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Two seniors take on ambitious film project, cast Duke football player as lead

For most of us, the sound of a train horn along the Durham tracks inspires annoyance and perhaps a bit of shock. For senior Tristan Bouan, it inspired a film. 

Fast forward two years and Bouan—along with his producer, senior Jackson Steger—are beginning production for their movie “Trainhopper” by casting Duke students, scouting locations for filming and continuing to fundraise for the ambitious project. 

“It’s not a genre movie because it’s got comedy, action, romance,” Steger said. “It’s a coming-of-age story in some ways about nostalgia, attachment and suffering.”

The plot revolves around a character named Samuel who runs away from home and begins trainhopping after experiencing a family tragedy. After living a nomad lifestyle for four years, the train he’s riding stops in Durham where Samuel is arrested. Because he can’t afford to pay the fine, he’s offered a deal—go to jail or work as a cameraman. He ultimately develops connections with those he meets in Durham and has to either accept a life with close attachments or leave and trainhop again.

Humble beginnings

Soon after Bouan conceived “Trainhopper,” he embarked on a very different path—a consulting internship in Burma. It was the summer after his sophomore year and he worked on a project to establish a bank. But he never forgot his original idea, writing down thoughts about the basic structure and plot whenever he had time. 

During the spring of his junior year, Bouan participated in the Duke in Los Angeles program, interning for Cross Creek Pictures, which has made the films “Black Swan” and “Hacksaw Ridge.” He met Steger there, and the two became close while working as development interns. In this role, they spent most of their time reading scripts that were submitted to Cross Creek and providing feedback on whether they should be made into films or not. 

Steger explained that interns have an unexpected amount of power in this situation—their opinions on the films in question determine whether executives pursue it. 

“You could ruin someone’s life or make someone’s dream come true,” he said. 

Despite the hundreds of scripts he read on the job, Steger said he only recommended that five be made into films, noting the number of horrible ideas out there, including one about giant killer worms.  

He added that this gave him encouragement—although Hollywood is full of competition, much of it is not very good. 

"A lot of people are trying to make it, but if you look at people who are good and try to make it, it’s much lower,” Bouan added. 

While working on the set of “Roman J. Israel, Esq”—a film starring Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell—people began to notice Bouan’s natural curiosity for the movie industry and asked him about his passion, giving him a platform to bring up his developing project.  He also began fundraising, with friends and coworkers writing him checks to fund production. 

Around this time, Steger jumped on board as the producer to Bouan’s director/writer role. Steger explained that while they were in Los Angeles, Bouan asked him to edit a letter he was writing to Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, asking for money to film. Steger immediately saw Bouan’s commitment to the movie and wanted to be involved. 

“I’d done little projects but nothing so big,” Steger said. “I knew this would be a great project for my senior year.”

He noted that the definition of producer is broad and vague. His job is basically to do everything possible to ensure the movie actually gets made. He works on social media, markets the project and reads the script to make suggestions. For instance, he thought one of the relationships in the previous draft of the film was too intense, so he and Bouan worked together to tone it down. 

Bouan explained that the producer is really the “right-hand man” of the director. 

“It’s not just on film. One time I was stressed out 4:30 a.m. and texted him, and he responded immediately,” he said about Steger. “He’s someone who is pushing the film forward.”

Making a movie in Durham 

A large part of Bouan and Steger’s work has been forming the film’s cast, which is currently composed of all Duke actors. 

After returning from Burma, Bouan began searching for talent on campus, often asking professors in the theater studies department for help. His search led him to Alonzo Saxton II, a senior who is currently a safety on the Duke football team as well as a theater studies major.

Bouan said the thought that Saxton would be perfect for the role of Samuel and got him to sign on as the lead. From there, Bouan was able to write the role around him—something that rarely happens in Hollywood because casting is often in flux until late in development. 

In total, the film will have about 10 to 20 actors, all of whom will be Duke students along with one faculty member—Jay O’Berski, assistant professor of the practice in the department of theater studies. Senior Daniel Kim will also serve as the movie’s composer.

For the past two years, Bouan said he has been scouting around campus for additional talent. 

“I would look at all the shows at Duke and go to them and watch and kind of cast on the spot,” he said. “I can see pretty quickly if it will work or not.”

He noted that he also might hold auditions in upcoming weeks for additional actors to join the project. 

Bouan and Steger’s plan is to shoot the film during the next couple of months and do post-production work such as editing and color correction in Los Angeles. Once they’re satisfied with the final product, they’ll submit it to film festivals and “hope for the best,” Steger said. They also aim to premiere it at Duke’s homecoming next year.  

Struggles along the way 

Bouan and Steger explained that their main focus right now is fundraising—they plan to launch a Kickstarter Oct. 12 with a goal of $26,000. This will supplement their current $20,000 they’ve raised through donations from family and friends. 

Bouan said that he is worried about finishing all the filming, which will take place in Durham. As the days continously become shorter in North Carolina, he has less opportunities to film during daylight hours. 

Another concern is his visa—Bouan is an international student who has lived in many different countries across Asia and Africa as the child of United Nations employees. After he works on post-production in L.A., he said he plans to leave the United States and travel. If “Trainhopper” is picked by festivals and garners acclaim, this will give legitimacy to Bouan's filmmaking ability, and he may be able to apply for an artist's visa.  

And then there’s the fact that they’re both full-time students. 

Despite the long hours spent on the project, Steger explained that the extra work is worth it because filmmaking is the career path he wants to follow. 

“I love making things and creating cool stuff,” he said. “I want everything I make to be a good as it possibly can.”

Bouan noted that for him, the film is much more important than his grades. 

“I’m going to just have to power through,” he said. “I don't care how well I do in my classes. This is what I want to do.”

Editor's note: This article was updated to state that the Kickstarter campaign will launch Oct. 12. 


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