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Rising Filmmaker Chooses Local Settings

On the trail around Lake Accotink, J. Michael Whalen zoomed the camera in on his 8-year-old nephew, who was armed with a magnifying glass and a coffee can of fake bugs.

"When I say, 'Action,' just do what I told you, and when I say, 'Stop,' then stop," Whalen instructed.

His nephew, burning bugs with a magnifying glass, was doing a scene from "Phythona," a project the local filmmaker has immersed himself in to launch his cinematic career. Whalen was amazed at his nephew's acting.

"He did it perfect. I was amazed," Whalen said.

The bug scene was part of Phythona's early life, when she was terrorized by a young boy. Everything is through her eyes in a first-person scenario, with a voice-over narration through parts of it. Although Whalen hasn't got the Phythona actress set in stone, he has an idea of whom he wants for the role, a woman he's discussed it with who lives in Alexandria.

"She's dying to do it," he said.

Phythona suffers from a mental illness, which Whalen hints is schizophrenia. She can't convince any of her family or friends that she's sick, though. Phythona's snake-sounding name has to do with shedding the skin of her past, according to Whalen.

"She's really coming to terms with the culmination of her past," he said.

The opening scene is a risque bathing scene, so it does involve nudity to some extent. Although Whalen isn't going to concentrate on the nudity, he won't "compromise" it, as he puts it (e.g., using a fig leaf or bubble bath to cover it up).

"It opens up, it's a women taking a bath. I can't deviate from that," he said.

Scenes were also filmed in Virginia Beach and Old Town, Alexandria, where he and his cameraman approached people on the street," Whalen said.

His father, John Whalen, has seen some of J. Michael's work and read the "Phythona" script.

"It's pretty good stuff, a pretty interesting story," he said.

WHALEN BEGAN his movie producer career in ninth grade at Lake Braddock Secondary School, when he shot a short film on high 8 video on the Palestinian Liberation Organization for history class.

"This was kids having fun with gasoline, firecrackers and army men. The class demanded to see it three times, the helicopter blowing in a million pieces," he said.

He was hooked after that.

The history film, circa 1990, was remembered by Lake Braddock history teacher Kevin Kidd, who is still teaching at the school.

"We had to do some world events," Kidd said. He used film projects as a teaching medium up until the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests came into the picture five years ago. The SOLs take up much of their time.

"Creativity has been stripped. It was a great tool," he said.

THEN WHALEN toyed with black-and-white photography, using a Charlie McCarthy dummy, and then another film.

"I shot a black-and-white murder-revenge film, filmed on my back porch at like 2 o'clock in the morning. My parents slept through the whole thing," he said.

His father is a government reporter and freelances on the side.

"He did a lot of films on his own. We were encouraging him to do it. If you can do what you really want to do, life's a whole lot better," the elder Whalen said.

Whalen's ideas come from his life or his fears in life. Paintings and music influence him.

"Many times, it's hindsight. Maybe that's just what I'm afraid I'll become," he said of an early film he did about a guy who was trapped in his basement.

WHALEN GRADUATED from Lake Braddock in 1994 and Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, with a bachelor of fine arts, in 1998. Technology played a role, allowing him to become an independent filmmaker instead of going to Hollywood.

"I don't like California at all. This is where I'm from. Digital technology allows people to do things a lot cheaper," he said.

Some of the funding of "Phythona" came from Sunrise Retirement Center, where he got a $500 "wellness program" grant, which is designed to help people. Whalen managed to convince them the film was therapeutic.

"They looked at me like I was cracked," he said.

He also freelances for Cortina Productions, editing basketball films that will be used in the NBA Hall of Fame. This job he got from a contact he knew right after college.

"They pay me better than my day job," he said.

Between his office support job at Sunrise, and part-time freelance film editing for Cortina Productions, Whalen has little time for "Phythona," so he's only about one-third into the production. He expects to have it done by August. Then he will send it around to contests, feature it on Channel 33 in Arlington, show it at Visions CafÈ in Washington, D.C., and anywhere else he can.

"It will be a springboard for everybody. Hopefully, somebody will see it. It's basically a stepping stone," he said.