Matt Groening Fellowship screens second batch of animated gems
“Simpsons” creator, Dean Schwartz and Associate Dean Barbara Boyle applaud students
Posted on November 16th 2012 in Announcement
In 2011, the first year of The Matt Groening Fellowship, the multi-Emmy®-winning creator of “The Simpsons,” selected and generously funded six films by TFT animation students, on themes of social responsibility.
It was Associate Dean Barbara Boyle, then Chair of the School’s Department of Film Television and Digital Media, who had pursued Groening to fund the first year of the Fellowship — and it was the sheer excellence of that first batch of films that convinced him to continue his support.
This year Groening underwrote eleven films, and, as Boyle explained on November 2, to a large audience of students, alumni, and faculty assembled at the Bridges Theater, this was purely because he was so impressed with all of the eleven proposals the department submitted to him.
Groening expressed his delight with all of this year’s films, from their innovative concepts to their layered, professional-quality sound design. He had fully intended, he said, to take notes on all eleven, but after writing the single word “sweet” on his notepad during the first, he became so absorbed in the experience that he never wrote another line.
Inarguably one of the most influential figures in modern animation, Groening graciously credited award-winning “Simpsons” directors such as TFT Animation Workshop alums David Silverman ’79, MFA ’83, Mike B. Anderson MFA ’90 and Professor Chuck Sheetz ’83, all of whom attended the screening, for their contributions to his success.
Groening has won twelve Primetime Emmy® Awards, ten for “The Simpsons” and two for “Futurama,” as well as the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Award and a British Comedy Award. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.
Groening has also become one the TFT Animation Workshop’s most munificent benefactors, with a major gift in 2011 that created The Matt Groening Chair in Animation, with benefits that include bringing visiting master artists from the field to teach classes in the Workshop.
Left to Right, Top Row: Celia Mercer, Professor, Head, Animation Workshop; Vivian Lee MFA 12; Po Chou Chi MFA ’12; Danielle Heitmuller, Alex Wong, Jing Wong and Yangzi She, first year students.
Second Row: “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening; Arem Kim, second-year student; Rami Kim, first-year student; Jessica Hokanson, thesis student.
Bottom Row: Heng Zhang, second year student; Ariel Goldberg MFA ’12; TFT alumnus Chuck Sheetz ’83, Professor, Vice-Chair Undergraduate Studies, Emmy©-winning “Simpsons” director.
Photo by Juan Tallo
Film Stills, Top to Bottom:
“Recover” (Po Chou Chi)
Terror in a Three-Piece Suit” (Ariel Goldberg)
“The Adventures of Bugsy McKay” (Jessica Hokanson)
“Rainy Day Ducks” (Danielle M. Heitmuller)
“Today’s Headline” (Arem Kim)
“Rietoki” (Rami Kim)
“Baseball Boogie” (Vivian Lee)
“To the Fairest” (Yangzi She)
“Family” (Alex Wong)
“The Secret of the Wardrobe” (Jing Wong)
“The Last Snowcap” (Heng Zhang)
Groening Fellowship Students 2012
- Po Chou Chi MFA ’13
- Ariel Goldberg ’07, MFA ’12
- Jessica Hokanson MFA ’13
- Danielle M. Heitmuller MFA ’13
- Arem Kim MFA ’13
- Rami Kim MFA ’13
- Vivian Lee MFA ’12
- Yangzi She MFA ’13
- Alex Wong MFA ’14
- Jing Wong
- Zeng Zhang
Groening Fellowship Students 2011
- Alexis Block MFA ’11
- Debra Chow MFA ’12
- Chris Anderson & Ariel Goldberg ’07, MFA ’12
- Mary Lai MFA ’10
- Sijia Luo MFA ’10
- Erick Oh MFA ’10
Alumnus John Rando takes “A Christmas Story” to Broadway
Musical based on Jean Shepherd Classic Opens in November
TFT Theater alumnus John Rando MFA ’88, Tony and Outer Circle Critic’s Award-winning director of “Urinetown,” “The Wedding Singer” and Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party” is the director of a musical theater adaptation of “A Christmas Story,” the classic 1983 Bob Clark film, based on the novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” by humorist Jean Shepherd.
Actor Peter Billingsly, who at age 12 portrayed the film’s protagonist, Ralphie, is one of the producers of the stage version. Actor Dan Luria, best known as the father on the TV show “The Wonder Years,” portrays author-narrator Shepherd.
