Cirque du Soleil

TFT’s unique collaboration with the largest theatrical producer in the world began summer quarter 2013

In March 2013, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and Cirque du Soleil, one of the world’s most revered entertainment organizations, announced the formation of a multi-year fellowship program based in Las Vegas, Nevada, home to seven Cirque du Soleil productions.

The inspiration behind the alliance with Cirque du Soleil stemmed from Dean Teri Schwartz’s vision, which re-imagines entertainment and performing arts education as an interdisciplinary enterprise grounded in humanistic storytelling, innovation and global diversity. This exciting partnership offers TFT students new and unique opportunities to work collaboratively across a multitude of exciting interdisciplinary platforms integrating visual storytelling with live performance, multimedia, 3D, CGI and other forms for digital content creation.

“We are delighted and honored to partner with Cirque du Soleil, the gold standard and leader for the highest levels of interdisciplinary creativity and innovation,” Schwartz said during the announcement. “Cirque du Soleil has boldly pushed the boundaries of where live performance and visual imagery can go, and in ways not imagined before. This is a groundbreaking, singularly important, one-of-a-kind relationship for which we are deeply appreciative to Cirque du Soleil. It allows us to test our philosophy for interdisciplinary studies in a real world context, and represents the fullest expression of our new vision and strategic plan for re-imagining the entire educational enterprise for entertainment and performing arts education in the 21st century. I am so excited and happy for our students to have this amazing, transformational experience.”

“We are like-minded in terms of what Dean Schwartz is trying to do,” said Jordan Fiksenbaum, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Resident Division of Cirque du Soleil. “We formed this partnership to provide a creative, conducive and collaborative environment that’s prosperous for both entities. We are excited to give TFT students real-world working knowledge and experience to help them become better storytellers, creators, designers, and overall more talented individuals.”

The annual fellowship program is open to graduate students from the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media and the Department of Theater, with a highly selective process for admittance beginning with a written narrative explaining why the applicant wants to participate in this unique opportunity. The program provides four graduate students (chosen from candidates in both departments) with the chance to collaborate with one another at Cirque du Soleil’s resident shows in Las Vegas, and to actively participate in the creative, technical, production, marketing and management process of their shows. Students work with a mentor at Cirque du Soleil and a faculty advisor at UCLA TFT and are involved in the process from development through production.

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Recent grad Matt Wheeler lands major studio writing gig

Goldwyn winner will adapt Thomas Perry's "The Informant"

Matt Wheeler and Samuel Goldwyn Jr.

Posted on February 2nd 2012 in Press

Deadline reports exclusively that recent TFT screenwriting graduate Matt Wheeler MFA '10 will adapt "The Informant," the third in a popular series by novelist Thomas Perry ("Vanishing Act") about an assassin known as Butcher’s Boy.

"Matt Tolmach will produce. Tolmach is also producer on this year's "The Amazing Spider-Man." "The Informant" revolves around a hit man avenging his father's death and a Department of Justice official who wants to dismantle the mafia. The two become involved in a cat-and- mouse game when they realize they're after the same people."

PHOTO: Matt Wheeler, second from left, with fellow winners and producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., at the 2010 Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards presentation. Todd Cheney/UCLA Photography.

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Verbinski may win his first Oscar for his first animated film

The writer-director’s process on “Rango” is detailed in a major article

James Egan and John Waters Sitting Together

Posted on February 2nd 2012 in Press

A major article by Tim Appelo of “The Hollywood Reporter” reveals 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.”

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Alum Tim Shechmeister makes feature deal for “Viral” TFT thesis film”

Cyberbullying drama with a supernatural twist to be produced by Roy Lee (“The Grudge”)


Posted on December 14th 2011 in Press

“The Hollywood Reporter’s” Borys Kit reports that recent Production/Directing alumnus Tim Shechmeister MA ’11 has closed a deal with Screen Gems to expand his TFT thesis project film “Viral” into a feature:

The pickup is a coup for Tim Shechmeister, a recent UCLA film school grad who directed the short and co-wrote it with his brother, Matt, as part of a thesis project. The Shechmeisters will co-write the feature and Tim would direct the big-screen version.

