“The Lantrum” premiers at Film Society’s evening of student-produced films

Director Nolan Zunk, ‘22, discusses filming, science fiction and the queer experience through his latest film


Catherine McKean

On May 10, Washington and Lee’s Film Society invited students and faculty to enjoy an evening of films showcasing the selected work of students over the past year in the Cohen Family Auditorium.

Introduced by Film Society’s Director of Production Chris Torre, ‘24, the four films presented at the event spanned a range of genres, from thriller to documentary to romance drama:

“Ghosted,” a comedic psychological thriller by Molly Pennisi, ‘24, started off the evening with an exploration of the emotions felt by a college student as he realizes the girl he’s been talking to has ignored him in favor of someone else. 

“Hieu’s Cooking Show,” a senior thesis project by Hieu Nguyen, ‘22, followed with recordings of cross-cultural conversations made by a group of American and international students of various ethnicities over food prepared by Nguyen to celebrate connection and Asian culture.

The Tequila Shark’s “Rafting Down the Mississippi,” a documentary detailing the river adventure of current sophomores Jak Krouse, McCoy Patterson and Ned Newton that garnered state-wide attention in summer of 2021, presented next. The documentary, which first premiered in March, was complimented for the quality of its storytelling about friendship, the simple humanity of the Louisiana locals encountered and the freedom of youth. The full documentary can now be found on YouTube through the link on the project’s instagram page @tequila.shark.

Nolan Zunk’s, ‘22, “The Lantrum” closed the event with its much-anticipated premier after a year of production and team effort. The science fiction romance drama tells the story of Axel Hockenberry as he comes out as gay to his mother Sue and navigates the simulation built for him by his lover Issac. Audience members, including Zunk’s parents, were struck by the cinematography, portrayal of identity and raw emotion woven into the story and were eager to congratulate the director and cast in attendance after the evening’s end.

“The Lantrum” is far from the first project premiered at Washington and Lee by director Nolan Zunk, who has the awarded feature film “Intimate Violence” and short horror film “The Cave Man” under his belt, but it is Zunk’s first project to incorporate romance, drama and the science fiction ideas he is so passionate about into one comprehensive film.

“[The Lantrum] was really about trying something radically new,” said Zunk. “My previous works have been documentaries and short horror films. This is my first time really working with science fiction, and I needed to explore the balance of how much science fiction to actually convey without overpowering the story.”

Although Zunk will be graduating this May with a degree in cinematography and film production, he began his college journey with the intent to major in physics and has retained a fierce interest in technology and neuroscience that was especially evident in the Lantrum, the virtual world coded by Issac to be an idyllic paradise for Axel that gives the film its name.

Zunk named the Truman Show, Matrix, and Ready Player One as movies that inspired him as he was writing the script for “The Lantrum,” being examples of stories where simulations play a key role and where dangers in a virtual reality mirror the dangers of the real world. 

Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind,” a study of the effects that psychedelics have on the human mind, was also in Zunk’s thoughts as he designed the concept of “The Lantrum,” and references to drug use could be found when Axel and Issac first entered the virtual reality via a computer chip in the shape of an acid blotter and Axel’s brief worry about a bad trip.

“I really enjoyed being able to work in allusions to real-world science in a coded way,” Zunk reflected.

Filming of “The Lantrum” took place over four days in May 2021 during W&L’s spring break, when COVID-19 restrictions including masking were still in place for the cast and crew even when filming the outdoor sequences. 

“We were very stringent, very proactive,” said Zunk of the experience. “All of the crew had masks on at all times, and the cast only had their masks off when they were on camera.”

The cast included two W&L students, Arthur Rodrigues, ‘22, as Issac and Will Dantini, ‘24, as Father Mark and two actors unaffiliated with the school. Jordan Ingram, who played Axel, is an acting student in New York Zunk met prior in Virginia and Piper Foley-Schultz, who played his mother, is a Lexington local who has been involved in other student productions in the past.

“This was a huge collaborative effort,” Zunk said. “I was thankful to have a great team.”

Sue Hockenberry, played by Foley-Schultz, is a traditionally southern conservative mother and the obvious antagonist of the film, especially in the nightmare world that Axel gets trapped in, where she rejects her son’s sexuality and informs him that if he continues to live as a gay man he will lose his religion and family, but Zunk was careful to give her her own character arc.

“Sue is perceived differently by different audiences – she is certainly a complex antagonist,” explained Zunk. “I didn’t want any one character to be holy good or holy bad, because that’s not how people are. I wanted all of my characters to be reflective.”

Zunk found himself particularly drawn to the character of Axel, who he described as a “photography nerd” like himself (Zunk’s photography work was on display in the scene of Axel’s gallery exhibit), and admitted that many aspects of Axel’s story were taken from his own experiences as a queer man. He called the experience of coming out a complex one that all queer people share, as it is one rooted in the great fear of rejection from family and society. Telling this story in a more conservative area like Rockbridge County was important to Zunk.

“There is still a lot of progress and a lot of work to be done here,” he said. “But these trailblazing efforts, pride parades, even this screening on campus are all steps towards a more equitable society. We had a good-sized audience with lots of support – President Dudley, Dean LaRiviere, students, faculty, friends, family, so many people came out in the heart of campus to hear this story. I was a bit nervous before presenting, but now I feel such a big relief and a big payoff. This experience has been one of growth for all people involved.”

After graduating at the end of May, Nolan Zunk will be moving to Texas, where he will be working as a digital artist and vlogger for UT Austin. He plans on attending grad school for photography or film with an end goal of becoming a professor.

He would like to give a shout-out to the Film Society for their support and encourages students of all experience levels hoping to get into film to contact them.

“They’re a fantastic resource,” Zunk said. “They have a lot of people with great experience, high quality equipment and resources, and a wealth of knowledge.”