Since Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law legislation that offers tax incentives to movie productions that move to Michigan, many movies have been filmed in the state — including some that have set the stage in Ann Arbor and on campus.
Despite the growing popularity of filming on campus, the University has chosen not to lend its name to any film productions — until now.
“Trivial Pursuits” — the most recent movie being produced on campus — is an independent film that captures the life of trivia fanatic Paul Tarson, an Ann Arbor native and University student played by actor Christopher Gorham. Gorham is known for his portrayal of Henry Grubstuck on ABC’s “Ugly Betty.”
Director Christopher Farah, an Ann Arbor native and University alum, credits his knowledge of and love for Ann Arbor as inspiration for the basis of the film. He said the story was not based on real life events, but that his experience living in Ann Arbor helped shape the movie.
“People who are students here really get to know the campus very well, but a lot of times they don’t really know anything outside of the campus,” Farah said. “Maybe they go to Main Street every now and then, but the little parts that are kind of tucked away — they don’t really get to experience those because there’s really no reason for them to.
“So my broader experiences in Ann Arbor helped me to write something that was about the whole city,” he said.
The idea of including pub trivia in the story appealed to Farah after attending his first pub trivia competition in New York.
“I loved seeing how much of a subculture it was,” he said. “(The competition) was very much populated with these disgruntled academics or former academics who just wanted to kind of prove their worth by showing that they knew more crap than other people did, which to me, is just a naturally funny scenario.”
Farah graduated from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts in 1998 and later returned to the University to earn his master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies. During his undergraduate years, Farah took numerous classes with former English Prof. Ralph Williams and became one of his graduate student instructors.
“I kind of understood what Professor Williams meant to the campus as kind of an iconic professor and a well-known member of the Ann Arbor community overall,” Farah said.
When Farah decided to create a story centered on growing up in Ann Arbor and the University experience, Williams immediately stood out as a potential cast member. Farah asked him if he would like to star in the film as a professor and the main character’s father.
Williams said he accepted the role to help out longtime friend Farah and because he was interested in learning more about film production.
“Not only did I want to do for my former student and colleague whatever I could, but as a new experience, it would help me to grow and understand more about a major form in the arts,” Williams said.
Though Williams has had experience in live theater acting before, he said acting for a film differs because it requires performing in a more intimate setting.
“The two of them are really quite different experiences,” Williams said. “In screen work the camera studies you — it’s a very intimate sort of medium. And so presentation which would work in the theater would generally seem overwrought in screen work.”
Though film is a new medium for Williams, he’s able to draw inspiration for his role as a University professor from his teaching experience. Williams taught at the University for 39 years, before retiring in April. Throughout his career, he received many awards, including The Golden Apple Laureate Lifetime Teaching Award in 2009.
Williams said he was thankful that Farah allowed him to learn film acting by giving him a role in his movie, adding that Farah’s work will provide a gratifying experience for anyone affiliated with the University.
“It’s going to be marvelous for (University) people because it’s so intimately textured into and grows out of student life here,” Williams said.
Ann Zalucki, business administrator for the University’s Film Office, said the production of “Trivial Pursuits” benefits students and Ann Arbor residents who are interested in working in the film industry.
“They’ve really opened up to allow the students in and (tried) to get the community to understand the filming behind the scenes,” she said.
Zalucki said the Film Office is currently collecting information on the amount of students involved with “Trvial Pursuits.” Because people join every day, Zalucki has no exact number, but said there are many University students working on the set.
The Film Office is also following the agendas of students who are interested in a film career and have helped out on movie sets on campus in productions like “Betty Anne Waters,” which featured Oscar winner Hillary Swank and Oscar nominee Minnie Driver.
Zalucki said she believes the general interest in the film industry among University students and local residents has increased, citing the fact that numerous people have wanted to get involved with “Trivial Pursuits,” even though it does not boast many prominent actors.
“To me, the interest has picked up, and so we weren’t sure if it was going to be short-lived, but it seems to be continuing,” she said.
University alumn Michael Lafond got involved with “Trivial Pursuits” through the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures. He said he’s pursuing a career in film production and cinematography and the University has given him the opportunity to gain firsthand filming experience.
“This is the first year that I know of that film professionals have come to the University and interviewed with students, and that was facilitated by the University,” Lafond said. “It really shows that our film program is growing.”
Lafond added that he thinks the budding film industry in Michigan will entice students interested in film to stay in the state.
“I think for me, and for a lot of students, it’s about where you can find work, and typically its been New York or Los Angeles,” he said. “But now with the work coming to us it’s like, why leave if you can get work where you live now?”
Farah said he believes “Trivial Pursuits” has given workers in the film industry a chance to see the talent that the University and Ann Arbor communities have contributed to film.
“Even though these people aren’t from L.A., there’s just a lot of really great stuff going on out here,” Farah said.
— Daily News Editor Jasmine Zhu contributed to this report.