Press Release— Essay Contest Winners

Three La Porte County high-schoolers win FilmAcres essay contest

By Andrew Tallackson


Director John Hancock (back) stands with the three essay contest winners: Jonathan “J.T.” Klingenmeier (from left), Abby Schoonaert and Dominic Riffett.

One student believes movie directors have the power to tell meaningful stories.

Another views documentaries as the most influential way to explore real issues.

A third has carved out a specific plan to become a filmmaker.

These three teens, Abby Schoonaert, 15, Michigan City High School, Dominic Riffett, 17, Westville High School, and Jonathan “J.T.” Klingenmeier, 17, La Porte High School, are the winners of the “Dare to Dream Essay Contest” through Oscar-nominated director John Hancock’s FilmAcres production company. The three will spend two days on the set of his latest movie, “Swan Song,” which began filming Friday.

“We were only going to pick one winner, but these three did such a wonderful job with their essays, we wanted them all to be part of this,” said Margaret Clifford, a retired educator and FilmAcres production officer manager who judged the essays along with Doreen Bartoni, co-producer and Columbia College Chicago professor, and Tammy Lakes, the vice president of product management and marketing, Accelerated Performance Solutions, Pearson Education Inc.

Open to all high-schoolers in La Porte County and Three Oaks, Mich., the contest asked students to prepare a 300- to 400-word essay explaining why they want to be a filmmaker or director. They also could write about any particular story they want to tell, or when they realized filmmaking was their dream.

The winners will have a walk-on role, experience with the lighting crew, sound department and cinematographer and the chance to sit with Hancock as he directs the film.

As a child, Schoonaert, the daughter of Mark and Nancy Schoonaert, fell in love with Disney princesses, saying they taught her to believe in magic, that anything is possible. That’s why she believes becoming a filmmaker is a reality for her.

“Very few get into this business and become successful,” she wrote. “So, I start to doubt myself. I think, why am I special? Why would anyone choose me? Then, I remember, the dream won’t chase you. You have to chase your dream.”

Riffett, the son of Dominic and Kathy Riffett, aspires to make documentaries, saying they help people learn about important subjects. Oscar-winner Michael Moore (“Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”) is his idol.

“He gets right up to people’s faces,” Riffett says of Moore, “and asks them questions they don’t want to answer. That’s what I want to do.”

Klingenmeier, the son of John Klingenmeier and Kimberly Dabbert, admits he thinks about movies constantly.

“Throughout my day,” he writes, “I am always thinking of new story ideas, cool visual effects, unique camera angles and just film in general. I can’t think of doing anything else with my life that doesn’t involve film.”

His plan is to attend Columbia College Chicago to major in creative producing or cinema directing. He then wants to stay in Chicago and amass an impressive resume before heading to Los Angeles.

“I won’t forget about La Porte, Indiana,” he writes. “I even plan to film a few of my blockbusters here.”