The roughly 11-minute short is set in the world of cyberbullying and eventually includes supernatural elements. In fact, the story could be described as being reminiscent of “The Grudge” or “The Ring,” but primed for the current generation that uses smart phones and Facebook as extensions of themselves.

The Grudge reference is apt because that [feature’s] writer, Stephen Susco, discovered the short at a screenwriting event this past summer. Tim Shechmeister, who is also a fan of Japanese horror (AKA J-Horror), gave Susco his business card with a link to the short, which the scribe checked out and loved.

“I see a lot of student films and like to see what’s going on,” says Susco. “I rarely see something as polished as this one.”

Susco brought it to “Grudge” producer Roy Lee who, along with Lawrence Grey, took it to Screen Gems. The trio will now produce. John Middleton will exec produce.

“It strikes at the modern social media anxiety that really hits a hot nerve in this country,” says Susco. “How young people communicate is changing and technology is altering the tenor of that communication — in many cases for the worse. And this is an opportunity to do something scary and really potent at the same time.”


Anna Chi: From the Red Guards to a film career

TFT Directing/Producing Alumna Anna Chi says Chairman Mao made her do it


Filmmaker Anna Chi may well be the only student to come to the UCLA Production/Directing program from a stint in China’s infamous Red Guards. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, Chi served the People’s Republic as an enthusiatic traveling propagandist.

“If you asked me today, I don’t know that I’d say I hate or love [the Communist Party],” Chi told the “Los Angeles Times” recently, “because all my experience is from that very manipulated and, in a sense, innocent kind of child’s point of view.”

After working as an assistant to such filmmakers as Oliver Stone (“Nixon”), Jon Avnet (“Red Corner”) and Chen Kaige (“Killing Me Softly”), Chi

directed and co-wrote the 1998 independent thriller “Blindness” and in 2007 directed the Mandarin-language scenes in Wayne Wang’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.”

Most recently Chi devised the story for and directed the indie family drama “Dim Sum Funeral.”

“The U.S.-Canadian co-production — whose large ensemble cast includes Russell Wong, Bai Ling, Steph Song, Julia Nickson, Françoise Yip, Kelly Hu and Talia Shire — was inspired by an idea Chi hatched several years ago after lunching with a friend from Hong Kong who had come to L.A. for her father’s funeral. “She started talking about her father and about the things she wished he’d said to her — and her to him,” remembered Chi. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice, before we died, if we could actually hear what other people had to say about us, especially the ones we love? We would die with less regret.”


Dean Schwartz sponsors Elevate

New student-led organization promotes diversity among students and faculty members


Teri Schwartz, Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT), has created a special fund at the School to support ELEVATE, a new organization created by TFT students that “aims to give voice and visibility to the diverse contributions of multicultural filmmakers, theater practitioners and scholars by sponsoring film screenings, lectures, social gatherings and alumni networking opportunities,” according to its mission statement.

ELEVATE will hold its first meeting on May 25, 2011. Open to all TFT students, it will also offer members small grants for research or screenings of work that advances the organization’s mission. Membership is free.

“I am thrilled to be able to support this outstanding new organization for TFT. I applaud the efforts of Sam, Mila and our amazing students who created this wonderful opportunity for all of our students to come together in such a special way. I can think of no better way to strengthen the richness of our TFT community than through the mission of ELEVATE,” said Dean Schwartz.

ELEVATE co-chair Samantha Sheppard, a graduate student in Cinema & Media Studies, says the idea for a group that addresses school diversity was sparked at Dean Schwartz’s first Town Hall meeting last year.

“I raised my hand and said ‘As a woman of color, there are a lot of issues within the program that I would love to be able to discuss with you,’ and she was so open to it,” Sheppard said. “The second I raised my hand, other women of color in the room were like, ‘Oh, hey, let’s talk.’ So we set up a lunch with the dean and started talking.”

The students raised several concerns at lunch, including their perception that the faculty appears less diverse than the student population, Sheppard says. They also wanted more networking events that would include alumni of color, Sheppard says.

