The set of a film is a meticulously executed place. From the location to the wardrobe to the cast, the filmmaker must carefully consider every element of production. And in a great piece of art, all of these thoughtful decisions result in something that looks like an effortless representation of reality.

For Craig Macneill, maker of the recently released short film Henley, finding the perfect child to play the main character, Ted Henley, required extensive scouting by his crew.

“I really needed to find a boy who could carry the whole film based on his presence alone,” Macneill said, “because he’s in about every frame and he doesn’t really speak much.”

First they went to an after school theater program and auditioned boys with formal acting training and experience. But no one seemed quite right. So Macneill’s producer began attending elementary school talent shows and photographing boys who seemed like they might be right for the part.

“She emailed me a bunch of photos and I came across him, and I said, ‘I have to meet this boy. I think he’s going to be perfect,’” Macneill recalled.  “And so that’s how it happened. I started speaking to his parents on the phone and they were all excited about it. I had never met him in person until the first day of shooting.”

The boy in question is Hale Lytle, an eight-year-old from the Richmond, Virginia area. With his big, blue eyes, pale skin and fine facial structure, he looks almost otherworldly.

“There’s a strong presence to him,” Macneill said. “There’s sort of this magnetic quality to him. You just want to continue to look at him. He’s got interesting features.”

The film’s story centers on Lytle’s portrayal of the struggles of Ted Henley, son of John Henley, owner of the Henley Motel.

Set alongside a rural highway in an isolated stretch of woods, young Henley discovers that he can engineer car accidents that result in road kill by littering the highway near the hotel with discarded trash and food scraps. When the hotel falls on hard times, Ted uses his skills to make bigger things happen for himself, exerting his agency and changing his life forever.

Macneill saw the fact that Lytle had little acting experience almost as an asset.

“I think the beauty of working with a child who has never acted before is that they don’t have all that training in them,” he said. “We met a lot of kids who were serious actors, [with whom] it didn’t feel honest or it didn’t seem like they were real kids.”

On set, Macneill and Lytle would play football, until Lytle was tired so he would be “in the zone,” when the crew began filming.  Macneill would explain what he hoped the boy would feel and think about for each scene.

“I would ask him a lot of questions, so I could learn what his facial expressions were like, and if I had him thinking about mathematical equations he would get this really serious look on his face,” Macneill explained. “So if there was a moment where I needed him to be really serious, I would start asking him some mathematical equations and stuff like that.”

A chapter in Clay McLeod Chapman’s novel Miss Corpus inspired the plot and characters in Macneill’s film. The two have collaborated since 2005 when they worked together on Late Bloomer, Macneill’s first short film, and they hope to work together in the future.

Macneill’s experience with filmmaking dates back to his childhood, where he would make movies with his family’s VHS camera and screen them for his neighbors. He continued making movies throughout college, and in 2005, Late Bloomer was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Afterlight, a feature-length film co-written and co-directed by Macneill, premiered in 2009 to rave reviews from the New York Times, Variety and Time Out New York.

To date, six film festivals have screened Henley. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the Gen Art Film Festival and has been pre-selected for of Best of Shorts at the Carmel Film Festival.

Macneill is “thrilled” at the success of Henley thus far. “A lot of people put their blood, sweat and tears into the project, so it’s great that it’s been a success,” Macneill said.

Henley will be screening at the 2011 Hamptons International Film Festival on October 16 and October 17. For specific information regarding screenings, please visit

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