One Maui Family, One Cross-County Road Trip, One Senior Project Turned Award-Winning Film
In New York City, the Eyre family of seven from Makawao piled into a 1982 G-Wagon crammed with luggage and engine parts – and without air conditioning – to embark on a cross-country road trip in the summer of 2019.
When the frugal Maui family stopped at restaurants, it usually was to ask for used cooking oil to fuel the 38-year-old car. Siphoning oil that smelled like French Fries or Chinese food turned heads. So did the routine of mom Aja, and a kid or two, pushing the G-Wagon for a clutch start.
The fun, the frustrations and the family bonding all were documented, with a borrowed video camera, by oldest child Aniston “Ana” Eyre, then 17. She said: “I tried to capture the craziness that went on.”
And capture she did. What started out as her senior project for King Kekaulike High School turned into an award-winning documentary at the 2020 Hawaiʻi International Film Festival.
With her feature-length film “Wagon,” Ana became the first student filmmaker in the 40-year history of the festival to win the Audience Award for documentaries. “Wagon” also was featured at the recent virtual Maui Film Festival.
Not bad for a student whose only previous experience was making quirky videos with an iPhone for her own Aniston Eyre YouTube channel, with 83 subscribers. Among the 8 posted videos is “Project Burrito,” in which she and two friends demonstrate making burritos while all speaking Spanish, and “COVID Quarantine,” a music video to the tune of Yellow Submarine that involves she and her siblings dressed up like the Beatles on the Abbey Road album.
When Ana decided to do the feature-length film for the senior project, some at King Kekaulike High School, where she graduated top of her class in 2020, told her: “It’s a really big project. Sure you want to undertake this?”
“It kind of scared me, but I wanted to do it. And while it might be totally over my head, I just decided to go for it,” said Ana, now 19 and taking online classes as a Colombia University freshman.
Her mother, Aja, said: “I knew it was a great project for her. She already loved making movies, although I don’t think any were more than 5 minutes before.”
Aja said her eldest daughter made her first “movies” when she was about 8 years old. She set up her model horses in different scenes and tried different camera angles so all the tiny toys would fit in the frame.
For this big senior project, Ana didn’t have to go far to seek professional mentors. Neighbors Kent and Darlene Rayhill of Ohana Films, which produce high-end wedding and marketing videos, provided guidance and lent her an entry-level DSLR camera, the Canon T2i.
Jacqueline Zambrano, a retired writer/producer whose credits include TV shows CSI-Crime Scene Investigation and Star Trek and movies Gabriel’s Fire and In the Mix, provided help with storyboarding the film. Zambrano was a college counselor at King Kekaulike High School and a family friend.
Ana had never taken a class about film making, and she never had used a DSLR camera. She said the Rayhill’s explained the basics about both: “They taught me some of the camera features, like manual focus on the lens. And they gave me tips, like don’t stop shooting when I think I should. Stop three seconds after that, which I used a lot.”
“Wagon” starts off shaky, literally. Ana said it took some time to get used to holding the heavier camera steady. And it’s hard for anyone to shoot inside a bumpy and loud car, with two siblings sitting next to you. But Ana got the knack of it, with help from her dad who fixed the car’s suspension.
As her technical skills got better as the trip went on, her storytelling draws viewers in from the start with its pure authenticity and lovable family.
Ana tells the story of the 3,300-mile trip from New York City to Washington State from her point of view and from her vantage point, often the seat behind shotgun in the G-Wagon.
The only characters are her family, and the G-Wagon. From the start, there’s suspense about whether the car will make it to the end.
There’s her dad, Jonah, who is constantly shown working on the car as it breaks down, sometimes in the middle of nowhere. Her mother, Harvard-educated Aja, runs the family logistics, planning the route, booking places to sleep and navigating. She also is chief pusher to get the car started since Jonah has medical issues with his lungs.
Then there are Ana’s four siblings. At the time of the road trip, Camden was 15, Elsie was 12, Poem was 8 and Ezra, who often stole the show between his sweetness, funny lines and tantrums, was 5.
Ana said she tried to be “real and straightforward, but there were times my mom said: ‘You are not putting that in the film’.”
Aja said that was true: “It usually was me half dressed, crawling out of the tent. Got to preserve the dignity.”
Ana said everybody but youngest Ezra got a say in what could go in the film: “We’ll see what Ezra says when he’s older.”
In the movie, you see her dad brag about negotiating a 12.99 item at the Salvation Army down to $2.99. You watch a cast iron pan put under the hood to see if it will warm beans while they drive — her mom’s idea. You laugh at Ezra explaining he made a bagel sandwich by cutting a hole in the middle of the bread and putting deodorant on his elbow.
You feel the entire family’s despair when they arrive at a campground and have to set up tents on dirt because it is the night the sprinklers water the green grassy area. And, you enjoy riding with the family on a 40-day journey in which they not only survive but show love for each other.
Ana shot 300 gigabytes of footage that included stops at Niagara Falls and places along the Oregon Trail. In the editing process, on iMovie and with a borrowed computer and borrowed monitor, she reduced it to 15 gigabytes for the final 1-hour and 12-minute film.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Ana said. “But I was organized. I edited it in 20 segments, based on location. I went through the footage and clipped it, adding music. More suspenseful, happier or calm depending on the scene.”
Aja said her daughter has always been organized, detailed and a hard worker. It is evidenced by her winning state championships as a freestyle swimmer and by the many long nights, up to 1 am, editing the footage. Aja said she was “not allowed” to see the process. “Aniston would say: ‘You can’t come in. You can’t see anything’.”
That was not the case for her mentors. But before the Rayhills saw the first edited portions of the film, Kent said they prepared for how to be very nice while critiquing Ana’s work.
“But when she showed us the first section, we were both blown away,” he said. “She sucked us in. We wanted to continue watching.”
Kent said he and his wife provided guidance along the editing process, but it was more tweaks and subtle changes than anything major.
“She has something that is hard to teach,” he said. “It’s that sensibility. Her concept at the beginning, equating their trip to the Oregon Trail, and the Wagon as a metaphor, going sea to sea. That was all hers. It was really smart.
“We’re kind of jealous. As the film developed and got longer and longer, we did feel the need to do our own film. What are we waiting for? It’s been a dream of ours to make a documentary. Ana is inspiring.”
“Wagon” premiered at King Kekaulike High School. It was the first time Ana’s family got to see the completed film. Aja said she was a bit concerned since a large group of people she knew would be watching it, and she had “not seen a single video clip.” But like the Rayhills, Aja said: “I was blown away.”
Although, to help in her daughter’s filmmaking career, they got her a gimbal for Christmas for less shaky video.
Ana, from her grandmother’s home in Utah, where she is taking her online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said she had no clue what she wanted to major in at Colombia. She chose the elite school for its academics and athletic program, where she is a member of its swim team.
But after completing “Wagon,” she said she wanted to become a filmmaker. And good fortune for her that Colombia has a premiere film school for emerging filmmakers and New York City is a great city for filmmaking.
Ana got all As her first semester and is already thinking about her next film. “I told her when she wins an Oscar,” Kent said. “That she better thank us.”
To watch “Wagon,” click here.
To watch the “Wagon” trailer, click here.