The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Will Schwarz and the Tale of Two Open Screens

The first time Will Schwarz won the Grand Prize at Open Screen, a local short film competition, he was shocked. The second time he won, he felt kind of bad about it.

At the beginning of 2022, Schwarz was a sophomore studying cinema and screenwriting at the university, but he was detached from his peers and the filmmaking community. It wasn’t for a lack of passion. Schwarz has been making films since he was 12, shooting stop-motion videos on a Nintendo DSi. But COVID-19 presented a huge challenge to his social life and health. He had his grandparents at home to think about, and an immunocompromised father.

Before returning home for spring break, he decided he wanted to submit something to Open Screen in April. Open Screen is a bi-annual event hosted by Bijou Film Board, a student organization at the University of Iowa. The competition is free and open to all university students and local filmmakers. Bijou screens the chosen submissions in front of an audience and a committee of judges at FilmScene, a local non-profit movie theater and a highlight of Iowa City’s arts community.

The Open Screen deadline came at a convenient time; he needed to shoot a documentary for one of his classes anyway. Why not just film both projects in the same week?

Will Schwarz after his second Open Screen win, for “Spring Awakes”. All images courtesy of Schwarz.

“Equinox” was filmed inside and inspired by Schwarz’ family home, a home whose history is almost impossible to believe. Schwarz describes it as a “weird, 19th century building” rather than a “house.” The building originally functioned as a nursing home. Then, Schwarz said, roughly 60 to 70 years later, his grandparents bought the nursing home and turned it into an art school. Finally, Schwarz’ dad bought the building, making it a family home for Schwarz, his sisters, his parents, and his grandparents.

“We all have… strange, spiritual experiences being there,” Schwarz said. “Because, like, probably more than a hundred people have died there.”

One strange experience is a dream that Schwarz claims to share with his twin sister Sophie (21) and older sister Maggie (23). The dream, he says, involves a door appearing in a hallway inside their home.

Maggie Schwarz enters a door to nowhere in “Equinox”.

Schwarz, with the help of his sisters, translated this dream into a nine-minute psychedelic and spooky short film. A red door materializes out of an empty space. Maggie emerges from the doorway, but the footage reverses and she walks right back in, seemingly into a black hole. Cut to two dark figures walking outside at night, an orange moon glowing in the distance. Cut to Maggie and an unnamed character dancing in a room splashed in red and purple light, with haunting vocalizations looping in the background. It’s no surprise that Schwarz lists David Lynch as one of his biggest inspirations.

A mysterious, barely visible figure haunts this scene from “Equinox”.

Besides the mysterious visuals, one of the film’s most striking aspects is the music. This music is a product of Wave Guide, a band formed, once again, between Schwarz and his sisters.

“My sisters are everything in the world to me,” Schwarz said. “They’re such incredible artists and performers that I feel like I have to fit them in my films somehow, just because they bring so much to the table that I don’t personally have.”

Maggie and Sophie Schwarz celebrating their brother’s first Open Screen win for “Equinox”.

Sophie worked as a private chef for a few years before taking on her current managerial position at a restaurant in Decorah, Iowa, Schwarz’ hometown. Maggie currently works for the Winneshiek County Conservation Board (also in Decorah), and is an independent artist, selling pieces at art shows and by commission. Maggie’s conservation work reflects the siblings’ childhood spent in nature, something that inspired Schwarz’ second film, “Spring Awakes.”

For his class documentary, Schwarz wanted to explore the transition between winter and spring. “Spring Awakes” combines footage from Decorah and Iowa City. There is no dialogue, save for audio from a pedestrian crossing (“Walk sign is on across Washington”). Snow falls across downtown Iowa City. Water flows over a rocky stream. Birds fly and dwell on tree branches. The film captures the sights and sounds of nature’s simple beauty, set to Schwarz’ self-composed calming synth score. Schwarz considers “Spring Awakes” his best work to date, and appreciates that it can exist as a piece of art without being tied to a narrative.

The final shot in “Spring Awakes” features Hancher Auditorium lit by a beautiful Iowa City sunset.

“Equinox” went on to win the judges’ Grand Prize and the Audience’s Choice award in the April 2022 Open Screen. Schwarz describes feeling shock, elation, and a sense that he shouldn’t have won. Prior to the competition, he didn’t think his work was on the same level as his peers.

Perhaps it was this sense of doubt, or the fact that he had just won a few months ago, that led Schwarz to believe there was no way that “Spring Awakes” would win the Grand Prize at the November 2022 Open Screen. He was just submitting it for fun. He thought it was his best work, but at the same time, he figured a quaint short film about “birds and stuff” would be less exciting than other submissions. And yet he won, again. And he still had trouble feeling good about his victory.

“I already had that moment, and other people deserve to have their moment in the spotlight too. So I probably won’t be submitting again,” Schwarz said. “But I’m very happy that I had that opportunity.”

Still from “Spring Awakes”, a.k.a “birds and stuff.”

Besides the material prizes he won from Open Screen (a projector and a GoPro that he is very thankful for and uses all the time), Schwarz gained community and new friendships, things he lacked since starting college. Even though he doesn’t plan on submitting, Schwarz will likely attend Open Screen again just to experience the exchange of art and ideas in a lively environment. 

“It’s incredible to be in a place that values art so highly,” Schwarz said of Iowa City. “Everybody is an artist here… you can talk to anybody on the street, and you can ask them about what they do, and they’ll tell you about what projects they’re working on.”

Speaking of projects, Schwarz has a new one up his sleeve. Aiming at a 30 or 40-minute runtime, the film features a main character that has lost his sense of self and starts seeing aliens in the sky. Schwarz said the film is inspired by his own growth. Forging strong friendships has allowed Schwarz to embrace himself in new ways, and he’s ready to take a step back and reflect on that journey.

“I’ve been so lucky,” Schwarz said. “My life has changed forever.”

You can watch both films on Schwarz’ YouTube channel.