Chris Talbott, Ruben Carbajal, and Ian Rosenberg always assumed their high school prom was typical. The Racine, Wisconsin natives never thought twice about the frenzied enthusiasm that took hold of the small city every June when citizens lined the sidewalks to watch the parade of fire trucks, 18-wheelers, classic cars, buses, and National Guard tanks converging on one city-wide prom. Didn't every city brighten the night sky with klieg lights and roll out a red carpet while people filled bleachers to capacity for a glimpse of the graduating seniors? Surely every town's local television station featured the event live, as if they were covering the Academy Awards?
The trio moved to New York, where they joined with four other artists, Hillevi Loven, Karen Sorensen, Ari Vena, and Mary Wigmore, to form the production company OVO in 1999. It wasn't until the three Wisconsinites spoke with native New Yorkers that they realized their town's prom was anything but typical. Racine was, after all, a small-sized city located between Milwaukee and Chicago, an unassuming archetype of a sleepy midwestern locale. "But whenever any of us described our prom, people's faces would light up, with a mixture of surprise and disbelief," recalled Chris Talbott. "We slowly realized that Racine's prom celebration was an extremely unusual event, and one that definitely piqued people's interest."
During an OVO brainstorming meeting, someone came up with the idea of going to Racine during prom week with cameras just to see what they could come up with. Through friends and family, they found three different students, all who were attending their senior prom and who agreed to be filmed. With permission from the Racine Rotary Club to attend the prom festivities, they managed to amass some 60 hours of coverage. The town was especially cooperative, allowing the crews access to local high schools, the festival hall where the main event takes place, as well as local businesses. Ari Vena reflected, "Our presence in Racine was big news. The local paper did several cover stories about the documentary we were filming, so that most people knew what we were up to, and why we were there. The enthusiasm was really great."
Back in New York, OVO decided that their footage was compelling enough for a film. With the help of a development deal from the anti-smoking Website TruthAV.com, Ari Vena and Hillevi Loven began to cut the film. From those sessions, they completed a 17-minute short also entitled, "The World's Best Prom." Divided into five mini-epics, the movie was a kinetic and funny thumbnail sketch of an over-the-top prom. The film was awarded Best Documentary at the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2001 and featured on both "The Jenny Jones Show" and National Public Radio's "This American Life."
Encouraged by the response, the team decided to create a feature-length doc. Ari Vena began to edit, a process that would take a full four years, while Chris Talbott returned three times to Wisconsin for additional footage. A collection of archival videos and photos from past proms were amassed through some detective work and the cooperation of the Racine Heritage Museum, the Racine Public Library and the Racine Rotary Club. Chris Talbott and Ari Venua spent the last year putting the final touches on the film along with producer Ian Rosenberg.
THE WORLD'S BEST PROM blossomed into a unique and captivating film. The quirky and fun-loving tone of the short version is held intact but is deepened by a close-up look at the lives of two very different girls and one boy as they prepare for and experience the biggest night of their lives. THE WORLD'S BEST PROM uncovers the face of a new small town America, one that is substantially more complex than the existing stereotypes that persist. Here is a quintessential American rite of passage, updated by a surprisingly diverse small city with a largely hip-hop sensibility. It's a real-life fairy tale for the new century, and one that is an undeniable crowd-pleaser.