Set in the 1950s, an era that is portrayed with barbed humor as well as nostalgia, the film has become a Holiday perennial on video with its story of a Ralphie’s quest for the ultimate Christmas present, an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle.
Payne and Verbinski are 2012 Oscar winners
TFT alums win for Best Animated Feature, Best Adapted Screenplay
Posted on February 27th 2012 in Industry
TFT alumni Gore Verbinski ’87 and Alexander Payne MFA ’90 won Oscars in major categories at the 84th Annual Academy Awards on February 26.
Executive Board Member Verbinski accepted the Best Animated feature Oscar for “Rango,” his innovative first venture into the medium of animation after a highly successful career making live action blockbusters.
“This film,” Verbinski declared from the podium, “was made by a bunch of grownups acting like children.”
Payne was the director as well as the co-writer (with Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) of “The Descendants,” the film that won this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay trophy — Payne’s second after his 2005 win for “Sideways” in the same category.
Backstage at the event, Payne praised his co-writers: “They paved a path for me because they’d been through the book quite a few times. They gave me the luxury to pick and choose what I responded to.”
Nominated along with Payne and Verbinski was TFT Executive Board Member Frank Marshall ’68, the producer of Best Picture nominee “War Horse,” directed by Steven Spielberg.
Two friends of TFT also won Oscars, “The Artist” costume designer Mark Bridges, a guest recently at the School’s second annual Oscar-themed costume design panel, “From Sketch to Screen,” and visual effects wizard Rob Legato, who attended a special 3-D screening of his winning project “Hugo” in the Bridges Theater, as part of the Dean’s Special Artists series.
Both “The Descendants” and “Rango” were heavily favored in their categories, in which they had won multiple precursor prizes and critics group awards.
“The Descendants” centers on a Hawaiian businessman (George Clooney) who tries to bond with his two daughters after his wife has a tragic boating accident and languishes on life-support.
“Rango” is a mock spaghetti western populated by a cast of goggle-eyed desert critters led by Johnny Depp, who voiced the title character, a chameleon suffering an identity crisis.
UPDATE: “Rango” clear Oscar favorite after Annie, V.E.S. and BAFTA wins
Verbinski’s innovative mock western now the clear front runner for Best Animated Feature Oscar
Posted on February 12th 2012 in Industry
UPDATE: The innovative animated western comedy “Rango,” co-written and directed by TFT alumnus and Executive Board Member Gore Verbinski ’87 (“Pirates of the Caribbean” 1- 3), was the top winner at the 2012 Annie Awards. According to the “Los Angeles Times:” “Rango,” the Oscar-nominated box-office hit about a pet chameleon who becomes sheriff of a small western town, won the Annie Award for animated feature from the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood, on Saturday.
The film, directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Johnny Depp as the voice of Rango, also won Annie Awards for character design for Mark “Crash” McCreery, writing for John Logan, Verbinski and James Byrkit, and editing for Craig Wood.
A recent major article by Tim Appelo of “The Hollywood Reporter” revealed the meticulous process that could take live-action blockbuster director and TFT alumnus Gore Verbinski ’87 (“Pirates of the Caribbean” 1- 3) to his first Oscar — for the change-of-pace animated production “Rango.” The mock Spaghetti Western, featuring a cast of desert fauna and the voice of Johnny Depp, has also been nominated for multiple Annie, BAFTA and PGA awards.
“Helping (Johhny) Depp to connect with his inner chameleon was the least of the risks Verbinski took to make this major departure in animated film. The daredevil director created “Rango” with Industrial Light & Magic, which handled the effects for the “Pirates” films but had never worked on a full animated feature before. ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll was skeptical when Verbinski pitched the idea in August 2007, but he and ILM animation director Hal Hickel agreed to watch the first Rango story reel in 2008 to please their big client. “What intrigued me,” says Knoll, “was when he said, ‘There’s Pixar and there’s everybody who’s imitating Pixar, doing me-too movies.’ He didn’t want to follow in their footsteps.”
Conventional animation is, essentially, illustrations that move. “Rango’s” roots are in live action. “We treated it like any of our previous live-action collaborations with Gore,” says Knoll. Instead of reading lines to match animated characters, Depp and the cast were first filmed to give ILM animators reference points to inform the characters. “It’s not just a drawing, it’s a guy reacting as another guy gets thrown through the window,” says Verbinski. The sensor motion-capture camera ILM developed in 2006 for “Avatar” enabled Verbinski to tour a virtual environment…and choose camera angles and change set elements. “He’d say, ‘The clock tower is hidden, push that building back three feet and make the road six feet wider,'” says Knoll. “It played to his strengths with walking live-action sets.”
