CHEYENNE – A Cheyenne filmmaker is preparing to travel to a Louisiana film festival, where his latest project will be up for an enormous cash prize.
Paul Petersen is an actor, screenwriter and producer. His new film, “An Aria for Albrights,” is set to compete in the Louisiana Film Prize in October, where it will be one of 20 short films eligible for a $50,000 prize.
It is the third time he and his collaborators have submitted a film for the competition. In 2015, his film, “The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy,” won, and it later became one of the top short films to qualify for the Academy Awards.
Petersen was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but spent most of his formative years at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Before he took a drama class during his senior year in high school, Petersen said being an actor wasn’t exactly something people expected of him.
“I was a football player,” he said. “I wasn’t the type of guy that would do that. I told my dad, and he said (sarcastically), ‘No, you’re not.’”
Growing up, Petersen said he always loved movies, watching classics with his father and grandfather. While many people love movies, he said his fascination transcended the casual. And as the youngest of three children in his family, Petersen said he might have been inclined to draw attention to himself by performing.
“I would remember casting directors’ names, the names of people who played really small parts in films, and I really enjoyed it,” Petersen said. “I was always a goof, and I liked getting attention. I thought I was funny, and eventually someone said, ‘You should try to get into drama.’”
Being able to act in a world of pretend made an impression on Petersen that would change the course of his life, he said. Being able to play the role of someone else, he said, appealed to him in a way he couldn’t easily explain.
“I just enjoyed not being myself, just for a little bit, to live vicariously through someone I’m manifesting on stage and in movies,” he said. “I’m OK with myself, but it was nice to get outside of it for a bit.”
After high school, Petersen went on to study acting at the University of South Dakota. He spent time living in New York City and Los Angeles to work on developing a career. During that time, he came to meet one of his collaborators, Alexander Jeffrey. After Petersen won a top award for a short film he made at one of Jeffrey’s film festivals, the two began collaborating on projects. Today, they own a film company called Bespoke Works, LLC.
His father would go on to be stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. While living in Los Angeles, Petersen received news his mother had cancer. He decided to come to Cheyenne to be with his family, where he has stayed to this day.
It was in Cheyenne, working on his car in the garage, where the idea of “An Aria for Albrights” struck him, Petersen said.
“I’m not the best with cars – I look at YouTube videos to see how to do it – so I listen to classical music to calm me down and keep me from stressing out while I do it,” he said with a chuckle.
While he was working, a song came up, “Pie Jesu,” as performed by 15-year-old Laura Bretan, an opera singer well-known from her time performing on “America’s Got Talent.” The contrast of the jarring noises from working on his car and the beautiful singing inspired an idea.
“She had the voice of an angel,” Petersen said. “We were looking for a project for the Film Prize. And while I was just working on my car, making a lot of noise while I was doing my stuff with the opera music playing, I had an idea for a scene where I thought, ‘What if you were to juxtapose opera with the sounds of a car garage?’ From that scene, it developed into this story about a precocious young opera singer who loses the inspiration to sing for anyone since her grandpa passed away.”
This led to an idea where Petersen could play the role of a derelict, estranged uncle from the young opera singer’s rich family who has to take care of her on a fateful day leading up to a talent show performance.
In what might have seemed like a long shot at the time, Petersen reached out to Bretan’s manager with an offer for the young performer to act in a film. Before he knew it, he was in a FaceTime conversation, working out the details.
“She took the role – the role that was written for her,” Petersen said. “So, as a writer and producer, especially an independent one trying to rise up, that was really special.”
During four 12-hour days in June, the film was shot in Shreveport, Louisiana. Bretan, Petersen said, rose to the occasion and gave a great performance.
“We had high expectations of who she was and her talent, but what she gave us exceeded that,” he said. “She was very professional, but at the same time, she’s still a kid. I never felt like she thought she was above this. Very professional, very intuitive, very natural.”
Films submitted for the Louisiana Film Prize have a time limit of 15 minutes. The final cut for future screenings of “An Aria for Albrights” would likely be a little longer than 16 minutes though, Petersen said. Eventually, he said the film might be shown at a theater in Cheyenne, and it will also be available to rent or buy online in the future.
Developing films from Cheyenne is unique from New York City or Los Angeles in the extra space and quiet Petersen’s afforded, he said. While he hasn’t made a film in Wyoming before, he said he’d love to do so someday.
“I really hope so – that’d be awesome,” Petersen said.
But wherever he is, Petersen said he plans to continue making films as long as he is inspired to do so.
The characters in “An Aria for Albright,” he said, struggle with finding inspiration to pursue their dreams. It’s a position Petersen said he’s struggled with himself. But with a film such as this one, he’s reminded why he remains inspired to keep working.
“There’s been a couple times where I’ll call my friends and I tell them, ‘I haven’t touched my keyboard to work on a script or auditioned for anything in weeks,’” he said. “But I’ll be conscious of the fact I haven’t been doing it, and this is what I want to do, and I enjoy it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Laura Bretan's name on second reference.