Lights, camera, SACtion

By Paige Pfleger, Detroit Arts Columnist
Published April 2, 2014

SCREEN ARTS 423:
THE MAKING OF STUDENT FILMS

Characters (In order of appearance):

Robert Rayher, professor
Rayher is a senior lecturer in the Screen Arts & Culture department. He has angular features and is beginning to go gray, which gives him an authoritative look.

Jim Burnstein, professor
Burnstein is the screenwriting coordinator for the SAC department. His hair is white and he wears wire-framed glasses. Cohort of Rayher.

Layne Simescu, Director, “Thru Traffic”
LSA senior Layne Simescu is from Traverse City, Michigan, and is majoring in SAC. She has acted in, written and directed films. She has soft features set in an often serious expression.

Jackie Vresics, Director of Photography, “Thru Traffic”
LSA senior Jackie Vresics works closely with Simescu on set and is charged with making Simescu’s vision of the script come to fruition. She is small, and the film camera looks like a large bird that she carries on her shoulder.

Graham Techler, Star, “Thru Traffic”
Music, Theater & Dance sophomore Graham Techler is the actor that stars in “Thru Traffic.” He is tall, lanky and has a knack for comedic flair.

Matt Montgomery, Writer, “Thru Traffic”
LSA senior Matt Montgomery is in the screenwriting subconcentration in the SAC department. He is a skinny guy, mousey brown hair. He’s unassuming and for the most part quiet on set, since he no longer has control over the script.

Erika Henningsen, Star, “Bad Girls”
Music, Theater & Dance senior Henningsen is in the Musical Theater program. She is the star of the film “Bad Girls,” and is classically pretty — she has blonde hair and blue eyes and would be easily translated into an animated Disney princess.

Dustin Alpern, Director, “Bad Girls”
LSA senior Dustin Alpern is from Los Angeles, California. He is the director of the film, “Bad Girls.” He is unimposing, with red hair and wears a blue crew neck shirt with Michigan scrawled across the front.

Janet Hu, Writer, “Bad Girls”
LSA senior Janet Hu is a SAC major with a screenwriting subconcentration. The original version of her piece, “Bad Girls,” was extremely intense. It is hard to picture her writing anything psychologically unnerving — she is very pleasant to speak with.

ACT ONE
INT. NORTH QUAD, RAYHER’S OFFICE – FRIDAY AT NOON

RAYHER sits behind a desk that is cluttered with papers. His bookshelves are filled with books on film. BURNSTEIN sits in a chair to my right, Rayher to my left.

Both characters are extremely respected in the film department. Together, they dictate who gets the coveted roles in the SAC 423 class — a class that produces two 30-minute films that will be featured at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival. The roles of writer, director, producer and actor are once in a lifetime opportunities that offer up chances at the big time. The class comprises two separate teams, about 50 students, and is the pinnacle of the film department. The competition gets more and more intense each year.

RAYHER: The first year we taught it there were 18 students for two productions.

BURNSTEIN: (Joking) That many?

RAYHER: (With a laugh) Yeah, well eight of them were actors. We had two production teams of five each a little over ten years ago, so it’s matured. We are reaching the point where this year there were a lot of very talented people who didn’t get department head jobs. Maybe at some point we’ll be able to offer the class both terms.

And, with competition comes drama. Some of the decisions made by the professors have turned out to be quite controversial among the students, like the choice to let DUSTIN ALPERN direct his junior and senior year, which has happened only one other time. The professors argue that these decisions mirror the cutthroat nature of Hollywood.

RAYHER: Each step in this process is about finding your way in the world. In any professional situation, that’s how these choices get made. Part of the educational process is finding out how this works and then figuring out how you work within that process. It’s complex.

BURNSTEIN: The exceptions never prove the rule. It’s very rare that juniors do direct, and last year Dustin was ready. I like to compare what we do to what you see in the Musical Theater department. I don’t think anyone is saying, ‘You know, she had a lead in Chicago, why is she…’ ya know?

But the balance between educational experiences and a real world mentality is a difficult one to obtain. The professors also keep a careful eye on gender balance — even though the TV and movie businesses are mostly male dominated from a production and writing standpoint, the students cast as production heads are equally distributed in terms of gender. The professors assure me that this is an ideal to aim for, but not necessarily a written rule. They acknowledge the gender disparity in the profession and hope that their attention to equality will help to even out the future of the field.

END OF ACT ONE

ACT TWO
SCENE ONE
INT. APARTMENT, “THRU TRAFFIC” SET – FRIDAY AT 5 p.m.

I walk into the basement of an apartment building off of Washington Street. Various members of the production team sit hunched quietly against the walls on either side of the hallway, and usher me into an apartment to the right. The apartment is devoid of furniture and film equipment leans against the wood paneled walls. Cottage Inn pizza boxes are scattered across the floor, doubling as product placement and sustenance for the crew.

LAYNE SIMESCU stands at one end of the apartment in front of a monitor that is hooked up to the camera. The camerawoman, JACKIE VRESICS sits on the ground next to her, with the monstrous filming device perched on her shoulder. She is small, with a Peter Pan-like air and a checked lady blazer with suede elbow patches. The camera dwarfs her, in comparison.

VRESICS: Let’s start taking it now just in case some movie magic happens.

Enter GRAHAM TECHLER. He is standing over by the door, texting on his cell phone.

SIMESCU: (To Techler) Graham, do you need me to take your phone away?