TFT alums Payne, Verbinski and Marshall nominated for 2012 Oscars
TFT alum Alexander Payne’s film “The Descendants” opened in September and is still in theaters five months later. It recently won the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Feature Film conferred by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
“The Descendants” centers on a Hawaiian businessman (George Clooney) who tries to bond with his two daughters after his wife has a tragic boating accident and languishes on life-support.
“The Descendants” has now been nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Alum Gore Verbinski joins Payne at the Oscars with his film “Rango” nominated as Best Animated Film.
“Rango” opened in February and is getting a one-theater re-release in Los Angeles because of the nomination. Has recieved 9 Annie Award nominations and was named Best Animated Feature by a dozen critics’ groups.
TFT Executive Board Member Frank Marshall ’68 was a producer of Steven Speilberg’s Best Picture Nominee “War Horse,” a World War I drama, based on the acclaimed play, that centers on a the relationship between a British country boy a beloved horse. With more than 70 films to his credit, Marshall’s epochal collaborations with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, have resulted in dozens of classic films, including “Raiders of the Lost Arc” (1982), “The Color Purple” (1985) “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Seabiscuit” (2003) and David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008).
Justin Lin on the "Fast" track
Justin Lin ’95: hitmaker for a diverse global audience
TFT alumnus Justin Lin ’95 is now officially one of the world’s most successful film directors. His supercharged action movie, “Fast Five,” which brings Duane “The Rock” Johnson into the “Fast and Furious” street-racing franchise, to smack down with returning stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, opened in Europe and Asia a week before its debut in the US and has become a true global blockbuster – a path-clearing multi-ethnic 21st century phenomenon. It was the number one film on earth in its first two weeks of release and the biggest international hit in Universal Picture’s history.
We asked TFT staffer Sheila Roberts to update the excellent profile and interview she wrote for us when Lin’s previous contribution to the franchise, “Fast & Furious” was released in 2009, following the 2006 installment “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.”
By Sheila Roberts
Justin Lin has been a fan of the franchise ever since he saw “The Fast and the Furious” on its opening weekend when he was a TFT directing student. He knew, he says, exactly what he wanted to accomplish in his latest contribution to the series: It would be a one-two punch of inspired casting coupled with jaw-dropping action.
Lin reflects: “I felt like there were still a lot of areas where this franchise could go. I appreciate that the studio has never asked me to recycle the same thing over and over again. By virtue of that, this franchise has been able to grow and evolve and mature. I came back for that reason.”
Lin’s breakthrough feature “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002), filmed on a budget of just $250,000, was a startling suburban noir about “model minority” Asian-American high school boys drifting into crime. It established his reputation as a stereotype-buster.
Arguably it was an even bolder move for Lin when he ventured off the indie cinema reservation into the glossy realm of mainstream Hollywood commercialism. But Lin has been forthright about acknowledging that he grew up enjoying, and wanting to make, the same kinds of high-octane popcorn movies as other filmmakers of his generation.
He says he was instantly intrigued by the sub-culture of underclass street racing the “Fast and Furious” films portray, but adds, “The core theme of the series is family. ‘Fast & Furious’ explored the sacrifice elements of family. As soon as I was able to grasp that the next one should be about freedom and family, it became clear to me why I wanted to return.”
Lin knew if he were to helm his third film in the series, the expectations from the fans would be huge. “I know the action in this one is bigger than the last two combined. There are about six action pieces in this movie, not just car chases, but foot chases and a heist as well. It’s just jam-packed.”
Lin recalls his experience shooting “Fast Five’s” complicated pivotal heist sequence: “The train heist was a challenge. The logistics of doing a train heist were much greater than the land train that we had in the last one. On this film, we had to get permission to basically own a piece of a working railroad. Then we had to buy trains and build these trucks that were able to go up against the trains. I wanted a car to be jumping out of the train at full speed, and then there were trestles that become an obstacle for our characters. It was costly, and it took precise execution.”
Lin’s career has risen steadily as his “Fast” films have gone from strength to strength. He is the official attached director on a planned re-boot of the “Terminator” franchise, which will feature former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to his most iconic role.
“The Terminator was one of my favorite films growing up,” Lin has said, “and I feel I have a take that I would love to see. I’ve talked with Arnold, and now we’ll see.
