At Ingalls Mall on the night of Sept. 4, actor Chris Gorham was portraying fictional University student Paul Tarson in “Trivial Pursuits”, a film that recently wrapped up shooting in Ann Arbor. Having just returned from losing a bar trivia tournament, he drunkenly blundered through Roxette’s “Joyride,” barely balancing on the edge of the fountain. “Hello, you fool!” he bellowed, slapping his team T-shirt into the water. “I love you!”

Tarson, a college bar trivia master, is a figure easily recognizable on a college campus. He seems to know everything except how to approach his looming and uncertain future. He also has a lot in common with the few dozen University students who watched from the sidelines of the Ingalls Mall set. They were Screen Arts and Cultures majors, movie buffs who seem to know everything about film except how to get a job making it.

That’s where the Michigan Film Initiative makes things a tad easier. The students on the set of “Trivial Pursuits” weren’t just looking in longingly — they were earning a highly needed line for their résumés as production assistants.
Many students are no strangers to entry-level grunt work, but film students without connections really might have to endure the most grueling and mundane jobs in all of interned servitude. And that’s only if they’re able to land an internship.

But a film like “Trivial Pursuits” — an independent, feature-length comedy starring Chris Parnell (“Saturday Night Live”) — offers a valuable opportunity to actually help produce a feature film instead of just file paperwork related to one.

“When I go over there, it’s like going to a Screen Arts class, because it’s all of our students,” said Mary Lou Chlipala, the program coordinator for the Screen Arts and Cultures Department.

Of course, that experience came at a price for the 30 or so University students who worked as production assistants: long work weeks, difficult requests and little to no pay.

Chlipala said that the film’s producer, Anna Wenger, asked her early in production to refer four film students to work as production assistants on the shoot. But soon after, Wenger decided to meet with 40 students in two days, about 24 of whom ended up on the “Trivial Pursuits” payroll or receiving grant money from the University to work. And when paid positions filled up, more students volunteered to work unpaid as production assistants.

“We ended up with kids that were like, ‘We want to work for free!’ ” Wenger said.

LSA senior Samara Rosenbaum was happy to find some worthwhile production work on the set of “Trivial Pursuits”, even though she wasn’t being paid. Her prospects in Los Angeles were anything but promising.

“I was determined to find an internship there,” she said. “I tried everything I could to stay in L.A. and I found this mediocre internship.”

But instead of making photocopies at a documentary company, Rosenbaum grudgingly came back to spend the summer in Michigan.

Soon after returning to Ann Arbor, she heard about “Trivial Pursuits” and started volunteering six days a week as the assistant extras coordinator.

“We’re not just getting coffee,” she said. “We’re doing things that we can learn from and actually contribute a lot to the film.”

Katie Magill, a paid production assistant and University alum, said she has been working 80-hour weeks filing paperwork, escorting actors to and from set and insuring equipment since the end of June.

The opportunity to do more on a film than the average entry-level production assistant also means being obligated to put in long hours — and being expected to accomplish any number of oddball tasks necessary to keep production running smoothly.

Wenger introduced me to a production assistant so versatile and indomitable that she gave her a nickname to match: Megan “The Rock” Gilliam, a 2009 graduate who received University money to work on “Trivial Pursuits.”

Gilliam has not only worked on set, she has had to make sure that the set would exist at all — like when she was put in charge of finding trailers for the cast and crew.

“I was not expecting to come in and have to find six motor homes,” Gilliam said. “They were like, ‘Hey, Megan, you’re in transportation, so you’re gonna go find the motor homes.’ ”

Visibly tired but still attentive, Gilliam was stationed Sept. 4 next to the Law Quad overseeing the base camp: a line of parked motor homes for actors, trailers filled with huge monitors and equipment for editors, and a tented table filled with all the catered food necessary to keep cast and crew happy for a 14-hour workday.

“How to get coffee,” she said, gesturing to extension cords and a generator set up on the lawn. “You wouldn’t believe how something that simple can turn into a major issue.”

Fellow intern and LSA senior Liam White made $100 for a 100-hour week where he was responsible for keeping passersby out of the camera’s eye. His voice could be heard above all others as he told the crew to secure the set before the camera started rolling: “Lock it down! Lock it down!”

“It steered me toward the idea of being a director or writer,” he said. “I realized how stressful some of the other parts can be. I learned about getting shit done. It gave me a real-world expectation of what kind of hours I’ll be working.”

White and his coworkers worked from sundown on Sept. 4 until 6 a.m. the next day. But such long hours foster camaraderie, and as any intern knows, making good connections in the field is almost more important than the real-world work experience.

“Since I met all these people through it, there’s a lot more people that I can call when I get out to L.A.,” White said.

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