“The students want to see people who look like them,” Sheppard says. “If you don’t see yourself in the places you want to be — whether that’s across you as a professor or as a head writer or a director — it sort of stunts the way you see your growth.”

Dean Schwartz challenged the students to create a task force that would identify problem areas and come up with proposed solutions. In a series of monthly meetings that included minority women from every department within the school, the task force outlined five areas where diversity could be improved: faculty hires, course offerings, diversity training for professors, student recruitment and alumni networking.

When the task force also proposed starting a student group that would encourage diversity, members were happily surprised that Dean Schwartz not only endorsed the idea but agreed to create a special fund to support it, Sheppard says.

“It showed her full level of commitment,” says Sheppard. “If you want global diversity, if you want the students to feel like UCLA is about them and you want to create a great research, production and theater and film industry, then you have to support that ideologically and financially. Dean Schwartz has fully done that beyond our expectations and we’re excited to have her support.”

Sheppard and fellow student, Mila Zuo, who is also a second-year graduate student in Cinema & Media Studies, will serve as ELEVATE’s first co-chairs. Zuo came up with the name ELEVATE to represent what the group is trying to achieve.

“A lot of creative labor coming from people of color is, unfortunately, invisible, or just not as visible as other sorts of mainstream, white-dominated cinemas,” Zuo says. “We’re really trying to raise the level of visibility.”

Unlike some previous student organizations that sequestered minority filmmakers into their own separate groups, ELEVATE’s mission of including students of all backgrounds and ethnicities reflects the realities of today’s world, says Assistant Professor Allyson Nadia Field, who serves as ELEVATE’s faculty adviser.

“Students today are very much about working across different cultures and experiences and backgrounds and thinking in a more multicultural context,” says Field, an Egyptian-American woman who studies African-American cinema. “And ELEVATE really reflects that idea.”

Each division of the school will be allowed to elect a representative to the board, but all members have the right to vote. “We want to make sure we create something that will sustain itself long after we’re gone,” says Sheppard, who expects to earn her doctorate by 2013. “Part of the by-laws is that the group can change to serve the community it creates.”

— Kim Kowsky

Posted: May. 26, 2011


Pugach’s “Next Fairy Tale” at Celebration

Living Happily ever after in well-reviewed “Prince on Prince” love story


“‘Enchanted’ meets some friends of Dorothy,” writes the Los Angeles Times of “sweetly eager” musical “The Next Fairy Tale, the world premiere creation of theater alumnus Brian Pugach ’09, at the Celebration Theater in Hollywood through April 24.

“The first world premiere developed fully in-house at Celebration, “Fairy Tale” arrives with a sly gloss on the Brothers Grimm.  Fairy Godmistress Minerva (Gina Torrecilla) chooses accident-prone Hazel (Rachel Genevieve), a godmother on probation, to stage-manage the next great story of Happily Ever After. Hazel’s mission? To aid the dashing Prince Copernicus (Christopher Maikish) in the rescue of his true love from an evil dragon.

Catch is, Copernicus pines for another prince — the cookie-baking Helio (Patrick Gomez); when Minerva finds out, she’s not about to let two guys in tights share true love’s kiss.

Michael A. Shepperd directs with characteristic wit and energy, and the cast is game. Stephanie Fredricks’ tart Dorothy Parker homage delights, sultry godmother Nell Teare vamps in a silver mini, and Maikish is pitch-perfect as a Pepsodent-smile royal who prefers a hug to a hunt.”

“The Next Fairy Tale” was developed at TFT and won a Tim Robbins Playwriting Award and a UCLA Musical Theatre Writing Award.

“The Next Fairy Tale”
Celebration Theatre
7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Ends April 24

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Surnow’s “Kennedys” debuts

“24” creator Joel Surnow on his controversial Reelz Channel series “Kennedys”


In the end, good reviews trumped the advance controversy surrounding “The Kennedys,” an 8-hour historical miniseries produced by TFT alumnus Joel Surnow ’76, the Emmy-winning co-creator and executive producer of “24.”

