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ISU Professor Receives Award For Sci-Fi Screenplay Rooted In Reality

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Illinois State University
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Illinois Sate University professor John McHale has written seven produced films, directed five produced films, produced nine films, executive produced over 20 films.

An Illinois State University faculty member has been recognized for his sci-fi screenplay about a chaotic near future that connects to many divisive issues in our present.

ISU professor John McHale teaches in the School of Communication. His screenplay “EcoFront” recently won the award for Best Film Script written by a faculty member from the Broadcast Education Association.

“The idea for the screenplay originally was looking at some of our harshest and most inhumane policies and thinking about what would happen if they were extended to their logical conclusion. And what we're left with an ecologically devastated landscape ruled by corporations,” said McHale.

In his screenplay, McHale said the lead character Rocky was separated from her family at the border because they didn't have the proper paperwork. So she was placed in an internment camp where she escaped the brutality at age 4.

“Rocky faces a desolate landscape. I mean, she's scrambling for sustenance to find clean water in a world where the temperature has increased eight to 12 degrees,” said McHale. 

Rocky joins a group of eco-defending freedom fighters as they protect their home and defend their neighbors. Rocky couldn’t go it alone, according to McHale. She is injured in the screenplay and is faced with the question of whether she wants to join a family and work towards the common cause of projecting their fertile valley and their neighbors from the marauding militias. 

“A lot of the film is her trying to adapt to this new world. And in the meantime, create the human bonding of the family,” said McHale. 

In the screenplay, Rocky is tested for COVID-29, a fictional virus similar to COVID-19.

“In ‘EcoFront’ we integrated the idea into the film. Actually we called it COVID-29, and when Rocky enters the camp of Ecofront, they're careful to test her and make sure that she doesn't have the disease,” said McHale.

The film also nods to the conspiracy-theory thinking that surrounds such a virus. That’s already happened with COVID-19. One example is “Plandemic,” a 2020 conspiracy theory film produced by Mikki Willis which promotes misinformation about COVID-19. It features Judy Mikovits, a discredited former researcher who has been described as an anti-vaccine activist despite her rejection of the label.

In a post-COVID era, Mchale said sci-fi films could indulge in conspiracies, but it is really up to the writer to not feed into the theories but be aware of the narrative perpetuated. 

“I don't ever want to feed into conspiracy theories, but what was one of the interesting things about my script is that the very first scene is a riot at the Capitol caused by economic and social division that was certainly fed by conspiracy theories,” said McHale. “The film works at identifying these deep cultural cleavages that are happening because people are buying varying narratives of how the world really works.”

McHale said he worked on the 120-page script for over 8 months. McHale said there were some unique issues.

“Rocky being alone for so long, she's very reluctant to join anything. So it takes a while for her to develop trust in her teammates and they have to develop trust as her, as she becomes part of the family,” said McHale. “Working out real human interaction is always a significant challenge when writing a film script.”

McHale said his daughter Maggie and his School of Communication colleagues inspired him.

“I'm just deeply indebted to the input from my daughter and my colleagues in the School of Communication, particularly Lee Anne Hale, who help me revise and revise repeatedly,” said McHale.

The Best of Competition award in film writing is an evaluation of all the film scripts written and submitted by faculty members from among the 250 schools represented by BEA.

McHale has won several awards. McHale was recognized as a Top 10 finalist in the Academy Nicholl Fellowship for a film about a Nebraska family who lost their farm but inherited a bodega on the south side of Chicago. 

McHale said this award, however, represents the best of the best of writers who are employed by universities.

“This film script in particular and this award are really a peak for my professional recognition so far within the film writing community,” said McHale. 

By the time he earned his doctoral degree in 2002 at the University of Missouri, McHale had already spent time teaching at Stanford and Yale University. He also co-authored a 2001 book called, "The Primary Decision: A Functional Analysis of Presidential Primary Debates.”

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Catrina Petersen is an intern at WGLT focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.