Short films explore ‘Mystery’ and relationships

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 24, 2019

 From left, Susan Kopf, Stella Woitulewicz and Harry Burkey all took part in the new original short film, “Mystery at The Helm.”

From left, Susan Kopf, Stella Woitulewicz and Harry Burkey all took part in the new original short film, “Mystery at The Helm.”

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — There’s something spooky going on at The Helm at the Boll Life Center in Grosse Pointe Farms.

It seems a person from the historical building’s past has resurfaced and is trying desperately to get someone’s attention. At least, that’s the premise of the fictional “Mystery at The Helm,” a new short film written and directed by Harry Burkey, of Grosse Pointe Woods, and shot at The Helm, starring real Helm staffers playing themselves alongside actors playing other characters.

The thriller with comedic elements will be shown along with “Finding Common Grounds,” a short film written and directed by Stella Woitulewicz, of Detroit, during screenings at 6 p.m. Sept. 27 and 2 p.m. Sept. 28 at The Helm. Five episodes of Burkey’s domestic comedy series, “Life in the Slowe Lane” — two favorites and three recently edited episodes — will be shown as well.

“Mystery at the Helm,” which Burkey said is less than 15 minutes long, is about what happens when a package containing a letter and an old photograph of an unidentified nurse get delivered to The Helm. The Helm building was once a residence for nurses in real life, so Burkey drew on that history, creating a nurse character — played by Julia Bayer — who begins to hide items in an effort to get Helm staffers to notice and help her. Most Helm staffers play themselves, but Woitulewicz stepped into the role of Helm Executive Director Peggy Hayes because Hayes was on vacation during filming.

It’s the second annual screening of original short films organized by Burkey, a professional actor and filmmaker who volunteers at The Helm and runs a competitive poker program there. Helm program coordinator Susan Kopf said that last year’s screening led to her finding herself in front of the camera this time around.

“There was a lot of excitement,” she said. “And I said, ‘Harry, wouldn’t it be nice if the staff (at The Helm) did one of these?’”

When he wrote the script, Burkey said, he kept Helm staffers in mind.

“In my head, I was trying to remember how people talked,” said Burkey, who encouraged improvisation and whose dialogue was written to seem natural to each person. “I told people, ‘Say what comes into your head; say what you feel.”

Kopf, who looks into the mysterious photo and strange happenings, said the shoot ended up being unintentionally funny.

“The best parts were when we just starting laughing hysterically,” she said.

“Which I couldn’t put in the movie,” Burkey responded with a grin.

Kopf insists she’s no Meryl Streep, but Burkey and others said even the novice performers did credible work.

“Everybody here did a wonderful job,” Woitulewicz said.

Other Helm staffers, including administrative assistant Roz Peters, volunteer coordinator Heidi Uhlig-Johnstone and program coordinator Margaret Cooper, also made it into the film, as did Helm board member Gary Collett, who plays a handyman.

Like “Life in the Slowe Lane,” Woitulewicz’s “Finding Common Grounds” was filmed against a green screen, with the background added during post-production. Set in a crowded coffee shop, Woitulewicz said she wrote it during an introduction to filmmaking class that Burkey taught a couple of years ago. Burkey praised it, calling it “a very good story.” It’s only about seven minutes long.

“It’s about two older people who are looking for friends,” Woitulewicz said. “Like filming ‘Mystery at The Helm,’ it was fun. People met each other. My daughter was one of the extras, and she really hit it off with this older woman.”

Because they needed lots of people to play coffee shop patrons, Woitulewicz and Burkey found themselves bringing in some unexpected extras. Burkey said a couple of people were attending a wedding at The Helm and heard noise coming from upstairs, so they wandered up to investigate, which is when they stumbled upon the film shoot.

“I asked them if they wanted to be in the movie,” said Burkey, noting that they agreed. “And then they went back downstairs to the wedding.”

Tickets for the Sept. 27 screening include a buffet dinner along with beer, wine and soft drinks, at a cost of $35 per person or $60 per couple. Tickets for the Sept. 28 screening cost $10 per person; popcorn, candy, chips and soft drinks will be available for purchase. The Helm is located at 158 Ridge Road in Grosse Pointe Farms. Reservations are requested and can be made by calling (313) 407-6225.