The thief sought refuge in the woods. He had evaded the police and made off with a sack of cash. The bank heist was successful.
But the ruse was up. Two vigilantes had discovered his hideout – an old shed – nestled among trees so thick, the sunlight sifted through like a coffee filter.
When the two men arrived, the robber wasn’t there. They crept over to the building, one in a green jumpsuit and the other in blue, cracked the door open and slipped inside.
Then, the door swung open with a squawk. The robber, wrapped in a dark overcoat, filled the entryway.
But that was the wrong move. The hero in the green jumpsuit broke character.
“What’re you doing, dad?” Wren Senser said. “Didn’t you see how I showed you?”
John Senser shrugs at his son. It’s his first time playing the bad guy. The drama instantly fades away, and Jake Bruce, the actor in the blue jumpsuit, takes the stumble as an opportunity to relax for a moment.
Sam Senser, the director and cameraman, prepares the camera for another take. He’s used to the mistakes. Anyway, these things happen, especially when his film’s main actors are his family members and best friend.
All he can do is try again, take after take, hour after hour. Eventually, it’ll pay off.
In many ways, it already has. A 19-year-old with wavy hair past his ears, large, square glasses and a goofy grin, Sam is an award-winning filmmaker. His movies have lit up big screens from Omaha to New York City and have earned thousands of dollars in prize money.
He comes from a town, a state even, that – at first glance – may not seem conducive to filmmaking success. Opportunities in Nebraska are limited, and his professors and fellow filmmakers have said as such. Tradition dictates he should seek the chances of the big cities.
And he entertains those thoughts. Some days he spends hours looking at apartment listings in NYC. He dreams of directing feature-length movies with fancy equipment. He’s already flying out to cities across the country for various award ceremonies and video jobs anyway.
But what the doubters don’t mention is the power of having an entire town at his back, encouraging him to succeed. They don’t talk about the bar owner, the fire chief and the sheriff’s deputy who were willing to help out in any way they could; the grocery store where he’s allowed to film as long as it’s after hours; the homecoming parade orchestrated by his old school as the final scene of his latest film.
Senser has a small town with a thousand people at their side.
* * *
When Sam was about 12-years-old, he started playing with his family’s camcorder. First, he tried to make stop-motion movies. When that got old, he realized it could be fun to have his friend act for short films.
“That’s pretty much all he’s done for years and years is make movies,” Sam’s mother, Angie Senser, said.
Jake wasn’t in the picture at first. He and Sam started out as playground friends at Louisville Elementary School. After lunch, they’d play tag with the other kids. Sam, wiry even then, was the fastest. No one could catch him.
They grew up in the kind of place where everyone knew their names. Students in Louisville, Nebraska, population 1,125.
Cory Chubb, the owner of the town’s Main Street Café, said even though Louisville is less than an hour away from Nebraska’s two largest cities, Omaha and Lincoln, it exists in its own world.
“The river and the hills and the farms … it’s just beautiful country here,” he said. “It’s not what a lot of people think of when they think of Nebraska. Really, I’ve been around, and there’s a reason that we live here, that’s for sure.”
The town presses against the Platte River and is bordered by rolling, tree-lined hills that are the namesake of the YMCA camp about five miles away. Camp “Kitaki,” from the Pawnee phrase meaning, “Land of High Hills.”
That’s where Sam, his younger siblings, Wren, 17, and Lia, 14, and their parents make their home. When Sam was in first grade, his dad accepted a job as the camp’s facility manager. They moved from Lincoln to a brown house with white shutters. Their backyard expanded into 200 acres of wilderness, complete with a lake, climbing tower, bridges and a rope swing.
“It’s really shown how great it is not to live in the city,” Wren said. “Just (to be) able to walk outside and see a deer. Go hiking with your friends.”
Camp is where Sam and Wren grew up, spent time with their friends and began to make films.
It was in middle school when things got serious. Sam, Jake and Wren would grab the family computer and sit in the living room all night recording.
Their specialty was “really crappy” fight scenes. They filmed shot after shot of two people pretending to punch one another while a third slammed a book on the table for sound effects.
There was the phase, too, when Sam’s favorite song was “Back in Black,” by AC/DC, and it had to be in every movie. Each time they had to play it over the speakers because they didn’t know how to add audio.
“It always just ends up being a comedy because that’s how we knew best,” Sam said. “It being amateur just made it funny.”
