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‘Sugar Baby’: How Kaleb Knight’s direction turned a senior project into an award-w

When Belmont student Kaleb Knight was in middle school, gum was coveted, but against the rules — it was messy, distracting and kids kept sticking half-chewed pieces under their desks.

Like any smart, entrepreneurial fifth grader, Knight and his friend saw a market. They sold gum by the stick at a quarter a piece. And they made “a lot of money — for fifth grade.”

Now, Knight is a film major in his final year at Belmont. His senior capstone project Sugar Baby won first place at the Best Tennessee Local Films festival.

Inspired by Knight’s teenage solicitation of contraband chewing gum, Sugar Baby tells the story of two middle school students who start selling gum as a response to their school’s rule against it.

Sugar Baby was filmed on Belmont’s campus and produced in Belmont’s facilities. It achieved great success, as its award would indicate — but it didn’t come without a few challenges.

Knight began writing in January 2020 with plans to begin filming in August of the same year. But the spring semester moved online and a pandemic shut down the nation, casting Knight and his team into a spiral of unpredictability.

By September it was crunch time, and collaboration was key.

“Teamwork does honestly make your dream work, especially during a pandemic,” said Knight. “You have to make a plan. And that’s what we did.”

Knight said he and his crew decided to start filming without knowing what the future had in store. They worked with professors to create a COVID-safe film plan tailored to their set.

Belmont sophomore Chamberlin Little, who played Freddy in the film, said collaboration was essential for Sugar Baby’s success. Knight was passionate about his project, constantly challenging the cast to do their best, he said.

Even when their time on set was up, Knight kept them working, pushing one more take, remembered Little.

“When he has a vision, he goes all for it,” Little said of his director.

Actor Kenton Jackson, who played Scott in the film, agreed.

“He has all this up-and-coming potential,” said Jackson of Knight. “He’s got the markings of a really great director. He’s able to listen to his actors.”

Knight went beyond listening to his actors— he connected with them. He and Jackson spent several hours dissecting Scott’s character, said Knight. It was that kind of passion that pushed the crew through months of filming and production.

Belmont professor Amy Bertram encouraged all her students to enter their work in film festivals. She speculated only a handful of people had seen Sugar Baby at the time.

“I’m really happy he submitted it and super happy he won,” said Bertram. “I hope he applies to other festivals as well,” she added.

Knight was happy to win, but the real opportunity was in directing his own project, he said.

“I’ve worked on capstones in the past, but directing your own project, that’s your baby,” said Knight. “You know, my sugar baby.”

Students can watch Knight’s film here.

This article written by Vivi Smilgius.

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