In the middle of his junior year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Matt Gengel needed a break.
He’d just been handed an assignment in an English class, one of those nebulous missions doled out by professors to get students thinking in a thousand different directions, all the while leaving them paralyzed by those selfsame thoughts. In true Salingerian fashion — think Stradlater and Holden Caulfield on the subject of “description” — his teacher told him to write a story about change.
And what better way to get started than in the rag-and-bone shop where you were once a different version of yourself, the very nexus whence change goes forth?
Gengel, a Bellevue native and 2005 graduate of Bellevue East High School, headed east up Interstate 80 to his past, to his home, to his family, to places he thought would never change.
Finding himself at his favorite burger joint, Stella’s, which had undergone a recent renovation, Gengel meditated on life’s fitful dynamics yoked to the sometimes eerie stasis of life. The result, some five years later, is a 13-minute film written and directed by Gengel, “napkins,” and which he showed last Friday at the Omaha Film Festival.
The provenance of the film’s title comes from the napkins on which Stella’s has long served up its renowned fare — even after the remodel.
“It kind of worried us,” Gengel remembered, having visited the renowned restaurant with a friend, the meal setting up a scene in the film where two characters ruminate on how their lives had changed and their relationship, once a fertile plot in high school, has lain fallow for a decade.
“Stella’s had this huge remodel, everything was changed. And when I got there, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t even remember what the old one looked like.’ But the burgers still came on napkins, so we knew. There can be change but some things still stay the same.”
Gengel returned to Lincoln, wrote the story, graduated with a degree in psychology and promptly changed directions himself, taking an acceptance letter to the New York Film Academy’s master of fine arts program and banking it into a path about which he’d heretofore only dreamed: filmmaking.
“It was a dream that was just too crazy for awhile,” Gengel said. “But I’m really glad I finally pulled the trigger and did it. By that last year at UNL, I knew there was something else for me to do.”
Throughout high school, Gengel had been involved in acting and was part of Bellevue East’s drama department. His parents also remember him as having a lively mind for movies, quoting bits and longer pieces of film dialogue and giving other dramatic readings.
“When he was 3 years old, he could recite ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas,’” Gengel’s father, Mark, said. “That’s pretty incredible.”
Matt’s mother, Kelly, said her son seemed to be on just a slightly different plane — as if there was always stage and an audience.
“He was always re-enacting and quoting from the movies,” Kelly Gengel said. “We’re very excited for him and proud of him that he’s been able to turn that dream into a reality.”
Armed with the spirit and the creativity to start making movies of his own, Gengel enrolled at the academy’s campus in Los Angeles.
By the end of his first year in the two-year program, Gengel had called on his junior year experience and subsequently wrote and directed “napkins,” telling the story of a young man’s return to his sleepy hometown after a decade away, for the funeral of a childhood friend.
The young man, Mark, finds everything changed. But not the burgers coming on napkins.
Gengel expended such attention to the under-running metaphor of the film his actors also came to grasp the biographical implications of the film.
“Every one of the actors was like, ‘This is a real place, isn’t it?’” Gengel said.
At Friday night’s screening — the fourth festival at which Gengel has shown his film — a decidedly partisan crowd (many heard to remark that in addition to filmmakers and patrons getting first crack at seats in the rapdily packing theater, childhood friends of Matt Gengel should also be granted early access) roared when the title card for “napkins” came up, along with its director’s name.
The film was the final one in a block of films directed by young Nebraska filmmakers and Gengel said even filming in Los Angeles, he did what he could to bring a slice of Bellevue and Nebraska to the movie.
A restaurant in Burbank, Barney’s Beanery, stood in for Stella’s, but the flickering glow of the film was enough to transport those in the know to cherished moments in a cherished landmark.
“I saw a lot of heads in the crowd nodding at different parts,” he said. “There are a lot of old friends of mine here and there’s an understanding there. We know what Stella’s is, we know these places.”
With midnight approaching and a steady rain falling outside the theater, more than two dozen people still waited to see Gengel and congratulate him on his triumph.
The characters onscreen undergoing personal tumult over how best to restart a friendship after so many years, Gengel seemed right at home amidst an adoring public but, moreover, friends of youth — the ones who might rightly be called friends forever.
“For me, it feels really great to have all these people come out to support me,” he said.
Gengel just wrapped shooting in Wyoming as assistant director on a feature film titled “When the Wolf Calls,” due out sometime next year. His own thesis film from the New York Academy is in post-production.
He’s off to a fast start, he said, and one he hopes he can sustain in the frenetic world of Los Angeles and moviemaking. And he remains true to his Cornhusker roots.
“I’ve got a lot of momentum coming out of the gate,” he said. “But I’ll always have time to come back to Nebraska. This is where I started. I had this writing assignment about change. So I went home to clear my head. Stella’s had just opened and there it was. I went back, I wrote a story about change and that was it.”