The crew laughs. Techler puts his phone back in his pocket and sets up for shoot. Two men, the antagonists of the story, enter the door. They punch Techler, who offers them a beer. They kick him until Simescu shouts cut. She asks them to do it just one more time. The crew breaks for dinner. Cottage Inn, again.

TECHLER: In movies, you use the same toolbox and skills as in theater, you just apply them in completely different ways. In stage acting, if something goes wrong the actors have to cover it. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on the actors. But in movies, you are acutely aware that you are a small part of a large machine. It’s an extremely humbling experience, being a tiny gear in this movie. I’m relying on them heavily, and they’re relying on my heavily. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

TECHLER’s character, Brendan, is at the center of “Thru Traffic” ’s plot. The story is about the essential spirit of a road trip, as inspired by Jack Kerouac. The story deals with two estranged brothers and a hitchhiker that they pick up, trafficking drugs across the nation from Detroit to Chicago.

MATT MONTGOMERY has been working on this script for three years. From what I’ve gathered, he is a fantastic writer. When his name is mentioned in conversation, it usually accompanies some praise.

MONTGOMERY: None of the characters are ever really at home until they find each other and are able to connect with each other. Brendan is self-isolated, they all are really. Karina is this hitchhiker whose doesn’t want to make any connections, Brendan is just trying to get away and Connor is really caught up in his own world. The idea of “Thru Traffic” is that thru traffic in traffic laws is traffic that is non-residential, the non-home traffic. Throughout the story, they are the thru traffic because they don’t have a sense of home until the end of the script.

The crew reconvenes in the tiny apartment, setting up a different angle of the same scene. The guy holding the boom mic contorts himself into a pose like Atlas, holding the long stick with a ball of fuzz at one end up and over the actors. They run the scene again, and get halfway through when an ambulance drives by outside, sirens blaring. The crew rolls their eyes. They’ll have to scrap that take and go again. Simescu says a phrase the crew is all too familiar with, “One more time, guys.” They sigh and resume their positions.

This is how they spend about 12 hours of their Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for 5 weeks until the movie is complete.

END SCENE

SCENE TWO
INT. HOUSE, “BAD GIRLS” SET – SUNDAY AT 1 p.m.

I pull into the driveway of the house that “Bad Girls” is shooting in. It is a modern brick house that is virtually transparent — it has floor to ceiling windows in front and in back that look out over the woods. Three deer are wandering, cracking through the brush immediately to my left. They perk their heads and freeze when I lock my car.

The inside of the house is open and airy. The floors are lightwood, the walls white and the windows are the only source of light but they are plenty. The house was recently purchased by a woman who agreed to let the students use it as long as they didn’t bring in any “bad energy.”

I’m led into a bedroom that is being constructed carefully by the art crew — they are crafting a queen bed out of a pile of air mattresses and blankets. At first glance I am skeptical about the idea. Ten minutes later there is a fully made bed with a canopy hanging above it in the center of the room. This is a clear example of what is referred to as “movie magic.”

Enter ERIKA HENNINGSEN, dressed in her costume – ripped jeans, a slouchy purple t-shirt. She and actress Lena Drake walk through their scene, rolling around on the multi-mattress bed. Dustin Alpern looks on as they rehearse.

HENNINGSEN: Were those lines right?

ALPERN: I wasn’t paying attention to the lines.

HENNINGSEN: (laughing) Neither was I.

Henningsen’s musical theater personality has been toned down over the years for the films she has been part of. Where she once over-acted, now she tones down her emotionality. Her character in “Bad Girls,” Christine, is a shy, meek teenager who is easily manipulated. The part seems the exact opposite of the actress’s true personality.

The story, written by JANET HU, centers on Christine and Sara, the new girl at her school. Christine is drawn into Sara’s scheming ways, which ends up getting them both into trouble.

HU: I look back on high school, kind of wanting to gain independence but not really knowing where the line is, and then you get yourself in over your head. I definitely relate to Christine sometimes, just in floating through life and reacting to it, more than just making it happen. Then eventually you have to decide for yourself.

END OF ACT TWO

ACT THREE
INT. NORTH QUAD, RAYHER’S OFFICE — CONTINUED

When it comes down to examining this long and grueling process, I am left with one main question — why? Why do these students spend virtually all of their free time making these movies? Why is there a class at this University that cranks out two student films every single year? I see the answer most clearly through a comparison. Musical Theater students put on musicals, art students slave away over gallery openings, music students practice for their concerts and almost everyone else work on their theses. But what do Screen Arts majors have to mark the pinnacle of their college career? The answer is the Traverse City Film Festival.

BURNSTEIN: Six years ago, the Traverse City Film Fest called me and said ‘We’d like you to do something with the film festival.’ ‘What’re you looking for?’ ‘Maybe you could do something with screenwriting.’ And I said ‘Yeah, I’ll do that, but I want you guys to do something for me. We have these two films that come out of this class, and I would love if we had a chance to show ‘em.’ They said yeah, we could do that. So we did, and they were a hit. Michael Moore said to me the next day, ‘So you’re going to do this every year, right?’ And I said 'deal.'

The tradition has stuck, and for the last six years it has been the motivating factor that drives 423. The students conclude that seeing their names on the big screen more than makes up for losing their weekends and for the most part, their social lives. On July 31, in Traverse City’s City Opera House, their hard work will pay off. For now, they lug cameras, costumes and equipment around Ann Arbor, inhabiting vacant homes and apartments and using movie magic to make local haunts into Hollywood sets.

BURNSTEIN: We tell every class, your job is to raise the bar for the next class. You want to be the best one yet, and you want the next one to be better than you by the example you set. That’s how you get great.

FADE OUT