How Wonderful and Weird Ideas Come to Life at the Wildwood Film Festival in Appleton


There is a fine line between funny and freaky, comical and creepy.

For his first project as a writer/director, Jake Bertz danced right up to that line with the short film Neighslayer.

It’s just one of more than 30 films being featured at the 2014 Wildwood Film Festival in Appleton on Saturday, March 8th.

For 13 years, the festival has been a showcase of ideas that are sometimes silly, sometimes strange and sometimes inspirational. But every one of those ideas has a connection to Wisconsin.

Three guys who love independent filmmaking have been responsible for running Wildwood all 13 years. Craig Knitt, Jason Buss and Tom Thorne are dedicated to working with emerging talent and interesting projects – not just for the festival – but all year long.

Jake Bertz’s film is the perfect example. He put out an ad on Craigslist looking for help making Neighslayer – and Craig actually answered – Craig Knitt that is.

Horsing Around – How Neighslayer Got Made

Bertz is always coming up with story ideas, and he’d written a screenplay before, but this time he wanted a little more control. He wanted to see one of his ideas come to life in the way he imagined it.

“As a writer, you really wield the power of a god in that you can control every minute aspect of your characters’ lives, he says. “When you have a script directed by someone else, you lose some of that control, so stepping behind the camera and getting to influence the story in new ways was something that really intrigued me.”

Neighslayer focuses on a young woman who has an encounter with a serial killer. Sounds pretty basic at first. But this particular serial killer happens to wear a rubber horse mask over his head, and he’s also extremely polite.

The young woman becomes increasingly frustrated when local police refuse to believe her story.

Bertz says there was no particular inspiration for Neighslayer. “It was one of those ideas that just kind of popped into my head and I ran with it,” he explains.

It was enough to pique the interest of Craig Knitt. The two started discussing the project, and Knitt decided to get involved as a producer with his company Out of Whack Productions.

As a veteran filmmaker, Knitt was able to give Bertz a lot of guidance and assistance that many first-timers don’t enjoy. Bertz realizes that, and is very appreciative.

“I was especially lucky with this project because I got to work with so many experienced people,” he says. “For most people, their first film is done with just any family or friends they can get their hands on, and here I am with all this experience surrounding me.”

Knitt says there were certainly some challenges to overcome in the beginning.

“We spent a good chunk of time refining the story before we even started thinking about casting or locations. Jake kept running into brick wall after brick wall when he started trying to get locations. He had about the same amount of luck finding his actors.”

But eventually, the pieces started falling into place. That included the lead actress, Samantha Novak, as well as Steve Golla, who plays a skeptical police officer. Golla’s face has become somewhat recognizable after appearing in a variety of roles in locally produced films. Derek Knabenbauer plays the congenial, horse-faced killer.

“Getting to meet and work with all these creative people, watching the story evolve in this magical dance is just a wonderful experience,” Bertz says.

He got to see his film debut in front of an audience at the 2014 Green Bay Film Festival last month, and is looking forward to another great experience at Wildwood.

“The audience reaction to the film was definitely positive. While I didn’t go digging around the audience for specific reactions, there was an air of enjoyment going around while it played.”

Watch the Neighslayer Trailer

How Wildwood Helps Wisconsin Filmmakers Succeed

wildwood film festival founders

Tom Thorne, Craig Knitt and Jason Buss

While you’ll likely find the founders of Wildwood helping out with all sorts of productions throughout the year, each March at the festival is where it all pays off.

Because of the fact that a Wisconsin-connection is required for acceptance into the Wildwood Film Festival, it gives up-and-coming Wisconsin filmmakers a unique opportunity for exposure.

“We are such a niche festival that it provides a submitting filmmaker a better chance to have their piece accepted,” says co-founder Jason Buss.

The founders add that Wildwood has the kind of atmosphere that allows for movie-making of all types and skill levels. Plus, it’s also an opportunity for people who love film to connect with one another.

“Here in Wisconsin we’re kind of limited in our filmmaking resources, and to find others with similar interests and passions is invaluable,” says Knitt. “Wildwood is first and foremost a venue for Wisconsin directors to get their work seen. From there you can meet people that might become key motivators for your productivity.”

Whether it’s feedback from other filmmakers, or watching the way the audience responds, this kind of opportunity can be a valuable learning experience.

Adding to the education at the 2014 Wildwood Film Festival is a free workshop for writers. Screenwriting 101 will take place at the Lawrence Room inside Appleton’s Radisson Paper Valley Hotel. That’s directly across the street from the Fox Cities PAC’s Kimberly Clark Theater, where the festival is held.

There will be four screening throughout Saturday afternoon and evening. Each showing will feature eight different short films. (See more event details below)

As for Jake Bertz, he’s caught the filmmaking bug and is already on to his sophomore directing venture while writing feature-length screenplays. He’s working with the lead actress from Neighslayer, Samantha Novak, on yet another twisted idea involving horses. But this time they’re of the cartoon variety.

“The next film project I’m working on is a short torture comedy inspired by a very twisted My Little Pony fan fiction,” says Bertz.

If torture comedy is your thing,  you can Like Cupcakes Fan Film on Facebook to follow the project’s progress. You can also Like Neighslayer on Facebook.

Wildwood Film Festival Details

  • When: Saturday, March 8th
  • Where: Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Appleton
  • Times: Screenings are at 1pm,  3pm, 6pm and 8pm
  • Tickets: $10 in Advance. $15 at the door. Day Passes are also available. Click Here to get your tickets now.
  • Online: Visit and Like Wildwood on Facebook

You can find more information about events, including the Screenwriting 101 Workshop, on the festival’s Facebook page.


  1. Mom is bursting with pride here. Determination gets you to where you want to go.

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