According to several sources, it was Lin’s pitch of his concept for the film that persuaded Schwarzenegger to return, though he’s declined to discuss details. “It’s still very early on” Lin says, “but I don’t want to make a movie where it’s just showing off [technology and special effects]. I want to support the human elements. If you don’t have humanity, then it just becomes robots.”
“The key is having a point of view — which is very much the UCLA approach to working on these things … You could say UCLA filmmakers try to bring an indie attitude even to studio pictures. We always try to find some kind of subjectivity or point or view.”
TFT playwright Matt Pelfrey helps “Skins” hop the pond
Controversial BBC hit creates a stir for MTVaaaaaaaaa
By Kim Kowsky
In MTV’s online advertisement for “Skins,” a new teenage drama based on the popular British series of the same name, writer and TFT grad Matt Pelfrey MFA ’05 enthusiastically plugs the show for portraying “the wild ride of being a teenager in America today.”
That promo for the show, which is slated to premiere in January 2011, made Matt the target of a nasty attack by at least one fan of the British show, a TV blogger who didn’t want the US version to borrow plot elements from the original. The blogger said Matt is “not a writer, he is a high-priced copy machine.”
Matt, whose award-winning, critically acclaimed plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and South Africa, described the criticism as “weird, especially since the US version is being created by Bryan Elsley, the man who co-created the UK version. We’re following Bryan’s vision and he knows ‘Skins’ better than anyone.”
“Some fans of the original hate us,” Matt said. “They’re upset because they don’t want it to be exactly like the British version. But it’s all unfounded. It’s a little easier to take because once they see the show, they will change their opinions.”
Matt, who is writer-in-residence at Furious Theatre Company in Pasadena and taught playwriting at UCLA, was one of three young writers out of 400 who won writer spots on the US version of the show, which was shot in Toronto but developed in New York. The gritty drama, named after a British slang term for condoms, casts real teenagers and keeps characters a maximum of two years before making them “graduate.”
One of the young stars of the UK “Skins,” Dev Patel, graduated to the title role in the Oscar-winning feature film “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“This allows us to kill characters and have life-changing things happen without worrying about the cast aging out of the story,” Matt said. “Having people die and leave makes the stakes higher.”
The British version, which has run for five seasons, ensured its authenticity by drawing heavily on the input of local teens who participated in roundtable discussions with Elsley and his team of writers. Teens who show an interest in writing are encouraged to co-write three-to-six minute weekly “webisodes” which expand on or refer to the regular episodes.
Elsley used the same strategy in developing the US version of “Skins,” which included more than a dozen New York teenagers, some of whom made video diaries from the point of view of the characters. Matt played a key role in turning these video diaries into webisodes; he co-wrote and directed half of them, in addition to the writing he did for the regular episodes.
“It’s been fantastic to work on my first TV show,” Matt said. “The entire experience was new and we all got along great.”
Matt, who lives with his wife and two young children in Pasadena, had to temporarily relocate to New York while the show was in development. Not expecting his contract to be renewed, he gave up the lease on his apartment and ended up living out of a sleeping bag in the “Skins” writer’s office for five weeks.
“I would write until 10 p.m., go to sleep and then wake up,” Matt said. “It was an interesting experience never leaving my job.”
As a father, Matt admits he felt “terrified” at times by the stories told by some of the New York teens who helped develop the show. But, he says, he believes “Skins” does them a service by accurately portraying the world they live in.
“‘Skins’ doesn’t preach,” Matt said. “It tells honest stories about teens and that’s going to include sex, drugs and rock and roll. If you’re preachy, it goes in one ear and out the other. If you’re not talking down to them, they will respect the characters more and be able to absorb the lessons on their own.”
Dustin Lance Black ’96 sees both sides of “J.Edgar”
Oscar-winning “Milk” screenwriter and director Clint Eastwood respect FBI-honcho’s public and private conflicts
“Coming off ‘Milk,’” says Oscar-winning TFT screenwriting alumnus Dustin Lance Black ’96, “J. Edgar Hoover was someone I really wanted to investigate. To me, he seemed the very opposite of [martyred gay activist politician] Harvey Milk: a man with tremendous political power, but intensely closeted when it came to his personal life.”
Hoover was a complex and compelling figure whose self-created legend as a gangster hunter captivated America in the 1930s. Both feared and revered, the man was a dichotomy whose public and private lives would spark rumor and innuendo. But thanks to his eternal secrecy, the question of who he really was remains largely a subject of speculation to this day.