Over the years, friends came and went from the Senser household, their appearances saved as frames in film. People moved and drifted away. Jake stayed.
They grew up and goofed off. One thing for high school students to do was drive up and down Main Street just waving at people.
“I don’t even know who they are,” Jake said. “Just friendly waves while you’re driving. I tried waving at someone in a city, they just looked at me weird.”
Their movies would show Jake, 19, brown-haired and solidly built, sometimes as the hero and sometimes as the butt of the jokes. Wren, thin with fair hair, would star right alongside him.
And then there was Sam, peering into the camera from eyes magnified behind large, rectangular glasses. Running his hand through his wavy hair when it grew far past his ears and smiling goofily when a scene worked the way he wanted.
There were cameos from their sister and other friends, too. But for the most part, it was Sam, Wren and Jake. Jake, Wren and Sam.
Even when Sam began to win competitions, he’d maintain they were still making the films for fun. The first award came when he and Jake were seniors in high school, class of 2014. Their teachers encouraged them to enter a contest sponsored for a texting and driving public service announcement advertisement.
In the fall, the friends started at Metro Community College in Omaha in the video and audio program. Their department held a competition where contestants had to create a film in 48 hours based on the theme “superheroes.”
The first 24 hours evaporated as Sam and Jake couldn’t decide on an idea they liked. But on the last day, the crime fighting duo “Truckboy” and “Vanman” was born.
Jake was Vanman, a hero who would hang out in his “van down by the river,” until being called to action. And Wren was Truckboy, a vigilante who hauled plastic blue barrels around in the bed of his truck that were prone to spilling out all over the road.
It didn’t completely make sense, but that was the point.
“It’s always dry, dumb humor,” Sam said. “Not cheesy, though.”
After “The Adventures of Truckboy and Vanman” won that contest, their professor, Bob Maass, recommended they submit it for the 10th Annual Omaha Film Festival in the Best Nebraska Short Film category.
“Sam’s probably one of the most talented young filmmakers I’ve seen come through here,” he said. “He just has a really good eye for things. He’s a good storyteller, he’s a wonderful cinematographer … he just gets it.”
Sam was hesitant, though. He was afraid no one else would find the film funny. That if selected, the theater would be dead silent when the film played.
But his dad was convinced they should give it a shot. He paid the entry fee.
“Let them decide if it’s good,” John Senser said.
Out of the 300 short films entered, 74 were accepted.
Vanman and Truckboy took to the big screen at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema, and the audience laughed just like they were supposed to.
* * *
The little girl can’t believe it. Vanman works at the grocery store.
She needs a little coaxing from her mother before she musters up the courage to approach him.
“Can I have your autograph?” she asks Jake.
Sometimes people will see the movie poster behind the register and double take. But this is a first. He obliges, smiling.
“I’ve had some people I don’t even know go, ‘Hey, this guy is a movie star,’ to their kids and they go, ‘Really?’” he said.
Jeff’s Jack and Jill Grocery takes pride in their town’s young people. Not only do they put up the movie posters, but they also let Sam film in the store, as long as it’s after hours.
Ken Powers, the manager of the store and son of the owner, said he’s known Jake since he was a kid. Letting him make movies with his friends in the store is the least he can do.
“You watch somebody grow up, and you see him chasing a dream, and you can have a small part in helping achieve that,’ he said. “I think that’s the nice thing about any town, but in small Nebraska towns we kind of rally behind anybody we can.”
This summer, Sam, Wren and Jake decided to give “The Adventures of Vanman and Truckboy” another shot. Filming the second one would be different than the first. They wanted to make it longer, cleaner and more intense.
They used every connection they could think of. Sam’s mother, a preschool teacher, taught the fire chief’s daughter. Speaking to him got Wren and Jake a ride on the firetruck for a scene of a homecoming parade.
Then, there was a friend of a friend who had an airboat and brought his whole family down the Platte River to film for a day. Tornado warnings ruined the shots.
Cory Chubb owns the Good Times Bar. He’s in and out of his establishment, his hands full running two businesses and racing after his two-and-a-half-year-old son. But when the Sensers approached him to film in the bar, he told them they could have access to whatever they needed.
“I tell them, when they’re a famous director someday, don’t forget us at home,” he said.
