Rhys Ernst 01S was recently named the HBO Point Foundation Scholar, a national scholarship given out for LGBT activism and filmmaking. He used the funds from the award to finance The Thing, a short film that doubled as his thesis in the California Institute of Arts master's program.
The Thing follows a couple, Tristan, a transgender man, and Zooey, a woman, as they seek out a roadside attraction known as "The Thing." "The Thing" is copiously advertised on the stretches of highway the couple drives through, creating an atmosphere of anticipation as they draw closer.
"'The Thing' functions as a metaphor for expectations vs. reality, the expectation of what gender is, and how it plays out in reality, as well as the fantasy of what it is to be a couple," Ernst says. "Zooey has this fantasy of the frontier and what could be out there. When they're out on the road, it's much more of a commercialized landscape."
Ernst's choice to include a transgendered character was a calculated decision. "I'm dealing with outsider identities, namely transgender people, in a larger narrative context," he says. "I'm trying to naturalize the positions, integrate them into a larger picture where it's not really the focus of the story."
In addition to the financing for The Thing, the Point Foundation Award also connected Ernst with television and film producer Alan Poul (who counts Six Feet Under, Big Love, and My So-Called Life as credits), who has served as a mentor for him. "I've been meeting with Alan throughout the year, going to events and meeting people in their communities," Ernst says. "It's really kind of a professional training program, but it also has an activist slant."
"Obviously the money helps, too," he adds with a laugh.
Ernst isn't the only Hampshire alum whose work is featured in The Thing; Josh Lee 03F and Jeff Striker 06F, edited the film. Ernst met Lee and Striker at a networking event for film alums held in Los Angeles.
Ernst intends to enter The Thing for consideration in film festivals all over the country. "My goal is to reach an audience beyond LGBT circuit. One of the reasons I made a [more traditional instead of experimental] film was to bring a transgender character to a broader audience."
As he stands at a professional crossroads, Ernst has a fresh perspective on his Hampshire experience. "The older I get, and the more things and academic institutions I experience, the more I appreciate Hampshire," he says. "The experience just gets better with age."