Clint Eastwood, the director of “J. Edgar,” the Hoover bio-pic Black crafted, grew up during his reign, was intrigued by the chance to explore Hoover on film. Along with Black, producer Brian Grazer and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the title role, Eastwood met the press recently in Los Angeles. His colleagues credited Black with the most critical skill a Hollywood screenwriter can have: the ability to sculpt complex material into exciting relatable stories that make other top artists want to sign on as collaborators.
“Hoover was a top cop, or a top ‘G-Man,’ as they called them in those days,” Eastwood recalled, “but I didn’t really know much about him. He had a high profile – he was seen with movie actors and famous writers at social gatherings and what have you – but he was an enigma in many ways.” Therefore, when the screenplay for “J. Edgar” crossed his desk, the filmmaker says, “I was already curious, especially about how Lance had approached it. It was really a character study. I liked the story a lot.”
The film’s star, Leonardo DiCaprio, agrees. “Lance wrote this incredible screenplay that both Clint and I were attracted to instantly. Hoover has always been this mythic, iconic figure in American history, yet somewhat shrouded in mystery in both his political and personal life. To tackle his life story seemed daunting, and Lance did it in such an emotionally moving way.”
The project came to Black through veteran producer Brian Grazer, who had worked with Eastwood once before and was eager to do so again. “I wanted to do a movie about J. Edgar Hoover – not a documentary, but an actual feature film,” Grazer relates. “I was interested in the power and corruption that existed in his world, much of it of his own making, in spite of his being such a dedicated patriot.”
Black and Grazer settled on a few key points on which to center the film, including the Lindbergh kidnapping and the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “I really wondered how this man, who started out with the best of intentions and went on to create the FBI and bring down some of the country’s most iconic gangsters, became so paranoid and, by some accounts, diabolical,” Grazer says.
Black notes, “My initial research labeled him either a hero to the nation, to whom we owe everything in terms of our protection and safety, or a villain who did things in an underhanded manner and was a terror to the country. It all seemed so extreme; I thought the truth had to lie somewhere in between.”
Grazer agreed with that conclusion, and with the writer’s idea to “present it from an internal point of view, from Hoover’s own psyche, letting him tell the story as he remembers it,” the producer says.
“This is a story about relationships,” director Eastwood says, “intimate interactions between Hoover and everyone around him, from those closest to him – Clyde Tolson, Helen Gandy, his mother – all the way to Robert Kennedy and other well known political figures, even presidents. If it had just been a biopic, I don’t think I would have wanted to do it. I like relationship pictures. I like exploring why people do or did certain things in their lives.”
“This was one of the most challenging characters I’d ever seen on the page,” DiCaprio says of Black’s script, which spanned Hoover’s entire professional life, beginning with the Bolshevik invasions in 1919, when communism was arriving on American soil. “Communism was almost like a terrorist movement in Hoover’s eyes, and he battled it and other perceived enemies throughout his career. Lance analyzed him as a young man and an old man, critiquing him in every possible way.”
Producer Robert Lorenz felt that the subject was a particularly fascinating one because, as he remarks, “What most of us know today is basically hearsay. This was a chance to put him in context; to attempt to understand what motivated his actions, without defending or judging everything that he did; to show that he was a complicated man, not a one-dimensional individual.”
In addition to reading almost everything that had been published on Hoover, Black set off to track down as many firsthand accounts as possible from those few people still living who had known him. He filled in the picture with information from others who may not have known the man personally but lived in Washington, D.C., during his period in office, in order to get a full picture of him, the good and the bad.
Proving the axiom that history tends to repeat itself, the filmmakers found Black’s story of J. Edgar Hoover very timely, despite the fact he died nearly 40 years ago.
“One of the aspects of the script that was very appealing was the fact that it was about a guy who was really working to manipulate the media, and had a very shrewd ability to do that,” Lorenz observes. “In this age, when people are constantly trying to shape their images and are having to fight an uphill battle against the fast pace of technology, I think it’s fascinating to look back at how Hoover did it, and how he managed to keep so many things secret in his private life and his work. That type of privacy would be difficult, if not impossible, today, and was certainly one of the more intriguing aspects of making the movie.”
Three recent TFT film directing graduates whose first features are already on the way
By Kim Kowsky
Three recent TFT production/directing graduates who cultivated friendships and worked on each other’s student films have all enjoyed breakthrough success with their first full-length features.
Abe Sylvia MFA ’06 wrote and directed “Dirty Girl,” a coming-of-age comedy about a promiscuous high school girl and her shy, gay classmate who team up for a road trip of self-discovery. Starring Milla Jovovich, Mary Steenburgen, Juno Temple and William H. Macy, the film premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where The Weinstein Company acquired distribution rights for a reported $3 million. It will be in theaters in Spring 2011.
