister” is based on a humor essay of the same title that 61-year-old journalist and award-winning author Judy White published in Seventeen magazine 30 years ago about the fibs she told to torture her younger sibling.

“You know the drill,” said White. “Things like she was born with a tail.”

That little sister grew up and had a son, Jonathan Weisbrod, who went on to attend NYU and befriend Stribling.

Looking for a post-graduation project, Weisbrod turned to his successful aunt for ideas. Together they came up with the script and hired Stribling as director.

The three then turned to the task of making a feature film with limited finances. Stribling came through.

“He had all these talented friends from high school living in New York who also just happened to be talented in different areas,” Weisbrod said. “It’s so crazy it’s still hard to believe. Whatever that high school is doing is working.”

The group agreed to join the production, working for less than normal out of friendship.

“You always think you have nice clusters of really talented students who in a perfect world will work together and make something special,” said Kevin Renken, who taught the seven friends at Pinellas County Center for the Arts. “In their case it has actually happened.”

They also received financial support from Bail, their former high school teacher

“I don’t make a lot being a teacher,” Bail said. “But it is so exciting to see so many of my students pursuing a career in the arts I just wanted to be a part of it in some way.”

The production then added veteran actors such as Donovan Patton of the children’s series “Blues Clues,” Ellen Foley of the 1980s sitcom “Night Court” and Alicia Minshew of “All My Children.”

The camaraderie of the high school friends spread to everyone on the set, said screenwriter White.

“They had this amazing energy between them that I’ve never experienced,” she said. “Rather than being a clique that shut everyone else out, they brought everyone else into it. It made it so much easier for everyone on set to bond because a strong bond already existed between so many.”

A few of the friends relocated to Los Angeles when the film wrapped — Stribling, Jennings and Walker.

But Stribling hopes each new film he directs is a reunion for the seven.

“As long as they are all available and affordable, I’ll keep working with all of them,” he said. “But I know it is only a matter of time before the world realizes how talented they are and steals them away from me.”

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