Welcomed as Guest of Honor at orientation 2010, Surnow warned students never to forget how tough the entertainment industry can be – practical wisdom that no doubt came in handy when “The Kennedys” was canceled by History, the cable channel that commissioned it.

The program wound up as a heavily advertised flagship attraction on Reelz Channel, debuting April 3.

Surnow recently explained his sense of things to The Hollywood Reporter in an extensive interview:

“Because I am a known conservative, it appears that I was deemed unfit to be the person to produce this miniseries,” Surnow says, breaking his silence on the controversy… “This is despite the fact that I’m American, and John F. Kennedy was my president as much as anybody else’s president. I am a proud American, proud of the Kennedys for their accomplishments and their place in history, but none of that was given voice. I wasn’t Emmy Award-winning Joel Surnow, I was Rush Limbaugh’s and Roger Ailes’ friend Joel Surnow. And that’s all that mattered.”


Sacha Gervasi-scripted “Henry’s Crime” opens April 8

Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga star for director Malcolm Venville (“44 Inch Chest”)


A new film written by TFT screenwriting alumnus Sacha Gervasi (“The Terminal”) opens nationwide on April 8, distributed by Moving Pictures Film and Television.

Here’s the official overview:
Working the night shift as a toll collector on a lonely stretch of highway in Buffalo, New York, Henry (Keanu Reeves) is a man without ambition or a path, until his unwitting participation in an ill-conceived bank heist lands him in jail. His cellmate, con man and prison veteran Max (James Caan), is quite comfortable in his digs and full of worldly advice. Taking Henry under his wing, he teaches him that for a man to find his purpose, he must first have a dream. A year later, fresh out of jail, Henry finds that purpose.

Discovering a long forgotten bootlegger’s tunnel, which runs from the very same bank that landed him in jail in the first place to a theater across the alleyway, he convinces the reluctant Max to file for his long-overdue parole – and help stage a robbery.

Their plan is simple: by infiltrating the theater and its current production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” the unlikely duo will buy just enough time to dig their way to the adjacent bank vault and drive off with their loot. There is just one glitch: for the plan to work, Henry, who has never stepped foot on a stage in his life, must take the lead role in the play, opposite mercurial leading lady Julie (Vera Farmiga). A force to be reckoned with, she is as shocked as he is when the two find themselves falling in love. Henry is also surprised to find himself enjoying his new-found role as an actor. But when the big heist falls on the same day as Opening Night, Henry will have to decide where his path really leads.

The ensemble also includes Judy Greer (“27 Dresses”) as Henry’s disillusioned wife, Debbie; acclaimed Swedish actor, Peter Stormare (“Fargo”) as the frustrated theater director, Darek; actor and director Bill Duke (“X-Men 3”) as Frank, a bank security guard counting his days to retirement. Actor and Oscar-winning producer Fisher Stevens (“The Cove”) and Danny Hoch (“We Own the Night”) play Henry and Max’s bumbling would-be accomplices, Eddie and Joeit.

Gervasi directed the popular documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” which won the top music doc prize from the International Documentary Association in 2008. He held the Lew and Pamela Hunter/Jonathan and Janice Zakin Chair in Screenwriting at TFT during the 2009-2010 academic year.


    Alum’s script will be animated in 3D

    E.L. Katz wrote “Zombie Pet Shop” in a UCLA Professional Program class


    “Variety” reports that a script by UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting alumnus E.L. Katz, “Zombie Pet Shop,” will be developed as a 3D animated feature by producer John Davis’ The Animation Picture Company.

    “Zombie Pet Shop” concerns a mysterious plague that sweeps through a mall pet shop, turning all of the animals into zombies. An ordinary pug named Joey must come to the rescue to find the antidote that will save his four-legged friends, as well as the humans that might take them home.

    “Zombie Pet Shop” marks Katz’s first foray into animation, as the scribe is best known for his genre fare. Katz recently had a hand in writing Lionsgate’s “Dibbuk Box,” and he has the GreeneStreet/Peter Block project “Dark Corners” going into production later this year.