On the silver screen

Notre Dame junior Maegan Fitzgerald gets a screen role in multi award-winning new film.

Shana Gagnon is an actress and director known for a number of films over the last several years, including "Welcome to Happiness" (2015), "Colorado" (2016) and "Conversations in Cars" (2015). Currently, this native Michigander (Rochester Hills) is enjoying a wealth of great reviews and awards for her latest release, a short movie called "Secret," which she describes as a story of love and loss, the healing power of nature and horses, and the escapism of baseball.

Reviews of her film thus far include the following luminescence:

"Beautiful imagery uplifts our spirits as we transition through this process with Shana, her mother, and her horse, Secret, who all must cross the threshold of love, loss and separation, into healing, hope, courage and renewal." 

And. . .

"Secret unveils a kaleidoscope of minimalist imagery and beautifully simplistic scenes creating a collage of genuine human emotion. Nostalgic, deep, and honest, Secret is both a celebration of perfect love and a tribute to the devastating emotions that surround sudden, tragic loss." 

And still more. . .

"Secret spoke volumes to me, right from the opening frame. I can hardly explain how deeply the film touched me. The powerful role nature plays in it, the beautiful emotions on that screen, the barn, the horses, the depth, the stillness. . .every moment was perfect, poignant, and hurt; in the good way. It was a gorgeous cinematic love letter and I felt it at the most interior part of my very being. Truly." 

The film, which was produced and filmed entirely in Michigan, has screened in 10 official film festivals across the U.S. so far, including in Boston, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Michigan. It has taken home a Grand Jury Prize – Best Short Film; Best Cinematography, Best Drama – Short; Best Inspirational Short; and The Audience Award from those festivals. 

An "excellent" choice

When Gagnon was casting for the film, besides herself in a lead role, she already had a friend and colleague in mind to play a second lead role, and another big role was filled by someone she'd seen over the years at a local horse riding club — Maegan Fitzgerald, who'll be a junior at Notre Dame Prep in the fall.

"I cast my friend and colleague, actor Bill Doherty, Jr., and we flew him to Michigan from LA for his part," Gagnon said. "I knew he was the only actor I wanted cast in his role. As far as the rest of my cast — Maegan Fitzgerald and Dennis Smrcina — I knew I wanted to cast 'real horse experts.' I decided to cast Maegan after a couple of years of observing her excellence as a horseback rider at the same location where my mother boards her horse."

"SECRET" FILM TRAILER: https://vimeo.com/252824647

It seems "excellence" has been a watchword for Fitzgerald when others talk about her equestrian skils, including Theresa Schmid, one of her coaches on the Notre Dame equestrian team. 

"Maegan is our team co-captain for the 2018 season and was our reserve high-point rider last year," Schmid said. "She is a great force to have on the team, considering her excellent riding skills, a willing team attitude, and the ability to keep everyone laughing during the long and stressful competitions." 

Worth the work

For Fitzgerald, making the film in the beginning was a little more daunting than even those stressful riding competitions.

"I was nervous filming this because I am not a performer," she said. "I have never been the type to be on stage and I am not usually the one to try out for big parts. However, once we started filming, all I had to do was be myself and it was easy to play the role of a young rider who understood how devastating it was to lose a horse." 

She said the final product was worth all the work and worry.

"Secret is a great film for everyone, and not just equestrians, because no matter how old you are, everyone has experienced loss," Fitzgerald said. "This film gets in touch with that sensitive side and approaches it head on, without being too aggressive. It deals with the stages of grief, and having just sold a horse myself, this movie was refreshing because it helped me understand that I could be sad and that although moving on is sometimes very hard, it is often the best thing to do."

On a Michigan mission

Gagnon, who now splits her time between Michigan and LA, is "primarily back in the mitten," she said. "I'm also on a mission to bring more film and television to this state. For me, it started with 'Secret,' which is a film for Michiganders, filmed 100 percent in the greater metro Detroit area and which showcases the state's fall colors as well as its unique summertime experience. We also edited the film in Grand Rapids." 

Like Fitzgerald's NDP equestrian coach Schmid, Gagnon thought that her young thespian was an excellent rider. But she also thought she had a certain quality she was looking for in an actor. 

"This is a film about the stages of grief a woman must go through after the death of her husband," Gagnon said. "Maegan's character is symbolic and representative of a more innocent younger time in the protagonist's life."

She said Fitzgerald's character represents youth and optimism in the darkness; a light at the end of the tunnel. 

"Maegan nailed it," Gagnon said. "I have noticed those in the horse world have great discipline in taking direction – which is what every director needs from their actors. She did a great job."   

Love letter

Fitzgerald's "great job" was not without a lot of hard work and tricky time management, however.

"For my first film, it was pretty crazy figuring out how to tread water and not drown under all the excitement," she said. "It was filmed during school hours, so each day I had under an hour to get all my lines and actions down, which was super stressful. Plus I was nervous how Ava, my horse, would react to all the film equipment. But she took it all in stride and was super co-operative with everything I asked of her."

Fitzgerald also said she thinks the movie is a kind of a tribute to her home state.

"Secret is like a love letter to Michigan," she said. "Sometimes, when living in Michigan, you get caught up in the heavy winters and the unbearably humid, rainy summers. But this film allows one to take a step back and admire just how beautiful Michigan really is."

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org