Through his lens

By Arielle Maxner

“This girl dropped her pen, stuck her foot out and scratched her ankle,” art teacher Kevin O’Malley said. “She was wearing this ankle bracelet. I just went, ‘Whoo!’ That evening I wrote the first scene of ‘Bananafish Sandwich.’”

“Bananafish Sandwich,” O’Malley’s screenplay, was the grand prize winner of the 2011 New Hampshire Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

His trophy, a granite block, sits askew on his desk in the Feldman-Horn photography classroom, a glorified paperweight, he said.

O’Malley originally wrote “Bananfish Sandwich” as a short script, called “Barococo.”

“It’s an art history joke,” O’Malley said. “The boy shows up, and he sees the girl of his dreams in the classroom. The instructor picks him out as the new kid and keeps asking him questions. He has no idea what the guy’s talking about. The instructor puts up a picture of the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and asks, ‘what era is this from?’ He goes, ‘Barococo?’ It’s a combination of Baroque and Rococo.”

O’Malley took inspiration from sources as varied as the life of J. D. Salinger and the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to write “Bananafish Sandwich.”

“You know the scene in ‘Ferris Bueller’ where they’re in the museum, and slowly go to the Seurat painting?” O’Malley said. “I wanted to do a scene that was better than that one, and I think I did. There are lots and lots of pictures, that sort of the non-verbal story of what he [the protagonist] is going through emotionally.”

The screenplay focuses on a senior in high school, Nick Ellis, who has been wait-listed by six colleges.

“What it comes down to is he’s a really good athlete, a rower,” O’Malley said. “Everybody keeps telling him, ‘That’s not enough to get into college,’ and he eventually gets it into his head that the only way to get their attention is if he breaks into this J. D. Salinger-esque author’s farmhouse and saves all the manuscripts — he actually goes and breaks into the farmhouse. But that’s where things start getting complicated.”

“Spoiler alert,” he added.

Though he has written four feature scripts, two short scripts and a non-fiction book, O’Malley has never written a personal essay for college. Writing “Bananafish Sandwich” gave him the “the chance and the challenge of writing a personal essay,” he said.

O’Malley actually wrote two college essays for his screenplay, as there are scenes in which Nick and his “pseudo-girlfriend” Jillian read their essays.

“It’s like paying my dues for never having to [write college essays],” he said.

O’Malley never applied to college and never planned to, he said, as he wanted to become a director on Broadway. However, he had an interview with a professor from Trinity College, after which he was immediately accepted.

“I never filled out a form, I never wrote a personal essay,” O’Malley said. “I did take the SATs, just because they made everyone take the SATs. The process that I went through to get into college is nothing like what you guys have to do.”

He received his degree in painting as a photorealist painter. However, O’Malley began his artistry with photography when he was 8 years old.

“My older brother was this mad scientist,” O’Malley said. “I remember he kicked me out of his laboratory, in the cellar. I probably read [about photography] in a magazine somewhere and thought ‘Oh, photography, you can use chemicals. I’ll show that big brother.’ I just started teaching myself how to do stuff. It was fun. It was great.”

When O’Malley was 12, he had the luck of being given professional photography equipment. His father, a doctor, had a patient who had a passion for photography.

After the patient died, his wife “wanted my dad to come down and see the studio,” O’Malley said. “She asked if anyone in his family was interested in photography. So we hopped in the car, drove to Long Meadow, Massachusetts. We got to the house. Where the garage should have been was this guy’s studio. It was a full, professional darkroom with absolutely everything you could possibly want. She said, ‘Well, what do you need?’ I said, ‘I have three trays at home,’ and she said, ‘You need an enlarger. You need this. You need that.’ She literally gave me a full-blown studio. So at about age 12, I had all this equipment and absolutely no idea how to use it. That took a long time [to learn].”

But O’Malley did learn. Today, he is adept with both film and digital cameras, and with PhotoShop and studio equipment.

He did not have difficulty transitioning from film to digital photography.

“I was so ready for digital,” O’Malley said. “I was doing film since I was really young, and I’ve been in a lot of badly ventilated darkrooms. The fact that I’m still alive and kicking is amazing.”

Still, there’s some almost indescribable quality that he finds missing in digital photography.

“I will still shoot color film with the 8×10 camera, the big monster camera, just because the look — you still can’t get that look with a digital camera,” O’Malley said. “Close, maybe with the new Hasselblad, the big 60-megapixel cameras, pretty amazing. But there’s a sort of saturation to the color that you can’t get with digital. But it’s not breaking my heart.”

Now, O’Malley teaches two photography classes, a video art class and a drawing and painting class. He enjoys them all, but finds that “writing is different.”

“You have to find a way to have incredibly thin skin, so you experience things on an emotional level, and do a 180 flip and switch to having incredibly thick skin when people say, ‘This is not good,’” O’Malley said. “It’s different from taking a photograph and putting it up in a gallery. There’s a level of separation there.”

Describing his writing style, O’Malley said, “Imagine a table, a nice dinner table, with a beautiful dinner, all spread, with china and plates and silverware and nice glasses and luscious food. Imagine someone standing at one end and slowly lifting the edge of the table. You’re having your nice dinner, and go, ‘Hmm, the wine seems to be tilting a little bit. No matter,’ and the table keeps tilting some more. All of a sudden, the salt and pepper shakers start sliding off the table. At some point, the table is completely vertical and — whoosh, everything falls onto the floor. That’s my writing style.”

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