Justin Lerner MFA ’07 wrote and directed “Girlfriend,” a drama about a young man with Down Syndrome who comes into money and uses it to romantically pursue a single mom. The film’s lead is played by Lerner’s high school friend, Evan Sneider, 31, an actor with Down Syndrome, and also stars Jackson Rathbone, Shannon Woodward and Amanda Plummer. The film also had a well-received screening at the Toronto Festival before Hannover House acquired North American distribution rights for something “in the mid to upper six figures,” according to “The Hollywood Reporter.”
David Harris MFA ’07 directed and co-wrote “Savage County” a low-budget slasher film set in Memphis that was originally planned as a series of 10-minute webisodes. The film earned a showing on MTV2 in October after garnering more than 100,000 votes in a social media campaign. It will become available next month on a variety of digital platforms, including MTV.com, Comcast VOD, the Playstation Network, Xbox and iTunes. It will also be released on DVD.
“David, Justin and I all go way back,” Sylvia says. “All three of us are friends and we all worked on each other’s films at varying points…One of our professors said the relationships you make here are going to carry you over the years and it really has been true so far.”
The three alum came to filmmaking in vastly different ways, but were drawn to UCLA for similar reasons.
Abe Sylvia grew up in Oklahoma, where his father worked as a political science professor. When Sylvia was a teen, the family relocated to San Jose, California and Sylvia enrolled in the High School of Performing Arts. “I was a musical theater brat,” he says. “My goal was to be on Broadway.”
He studied dance and musical theater at Boston Conservatory, moved to New York and ultimately achieved his dream, performing in a number of hit Broadway shows, including “The Producers,” “Cats” and “Busker Alley.” But after several years on Broadway, Sylvia became bored and started writing his own scripts.
“Once a show opens, you’re not creating anything new, you’re just maintaining,” Sylvia says. “It started to feel like factory work, a 9 to 5 job.” As a result, he left the original production of “The Producers” after just six months to enroll at UCLA’s graduate program in film.
“I got into both USC and UCLA,” he says, “but UCLA seemed more personal, more encouraging, more advocates for personal filmmaking. UCLA just seemed geared to helping students find their own way of working.”
Sylvia wrote “Dirty Girl,” his first full-length feature script, in a screenwriting class led by Professor Hal Ackerman. Sylvia’s agent shopped it around, before snagging Rob Paris of Paris Films and Christine Vachon of Killer Films as producers.
“It took five years, fourteen budgets and ten financiers to get the financing together,” Sylvia says. “Rob Paris and I make a really good team. Rob didn’t take no for an answer. Every time things fell apart, we came up with a new plan. There wasn’t any luck involved. We just really worked our butts off.”
Justin Lerner, who once pulled focus on one of Sylvia’s TFT shorts, followed a straighter path into filmmaking. Born in Pennsylvania to parents who both worked at Penn State as developmental psychologists and professors, Lerner became interested in film while still in high school. Although he moved frequently with his parents throughout his childhood, the family ultimately settled in Wayland, Massachusetts, when his parents got jobs at Boston College and later at Tufts.
Lerner studied theater direction and acting with a film concentration at Cornell University’s Department of Theater Arts. He took a year off traveling in Spain before enrolling at UCLA’s graduate program in film, his “first choice.”
“I wanted to go to a film school that was friendly to independent writer-directors and it was attractive that strong voices like Alexander Payne, Brad Silberling and Alex Cox all came out of there,” Lerner says.
His UCLA thesis short, “The Replacement Child,” a coming-of-age Western that explores moral ambiguity, won critical acclaim and helped launch his career. The film received two student Emmy awards for “best drama” and “best director,” had its world premiere, was an official selection at the Telluride Film Festival and played in nearly 50 film festivals.
It also included two scenes with Sneider, Lerner’s high school friend with Down Syndrome. When producer Jerad Anderson saw the short, “he fell in love with Evan, and said he wanted to work on a project with me that included him,” Lerner says.
Lerner started outlining the story in late 2008 and wrote the script in less than a month in April 2009.
“I felt like I was the vessel and the script flew out of me,” Lerner says. “We were shooting four months after I wrote it. It was the quickest turnaround I’d ever had in my life.”
By May, Anderson had secured private financing — very low budget, Lerner acknowledges — to pay for the film. By setting it in Wayland, Mass., where Lerner and Sneider attended high school, and using friends in the cast and crew (classmate Quyen Tran MFA ’07 served as director of photography) he was able to make the money last.
