Teens Thacher Smith and Robby Kasten are traveling from San Francisco to Chicago on the rail system for a school grant program funded documentary project to highlight the importance of trains in small rural towns. The duo picked Winnemucca and Green River, Utah as their focus locations for the documentary and spent a couple of days in each town learning how residents utilize the train.
Smith attends The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J. and he received a grant award offered by his school among 11 other students to pursue their academic passions.
“The grant was to travel across the country using Amtrak and then to stop in these small towns to capture the importance of these trains and try to capture the experience of these towns that don’t necessarily get attention in the coastal areas that we’ve worked in very traditionally both on and off the train,” said Smith.
According to the Lawrenceville School Alumni News, “The Welles Award was established in memory of William Bouton Welles ’71. Each year, Third and fourth form students are invited to submit a proposal for a summer project that they would like to undertake. The amount of the award depends on the proposal submitted but can be as much as $3000. The work should be a project or research or writing, which meets a high standard of excellence and promise. Awards are determined by a committee of faculty members.”
Smith enlisted the help of his friend Robby Kasten, who he has known since kindergarten and is a fellow filmmaker. Smith said Kasten has been a big help in both the planning and execution phases of the project
The duo strategically decided to stop in Winnemucca and Green River, Utah to research the local culture and importance of the rail system to rural, small towns. Along with their stops in Winnemucca and Green River, Smith said they will continue to research and remotely interview people from towns they weren’t able to stop in along this journey.
“I did a lot of statistical research to compare the population of the town with their Amtrak ridership, both Winnemucca and Green River, Utah had some of the highest ridership compared to a very small town size so that kind of indicated me to where to start; I ended up doing a lot of research,” said Smith.
Smith’s interest in studying the importance of traveling by train was sparked by his routine travels to and from school by train to Washington D.C. He regularly travels up the northeast corridor and talks to the conductors and other individuals who work on the train about the longer-distance routes, which sparked his interest, leading him to pursue this project and learn more about them by experiencing it first-hand.
The grant he received was approximately $2,000 and covered the camera and equipment rental, train tickets and lodging. He said they paid about $1,000 for a train ticket from Emeryville, Calif to Chicago, Ill., and included sleeper car stays for two later train rides. He said without the sleeping car accommodations, it would have been approximately about $300 to get across the country.
“It’s been incredible so far. We've gotten the opportunity to talk to so many interesting people especially in Winnemucca and on the trains so it’s been really eye-opening to see a different part of the country that we don’t typically get to see,” said Smith. “We’ve just been so happy that everyone has been so welcoming here.”
Both Smith and Kasten are 18 years old. In the fall Kasten will begin studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, pursuing a career in engineering but said he also hopes to be able to work with the video production team at the school. Smith will be entering his senior year of high school in the fall and sees himself moving into economics or undergraduate business for college.
The two hit the rails for about two weeks, starting on Monday, June 10. The film will be a self-published documentary and the duo said they are in very early talks with hopes for distribution with Netflix.
“At this point, we’re just trying to publish it, we both like making films and this is really our passion and so this is an opportunity to capture a really important story while at the same time doing something we love,” said Smith.
Kasten said he first became interested in film production through a media lab at his school that allowed him to travel and make videos with his school’s ice hockey team, for which he made a hype video and created a documentary on their season.
“There are not many people like Thacher and I at our schools I think, so there’s a lot of opportunities if we want to take them,” said Kasten. “So we’ve both been able to take advantage of all the opportunities that our schools have had and that’s really helped us grow as filmmakers and as people I think.”
Smith started with photography, taking pictures with black and white film and moved into digital, which led to experimentation with the video features on his camera and turned into what he says is a real passion for filmmaking.
Smith is the executive director of his school’s news program L10, also one of the foremost high school news programs in the country.
“A lot of my day-to-day goes into managing the segments," he said. "We do a 10-minute broadcast every week and a lot of that has really helped me to become a better journalist and a better filmmaker and that’s a lot of what I’ve been working on developing recently."