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Conventional wisdom holds that if you want to break into the film industry, you need to go to Los Angeles. But a unique new program in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University is turning that wisdom on its head – and bringing Hollywood to the students.
"There is no film school in the world that is doing what we’re doing," says Janaki Cedanna, clinical assistant professor in the school, part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. "We took a lot of years as the film faculty to figure out how to do this."
This, also known as "the template," or more officially the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre Summer Feature Film Internship Program, is an ambitious plan to make one feature-length movie a summer with a predominantly student crew, supervised directly by department heads who are working film pros, and mentored by faculty from the school.
The goal is to create a professional film set where students can gain experience and earn academic credit in a safe learning environment.
Eligible students must be at a minimum GPA and be majors in the school. Cedanna and Chris LaMont, a film production instructor, serve as faculty internship supervisors and as producers on the film. Professor Ellery Connell, also with the school, is the visual effects supervisor and lead artist on the film, and will manage a team of student interns to complete the visual effects by the end of the summer. Jake Pinholster, director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, is executive producer.
LaMont notes that the summer schedule allows students to focus exclusively on the project without having to juggle schoolwork, and allows the School of Film, Dance and Theatre to offer deep discounts on unused resources because there are no production classes in session.
“Car Dogs,” the first film created by the internship program, wrapped in 2013 and has just been submitted to the Toronto Film Festival, Cedanna says.
This summer, the movie that the students have the opportunity to intern on is “Justice Served,” a psychological thriller that is the directorial debut of Marvin Young, better known to most of the world as Young MC. This summer also happens to be the 25th anniversary of Young’s monster hit, “Bust a Move.” (You probably know the song, even if you think you don’t. It was that big.)
Young wrote and stars in the movie, alongside such familiar faces as Lance Henriksen (“Aliens,” “Terminator”), Lochlyn Munro (“Scary Movie,” “White Chicks”) and Gail O’Grady (“Revenge,” “NYPD Blue”). His production company is also financing the film.
“Even though students are involved, it’s not a student film,” Young points out. “It’s my film.”
“This is not just some big student film,” Cedanna confirms. “We’re using the camera that was used on almost every Oscar-nominated picture this year. It’s a multi-million dollar camera. The post workflow is high, high level. It’s amazing."
Cedanna says that rental companies cut their rates for the production “because everybody I tell about the template loves it. Because we all went to film school, and we all say, ‘I wish we had that when I was in film school!’”
“This project is a win-win-win,” says Jake Pinholster, director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. “Marvin and the team behind the film win because they get to leverage their resources and finances in a way that wouldn't be possible elsewhere. The School of Film, Dance and Theatre generates national visibility, and, most importantly, the students win because they get to participate in a true rarity in the entertainment industry: an internship that has been structured from the ground up to give them a substantial leadership role in an educational environment."
“We are offering students something very special here,” LaMont adds. “This is not your average internship where they run and get coffee and donuts for the principals; these students are working and learning right alongside professional filmmakers.”
For “Justice Served,” Cedanna and LaMont brought back at least six ASU alumni in paid positions, including four who got their degrees in May of 2014.
One of those recent grads is Haley Peterson, who just earned her bachelor's from the School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and is headed to Norway in the fall as a Fulbright Scholar to study costume design. Peterson earned academic credit as a costume intern on “Car Dogs,” and she’s getting paid to be the costume designer on “Justice Served.”
“It's a big leap” from costume intern to designer, Peterson acknowledges. “It's a huge opportunity, which is one of the big reasons I'm doing it. I love the creative collaboration of film and dance and theatre and what costumes can do within that.”
Young says that he decided to make “Justice Served” in Tempe after discussions with LaMont, whom he met though the Phoenix Film Festival, which LaMont co-founded.
Young didn’t really have any reservations about working with students, he says, even though people told him they’d be “unreliable.” But instead, he says, “It’s been brilliant. Everybody’s so polite and so well-mannered, but also enthusiastic.”
Johnny Kubelka, an L.A.-based professional who is running the sound department for the film, says that he particularly likes the teaching aspect of his position. “It's great,” he says. “I forget that they're students. They're on it."
Almost all of the actors did lunchtime Q-and-A’s with LaMont so that the students got a chance to hear professionals talk about their trajectory in the industry.
Lochlyn Munro gave this advice: “Do your job, do it to the best of your ability and be someone people want to work with.” Chase Coleman, a young actor who appeared in “Boardwalk Empire” and is on hiatus from the CW show “The Originals,” talked about the days in New York when the only thing in his cupboard was a can of beans, and he'd eat half for dinner and save the other half for breakfast.
Coleman told the students that he loved working with them because “you don’t have anybody that’s jaded. Everybody is excited to be here. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. You can feel the energy.”
For the 60-some students interning on “Justice Served,” including about 15 who worked on “Car Dogs” and are back with promotions on “Justice Served,” the film is a chance not only to earn academic credit, but to gain a foothold in the world of professional film.
"Actual, real-world experience is paramount (for students)," Cedanna explains. “And walking away with a credit on a full feature film – not just a student film, but a professional set experience – is unheard of among any college programs.
"We have a lot of students graduating and worried about getting jobs, and I say, 'You’ve literally started your career. You’ve started it at school.'"