“Shooting in my hometown really made it possible to get the film financed,” Lerner says “It was a big community effort. I used my parents house for the crew, we shot in my friends’ houses, the local delis and coffee shops donated food. Even the police cooperated with us: Wayland police helped us block off streets. Without the support of all the people in my town, the film would not have been possible to pull off with our budget.”
David Harris, son of an advertising executive and an attorney, also found a way to make a big film on a tiny budget.
A native of Bedford, Texas, a once-wooded suburb built in a former ranching community near Dallas/Ft. Worth, Harris developed a strong eye for visual detail at the Rhode Island School of Design. When he graduated, he took a job as creative director of a small advertising agency in Texas before deciding to make a short film about bullying and school violence. “The Knocking Box” screened at several festivals and served as a good learning experience, Harris says. “It ultimately drove me to grad school.”
Harris says he chose UCLA because “it was a writer-director program and the focus was on independent filmmaking. I didn’t want to generically learn about film. I wanted to learn to speak to actors and write scripts in a way that makes for good filmmaking.”
When Harris graduated from UCLA, he got a job on the technical side of MTV New Media, which creates original content for the internet. Harris, who had penned the outline of “Savage County” while a student at UCLA, pitched the story to his boss, David Gale, who produced Alexander Payne’s “Election” and distributed “Napoleon Dynamite.” “I told him I thought the horror genre would work really well as a web series,” Harris says. “and we did an eight minute pilot to show what it would look like.,
Harris married classmate and filmmaking colleague Amy Adrion MFA ’07, and when he returned from his honeymoon he was surprised to discover the web series had been greenlit. He began working on the story, which had a budget of $250,000, with several other UCLA alumni, including producers Justin Wolske MFA ’08, Corey Wish ’05 and co-writer Daniel Alvarado, cinematographer Paul de Lumens and editor Gabriel Noguez ’08.
Mindful that “Savage County” was too gory to secure sponsors, Harris produced a feature film cut of the web series to present to the network. In partnership with Eventful, which handled the “Paranormal Activity” campaign, MTV agreed to air the movie if 100,000 people saw the trailer for the project and wanted to see more.
The campaign began in late August, logged 130,000 demands and ran as part of the “October Block of Horror” on MTV2 on Oct. 7.
While “Savage County” may not appear to be an example of “personal filmmaking” in the same way Sylvia’s and Lerner’s films are, the story “does come from my personal mythology,” Harris says. “When I was a kid, we didn’t have cable or VCR, so slasher flicks and ‘skinemax’ were the movies I would sneak into my friends’ houses to watch after thir parents went to bed. Afterwards, we would go into the woods terrified that the toothless man in the abandoned house down the road was a murderer.
“Fortunately, ‘Savage County’ isn’t my story in that it’s not autobiographical, but certainly it’s about the kinds of things I obsessed about as a kid.”
While “Girlfriend” and “Dirty Girl” followed more traditional paths to success, “Savage County” offers “a counterpoint to the doom and gloom that’s come to the festival circuit,” Harris says. “Abe’s and Justin’s films are welcome exceptions to the trend of festival favorites that never get real distribution. But even in a world where the theatrical audience doesn’t support indie films, ‘Savage County’ provides a case study in using scrappy, inexpensive means to find an audience.”
“Almost everything we did would have worked as well for a film made outside the walls of MTV,” he added, because “it hinged on creative effort, not a big budget.”
Made in China
Filmmaking, like politics, is the art of the possible, says low budget veteran and TFT alumna Amy Krell ’86
Though “Witchville’s” director, Pearry Reginald Teo, was born in Singapore and speaks Mandarin, this was not the reason writer/producer and TFT alumna Amy Krell ’86 decided to film her third ambitious fantasy adventure for SyFy in the People’s Republic of China. She moved her production to the other side of the globe, she says, purely to protect her bottom line.
Krell’s war stories about producing everything from kids programs (“Clubhouse Detectives”) to “late-night adult cable programming” (“Black Tie Nights”) on bargain basement budgets are all about never knuckling under, about refusing to settle just because you’re strapped for cash.
Nowadays, Krell develops projects in a wide budgetary range with her producing partner, Mark Rudnitsky, at their company Page Four Productions, and making the most of budget dollars when picking locations can be a crucial part of a campaign to achieve quality at a price.
