Who is Ray Caster?

It began as a writing exercise by Marcus Alexander Hart. Caster served as a fictional alter-ego and Sarasota – where Hart spent most of the 90s – was his stomping grounds. A socially inept nerd hopelessly entranced by a beautiful free-spirited woman, Caster took to the web, soliciting advice from his real-life followers. The hoax lasted from 2004 to 2005, when Hart broke cover and turned his project into a novel, <i>Caster’s Blog – A Geek Love Story</i>, published in 2006.

Austin McKinley, playwright, novelist, director and old friend of Hart’s, wrote the first draft of a screenplay based on Caster’s Blog in 2007. Seven years, countless rewrites and one partnership with ManaSota Films later, McKinley has finished principal photography for a proof of concept short, filmed in Sarasota.

A proof of concept is a short film showcasing the look, feel and premise of a feature-length film, a teaser for possible investors, a promise of things to come. In this case, it’s roughly the first 15 minutes of the planned film.

McKinley, a former student at Ringling College’s School of Art and Design, came to film only after venturing into the world of comic books. Serving as a production assistant on friends’ projects, he realized film was not only something he <i>could</i> do, but something he wanted to do.

A veteran of the art of the short film, including last year’s critically well-received sci-fi short <i>Life in a Glass House</i>, <i>Caster’s Blog</i> is McKinley’s first foray into the world of feature-length films and an adjustment.

“You don’t think it’s going to be easy,” said McKinley, sharing a laugh with his wife and <i>Caster</i> producer Sherrie McKinley. “But you also don’t think it’s going to be <i>that</i> hard.”

Of great help, according to McKinley, has been Manasota Films and their monthly meet-ups at Lakewood Ranch, where filmmakers and enthusiasts meet to screen local projects and talk shop. It was at one of these viewings that McKinley first met Heath Jordan, owner of Approach Signal and, with founder Mark Troy, one of the forces behind ManaSota Films, which went on to co-produce <i>Caster’s Blog</i>. In addition, the monthly viewings have become a resource for filmmakers to assemble casts and crews for their projects.

“I’ve said for a long time, it’s like Sarasota has a complete set of Legos, but nobody has all of the pieces and no one agrees on what exactly to build,” said McKinley, speaking to Sarasota’s potential as a hub for film. “ManaSota Films is providing a catalyst for people to get to know each other and start working on something bigger. <i>Caster’s Blog<i> is a direct output of that.”

“In the year we’ve been attending ManaSota Films, we’ve seen the quality level of the films go up immensely,” said Sherrie. “As a film community, everybody’s learning about each other and there’s more cooperation, rather than doing their own projects off to themselves.”

“Getting involved with [ManaSota] has opened a lot of doors,” said Courtney Gostkowski, the actress playing Shadoe Beaupre, Caster’s love interest. “They literally have the best crew get-togethers. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And aside from the occasional disappointment, Sarasota as a whole has been supportive of the project, as McKinley and crew traveled around town, filming in Growler’s Pub, the offices of the Herald-Tribune and the Ringling Bridge. A chance encounter with Aaron Barnes, founder of Sarasota’s Elusive View Cinematography, even led to a custom-made helicopter-mounted Gyrocam for the project.

“There are a lot of business owners who are film-friendly,” said Sherrie. “It’s as good as you can expect anywhere.”

Now in the editing phase, McKinley hopes to screen the concept short for <i>Caster’s Blog</i> at the August ManaSota meeting at Lakewood Ranch Cinemas.

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