Senior Eric Newnham had established a successful career in Beloit, Wis. as city councilor and owner of multiple local businesses, but when the global recession hit, it became the right time to pursue other dreams.
“I closed my last store, packed up my car and went to LA,” Newnham said.
Newnham is currently a non-traditional student at Knox completing his degree, but also hoping to leave an impact on campus. This led to his current project, a film about the famous 1858 debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas that took place on Knox grounds.
“In writing it, I also tried to create ways to show Lincoln as very human — not as a black and white photo or a statue from a long long time ago, but show we’re all connected through history,” he said.
Newnham was first a student at Knox on and off from 1986 to 1990, but financial difficulties kept him from completing his degree. He took a series of jobs that led to him working his way up from being a tire salesman to part of the Sam’s Club corporate offices.
Newnham moved back to his hometown in Wisconsin to support his family as multiple members faced health difficulties. He opened a small business at the local mall, which escalated to owning multiple restaurants and three retail stores.
“I was playing monopoly, it was like creating my own little Seminary Street,” Newnham said. “… everything was going great for me until the world economy collapsed around me É there were no customers, everyone had lost their jobs.”
Newnham, who had studied theatre during his original stint at Knox, said he always wanted to be in the entertainment industry before being sidetracked by his other pursuits.
“So I went out there, and didn’t know anybody. Didn’t really have a plan except for I knew I could trust myself and I was gonna get it done,” Newnham said.
Newnham arrived in Los Angeles without any contacts in the industry, but through meeting people at coffee shops and online casting websites, began landing roles in commercials and films.
Career highlights for Newnham include appearing in a Super Bowl commercial, portraying a villain in the Sylvester Stallone action-film “Escape Plan 2: Hades” and improvising with Al Pacino on the film “Danny Collins.”
“I just kind of kept throwing [Pacino] little oddballs, and he’s just such a great scene partner he kept knocking them out,” Newnham said. “Pacino, to come over and be like ‘That was a really great scene, you know you did really good improv,’ that means a lot coming from someone like him.”
Newnham spent six years in Los Angeles before moving to Atlanta for a film role. He made the decision to return to Knox this academic year while preparing to make the move back to Los Angeles.
“I’m like, ‘if I’m going to move all the way across the country again, maybe this is the time just to just take a year off, complete the degree,’” Newnham said. “… I’d always wanted to, and it’s just timing was never right.”
Newnham is now in the process of completing his senior year, taking a full load of 3.5 credits a term. He originally planned on completing his Theatre major, but friends convinced him to challenge himself by self-designing an Entertainment Business degree.
Newnham has been balancing being a full-time student with developing his current film project. He’s taken advice from various Knox faculty, including Co-Director of the Lincoln Studies Center Doug Wilson, Underground Railroad Center Director Owen Muelder and Africana Studies Professor Fred Hord.
“I wanted it to be entertaining and engaging … but I also wanted it to educate,” Newnham said. “… What the story does, it doesn’t shy away from any of the difficult things. We address the horrible evils of slavery.”
In addition to having faculty look at his script, Newnham has done research in the Library Archives, and through a grant from the Richter Fund will be spending spring break at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.
Newnham has managed the pre-production workload with the help of the project’s producer, Dinarte Freitas. As productions ramps up in the Spring, Newnham will be looking to get as many Knox students and faculty involved as he can.
“If a hundred people wanted to be involved, there’s a hundred jobs,” Newnham said. “… If they have any particular skills or if they don’t have any at all, we need everybody.”
Plans for the project include some filming during the weekends of next term. Period piece portions at Old Main will be shot after graduation, though Newnham hopes interested students will be able to stay or return to campus for filming.
“It’s non-stop, we’re working on it seven days a week,” Newnham said. “We need to get going on costumes, we need to get going on these banners, we need to get going on writing the music.”
Newnham has written the film to fill a one-hour TV time slot, so that it can be offered to channels such as PBS stations. The finished film would also be submitted to various film festivals, with the hopes of eventually reaching a streaming platform.
In addition to the film, Newnham and Freitas are attempting to put together a documentary based on interviews with faculty, purely for use by the school.
Interviews with faculty were shot for a promotional video, intended to help with securing funding. Although the crowdfunding process is still ongoing, Newnham described the project as being on track.
“It’s an audacious endeavour to even think about … it’s big, it’s massive,” Newnham said. “… I hope people will see this as their opportunity to do something amazing. It’s amazing to do a film.”