China certainly wasn’t chosen as a location for “Witchville” because it was appropriate to the story, a supernatural swashbuckler set in a picturesque approximation of medieval Europe. In fact, Syfy execs told Krell they didn’t want to see anything on screen that would reveal that the story had been filmed in Asia. “We had to frame out any building with a tile roof,” Krell says, “and wrap gauze around the faces of the extras, so that you wouldn’t see a single Asian element. But then SyFy’s press release comes out and in the very first line it says, ‘Our first film to be shot in China.’ So what are you going to do?”
How has China, of all places, become a go to location for a cost-conscious shoot, even when travel expenses are factored in? “What’s happened with these low-budget productions,” Krell says, “especially fantasy films, is that the expectations are now tremendous in terms of special effects and spectacle. You’re thinking, ‘How will I ever be able to do all this?’ We had done ‘Gryphon’ (2007) in Bucharest, Romania, and I really liked working there. But a couple of years later, the Euro rose to the point that there was no longer anywhere in Europe that was affordable. So when we did ‘Beyond Sherwood Forest’ (2009) we ended up in Vancouver.
“But Canada, too, is a more expensive place to shoot than it used to be. For a while, Canadian TV paid so well for content that your Canadian partners always had pre-sale money to put on the table. But recently that money’s started to decline. The crews are great up there, but as it becomes more expensive you end up shooting fewer days, and that diminishes the quality of the film.”
So when an early partner on “Witchville” convinced her that, with his connections in China, he could get favorable terms, “I decided to trust him,” Krell says. “I said, okay, I’ll do it if you say so. Even though you went to USC.”
She did insist that everyone cast in a major role have horsemanship and sword-fighting skills, because she didn’t have the budget to train them. This reinforced her determination to cast the film in London, because stage-trained British actors, essentially the entire talent pool, learn these skills routinely. A dividend, she says, is that lines of high flown fantasy dialogue sound much more credible when spoken with a British accent. SyFy had insisted on American accents across the board on the knights-and-dragons film “Gryphon,” Krell says, “and it reminded me of the old Tony Curtis joke, ‘Yonder lies da castle of my fodder.’ But SyFy was receptive to our request and let us try the UK route on ‘Sherwood,” to great effect.”
“Our wonderful, talented actors saved our asses a hundred times over on ‘Witchville,'” she adds, “because they were so well prepared. Simon Thorp, a terrific actor my casting director, Carolyn McLeod, discovered in a tiny theatre production in a warehouse in London, performed a six-page speech, all the exposition about who the witches are and what has to be done to eradicate them, without a glitch, in a single take that Pearry shot with two cameras. ‘Do we need to go again?’ ‘No, we got it.’ So suddenly we’re six hours ahead of schedule!”
A key advantage to working in China, Krell found, was the enthusiastic crew. “Once they realized that we did not have a superior attitude and were there to work, they were willing to kill themselves to get it done.” So much so that Krell had to insist on some quality-of-life adjustments for the crew, moving from seven-day weeks (standard in the PRC) to six-day weeks and from 20-hour to 13-hour days, along with a wonderful innovation called the lunch break.
“Nobody should have the slightest anxiety about working with Chinese crews,” says Krell. “As in Eastern Europe, and of course here in the States, the crews are talented and experienced and, as a result, the work got done incredibly fast. Plus their work ethic is astonishing. The art department couldn’t leave anything on the sets overnight because the extras who were playing Angry Villagers would come in and appropriate it all. We never knew this at the time, though. I only found out later that the art crew had to come in hours early every morning to redress the sets before we arrived.
“In the end,” she says, “this was the best experience I’ve ever had on a movie. I’ve never felt as focused or energized in my life. I was happy as Pearry Teo’s producer just to have the opportunity to watch him direct. He has a vision, he fills the frame, he is a great shooter and a terrific editor. I love working in the States, and hope to do so again soon, but it was gratifying to be able to make ‘Witchville’ work within budgetary constraints and still end up with a great result.”
Asked what advice she has for current film students who are looking forward to launching their careers in the low-budget jungle, Krell says, “Editing was the one really crucial, practical thing I learned in film school. There is nothing better than knowing the post process to help you determine what shots you really need to have at the end of the day, to make the movie work. Nothing is more important than that.”
Amy Krell and Mark Rudnitsky hope to produce more shows for SyFy, whose Original Movies they watch religiously. Currently in development at Krell’s Page Four is “Nemo,” a Victorian Steampunk sequel to Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” with Hugh Bonneville attached as the storied Captain of the Nautilus and Pearry Reginald Teo slated to direct.