The bar was exactly the look they needed, but it was dim. They ended up dragging in their chicken’s heat lamp and a photographer’s white umbrella from a garage sale to light the scene.
They also got on the roof of the bar where they filmed a scene with their drones.
A man who lived across the alley didn’t approve of the technique.
“If that drone hits my air conditioner …” the man warned, mimicking shooting a shotgun.
They ignored him the best they could. It was only later, when they were watching the scene back and saw at the very end that the man flipped off the drone.
But most people were happy to hear they were filming and wanted to help out. They were even able to get an officer to star in a scene after calling the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.
One day Jake, who lives across from the high school, looked out from his house and saw a cop car chasing Wren in his truck around the track.
If she got a call, the officer would’ve had to leave and attend to whatever emergency was at hand.
“Luckily, she didn’t,” Sam said.
Making the second film wasn’t easy, though. There were months where nothing happened. They’d cram scenes into an hour of filming, having to quit when Jake needed to go to work or when Wren had to run off to pole vault practice.
John Senser pushed them, kept them on track. When Sam wanted to scrap the film, he didn’t let him.
Sam wrote a banjo melody, designed the new posters and dubbed in all the audio. It was the team’s most ambitious project yet. They entered it in the Omaha Film Festival again, where it premiered March 12, 2016.
This time, some people recognized the familiar story. There were whistles and cheers as Vanman and Truckboy fought crime once more. Later, Jake and the Sensers would learn their film was selected for honorable mention out of all seven shorts. But at the time, they just enjoyed watching their film with surround sound and the cascade of people laughing.
After the other films were shown, all the directors were brought to the front of the room for a Q&A session. One audience member asked how they got to use their locations. The other directors spoke about their difficulties getting permission and sets. Sam didn’t have that issue.
“Our hometown, Louisville, it’s a small town, so nobody has a problem with us filming anywhere,” he said when the microphone was passed to him. “You just ask, and they’ll let you in.”
The Sensers were lucky enough to grow up on a movie set location. But Sam also used whatever scenes he could find in the area around him.
“I don’t think we would’ve been filmmakers in a big town,” he said.
There was the highway next to camp, deserted in the darkness, where he filmed the texting and driving PSA. It was his dad’s idea: two deer, driving a car at night almost run into Jake as he walks into the middle of the road because he’s distracted texting.
Sam drove over to his grandpa’s house one evening and asked if he could borrow the trophy deer off his wall.
“Yeah, take whatever you want,” he said.
They quickly realized the heads were too big for the Kia, so they opened the sunroof and stuck the antlers out the top. To make the deer shake their heads in disappointment, people sat in the back of the car and reached over the front seat to hold them.
The time on the quiet road transported Sam to that November night in New York. The PSA won the 2015 Project Yellow Light competition and was featured at the Ad Council’s annual Public Service Award Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
The cheapest seat at the dinner would normally run someone $3,000. But the Ad Council made an exception for Sam and his parents and flew them out for the event at no cost.
At the tables surrounding him were representatives from ESPN, the New York Times, Facebook and dozens of other household names.
Rubbing elbows with so many famous companies reminded him there are opportunities in the cities they can’t find back home.
That’s the idea people have been pushing on Sam lately. That he has the potential of a real career in the film business. And that he needs to get out of Nebraska to pursue it.
“He is so talented, and he probably needs to take a chance to go to L.A. or where the industry is happening,” Sam’s professor Bob Maass said. “It’s going to be neat to see if he can get to that next stage … or if he gets a chance in the industry some place if he could move somewhere.”
Moving to Los Angeles or New York would be the dream. But those places are so different from what he is used to.
“So many people on the street corner asking for money …” Sam said.
“I’ll probably be one of those people if I move up there,” Jake replied with a chuckle.
There’s still work to do in Nebraska, anyway. Wren graduates from Louisville Public High School this year and leaves for the Navy at the end of the summer. If Sam wants there to be another Vanman and Truckboy, this is his last chance.
So for now, these moments are enough. Sam’s parents sit in the balcony as Sam and Jake’s advertisement plays on the screen.
They have the perfect view for when actor Joel McHale takes the stage and asks Sam to get up.
People cheer as Sam stands, lights shining on him in his Nebraska-rented tuxedo.
“Sam, this is just the start of your career,” McHale said. “So welcome to the first of what will hopefully be many successfully-long evenings … in clothes you don’t usually wear.”