Manahawkin Filmmaker’s New Short to Screen at Southern Regional High School

Jimmy Ward Film’s Character Based on Beloved Late Southern Teacher Lauren Raney
By JON COEN | May 28, 2019
Courtesy of: Ward Films Manahawkin native, Jimmy Ward, shooting his short film Chance Encounter, which screens at Southern Regional High School on June 3.

Manahawkin — In 2012, a young man stepped out of Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin wearing gym shorts, running shoes and a shirt that simply said “HOPE.”

The video showed Manahawkin’s Jimmy Ward as he began to jog. He ran up Hilliard Boulevard, across the Causeway Bridge to Long Beach Island and up to Long Beach Boulevard. He ran past Woody’s Burgers, Farias, Nardi’s, the Cheese Shop, the Chicken or the Egg and Fantasy Island. He ran past piles and piles of debris, stranded boats and cleanup crews. And at the end, he gave a message of hope that our community would recover after Superstorm Sandy.

That video has now garnered 40,000 views on YouTube. He made a follow-up video encompassing the entire New Jersey shore. Then a high school sophomore, he gave an amazing number of people a feeling of positivity during a time of uncertainty.

This week, Jimmy Ward stepped out of San Francisco State University … with a B.A. degree in cinema. And he also has a new film to his name, “Chance Encounter,” which premieres on June 3 at Southern Regional.

Ward was a high school standout, running cross country and both winter and spring track all four years, but also a huge part of the television and film program, the Southern News Network, also known as SNN. He also established great relationships with several teachers, specifically Lauren Raney, who passed from cancer in 2016 after the students, teachers and community rallied behind her in the battle.

“Lauren was also a huge part of my time at Southern,” Ward said. “I first met her my freshman year of high school while I was in her English class. I became connected with her once we realized my dad worked for the same company as her husband and they had all previously met before. She even laughed about attending one of my parents’ garage sales years earlier and that once her husband dared her (as a joke) to flip my dad off as they drove past my house, not realizing that my dad and her husband were work friends. From there, we instantly bonded and she quickly became one of my favorite teachers.

“You always hear people talking about ‘cool teachers’ they’ve had, and she was a 100 percent ‘cool teacher.’ She would walk the halls with the biggest smile.”

Ward’s best memory of Raney was in 2012, right before Sandy hit, at the end of October.

“I was outside in the pouring rain setting up Halloween decorations for my annual haunted house, when suddenly I see Lauren Raney running up my driveway. She knew I still needed to go out and purchase candy for the trick-or-treaters, so she went out and did it herself. It was such a simple gesture, but it meant the world to me. Lauren was always thinking of ways to help others out.”

And if you’re wondering what kind of 15-year-old is setting up his family’s yard to host trick-or-treaters, it was Ward.

Ward remembers a Student of the Month breakfast in his honor where he got a text from Raney that she was ill and wouldn’t be able to make it.

“A few weeks or so go by when suddenly the news came out that she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. My stomach dropped. I was shocked by the news. I still am to this day, to be honest. She was such an amazing person with the biggest heart, who now had to battle cancer.”

Raney kept a blog during her treatment, which became an inspiration to many, even beyond Ocean County.

“The one entry that stood out the most to me was written by Lauren on June 11, 2016.  She had titled it ‘A Chance Meeting,’ and described this odd encounter with a man she had met recently while at the hospital for chemo. The strange thing was that it was not the first time she encountered this man. Lauren met him about 17 years earlier when her sister was dying at a hospital.”

Ward was in the school library in San Francisco when he got a text from his high school running coach that Lauren had passed away.

“I cried and couldn’t believe that the world had just lost such a positive and giving person,” he recalled.

Ward, to no one’s surprise, has excelled at college. While getting his degree, he worked in the film industry, saving enough money to travel to Hong Kong, Morocco (where he slept out in the Sahara Desert) and Iceland.

Following his sophomore year, he landed an internship with one of the world’s largest tech companies, Salesforce, as its video production intern under the direction of a former Netflix creative director and was later hired as an assistant on HGTV’s “House Hunters” that led to work with CNN, Discovery Channel, Showtime, DIY Network, ABC and several car commercials.

He’s added four Netflix projects to his credits, always working to get ahead in classes, and arranging his academic schedule for availability to take on these shows at the same time.

“While in college, I made a couple shorts that went on to premiere in L.A. and was nominated in the category for Best Director and Best Short Film for the Hollywood Weekly Magazine Film Festival my junior year. My short film ‘Area Red’ won Best Short in Film Fest LA as well,” he reported.

Last summer, he had to decide on a film to make for his senior year.

“I knew I wanted to make a short film about Lauren. But because she had so many amazing traits about her, I really had to think of what to focus on. Deep down, I knew that Lauren’s chance meeting story would be the most fitting since it really highlights who she was in one story,” he said. “So with the approval of her family, I applied to get into the thesis film class at my school, which is quite competitive since SFSU is in the Top 25 best schools for film. A couple weeks went by and I got the email that my pitch about Lauren’s chance meeting was accepted!”

He spent months working on the script.

“The emotional toll was heavy since so much time was spent focusing on this story of Lauren. I was motivated to tell this story so others felt inspired, just like I did when I first read it. I wanted to turn it into a film so thousands more can experience what Lauren did and who she was as a person.”

He made sure the actress playing Lauren, Danya Rubin, had time to understand who Lauren was.

“Directing Lauren’s character was challenging, but also rewarding since she was such a powerful figure in the short film. It had to be done right,” he said.

The film was shot in New Jersey with a film crew of about 15 people. The settings are 1996 and 2016, and fitting the time period was one of Ward’s favorite parts. Zayn Mufti created the soundtrack. The film has already been screened at film festivals in Rome and London as well as to a sold-out crowd at the Roxie Theatre with 15 other thesis films from San Francisco State University.

While at Southern, Ward also had a good relationship with math teacher (now guidance counselor) Jody McLennan. McLennan was a good friend of Raney’s, and all three worked together on fundraisers.

“I first met Jimmy when he was a student in my algebra class his freshman year,” said McLennan. “He was a cross country runner, and since I used to coach cross country and love running myself, we connected instantly. From that point on, Jimmy continued to stop by my classroom throughout his time at Southern, and it has been such a joy to watch him grow from a ninth-grade boy to a college graduate.”

“Jimmy is such a positive, hardworking, talented, confident, genuine and overall well-liked individual. I feel lucky to be connected to him, and I know Lauren is proud, too. She always spoke so highly of him and truly admired and loved him.”

McLennan is also the faculty adviser for the David’s Dream & Believe Cancer Foundation club at Southern Regional. The two worked together to bring the film to Southern Regional. She hopes to fill the auditorium to show both Jimmy and Lauren the school’s love and support.

Ward will be home for the event to discuss the film and Raney’s inspiration.

“I wanted to go out of college with a powerful film that honored one of the most impactful human beings I’ve met, so that’s what I decided to do. I have huge Manahawkin/LBI pride and have carried that with me during my years in college, so to make my final student project about a person from there was an easy decision. Thanks to people and companies like The MakeShift Union, Sasha Laing and John Brennan, financial burdens were lifted, and the project had a green light for production!” added Ward.

The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. at the 9/10 Building auditorium. The event is free. Donations will be accepted on behalf of David’s Dream & Believe Cancer Foundation.

joncoen@thesandpaper.net

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