MOORHEAD — Millions of moviegoers this summer will see a short film directed by a young Moorhead man even before blockbusters like "Avengers: Endgame" or "The Lion King" come on the big screen.
On April 4, Hollywood actor and director Olivia Wilde announced Devon Solwold, a 2017 Moorhead High graduate, and Shayain Lakhani, from Atlanta, both students at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, are the winners of the 2019 Coca-Cola Regal Films program.
That means their short film, "Choose Happy," which celebrates the joy of drinking the soda at the movies, will be seen before the start of the main feature at Regal Cinemas theaters starting in May.
Solwold says it's all pretty unbelievable.
"To know that we're a part of people's moviegoing experience is just crazy. I can't even articulate it," Solwold says.
Actor to director
Anyone who attended Moorhead High School Theater productions from 2013 to 2016 might recognize Solwold as the lead actor in shows such as "Tarzan" and "Little Shop of Horrors." His energetic performances won rave reviews and probably could have landed him a spot on major college acting programs.
But for Solwold, acting was always second to his desire to step behind the scenes.
"As soon as I got my hands on my grandpa's camcorder, I knew it. It was the most natural thing in the world to me," he says.
He dabbled in short films that became more sophisticated as time went on. But his time on the stage — both acting in musical theater productions and participating in speech at Moorhead High School — were not a waste of time.
"I think the musical theater experience definitely helped me with how I approach actors today and how I can look at character development," he says. "And with speech, I learned what makes a good story. I really can't overestimate how important all of that was for me."
A SCAD family
After graduating high school in 2017, Solwold chose to attend Savannah College of Art and Design and major in filmmaking. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he and his SCAD colleagues decided to enter the Coca-Cola Regal Films competition.
"It drew me in right away," he says. "We started writing scripts, passing them back and forth and building a great team to work on it."
Out of the hundreds of scripts sent to the competition, five finalists were selected, including Solwold's team from SCAD. The finalists were flown to Los Angeles for a training session and met with Wilde, who is best-known for acting but also will release her directorial debut, "Booksmart," next month.
Finalists were also given $15,000 each to create and produce their 30-second film.
Solwold says while some of the finalists used the money to hire outside people to help with the film, the SCAD team had the luxury of building their filmmaking team all from their own school.
"We were completely a student-led production," he says. "We have a multitude of majors here so we could use our own production design and sound design people, and to get our talent right, we could use our casting office. President (Paula) Wallace understands the kind of collaboration that goes into filmmaking and we have that here."
Solwold served as director/writer, while Lakhani was the producer/writer. Together with their crew of about 75 people — and several more on the shoot day — they descended upon a "classic, timeless" theater in Charleston, S.C., to shoot the film. Because it was an active theater, they had to get their shots from 9 p.m. Sunday night to 9 a.m. Monday morning.
Solwold says he was proud of the final projects, and the panel of film industry judges apparently was, too. Wilde, who served as a mentor, says she was impressed by Solwold and Lakhani.
"'Choose Happy' is a celebration of cinematic ambition, of truly taking advantage of the medium and exploring new ways to illustrate our imagination," she says in a news release.
Solwold and Lakhani debuted their film alongside Wilde in Las Vegas at Cinemacon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 4. Solwold, the kid from Moorhead who used to draw VHS film covers for fun, found himself surrounded by Hollywood heavyweights.
"I was losing it," he says. "We had our own publicist. I'm standing on the red carpet next to Olivia Wilde. Kevin Hart was there. I've grown up watching all of these people and I'm in the same room with them. I almost couldn't comprehend it."
He says it is "kind of a bummer" that the closest Regal theater to his hometown is more than three hours away in Eagan, Minn. But if friends and relatives want to watch the film, it is available on YouTube. Locals can see all of the finalists' films at the Coca-Cola Regal Films' website, too.
Anyone who watches "Choose Happy" might even see it as Solwold's own story.
"Every time I click on a movie or go to a movie, that's my sacred place," he says. "For me, choosing happy is the movies."