A storm is raging, and the set of “Appleville” is in total chaos.
It’s late in the afternoon on Aug. 11, 2010. In a parking lot located within the University’s North Campus Research Complex, about a dozen crew members, all students, scramble in the downpour to save the expensive filmmaking equipment that was set up for the day’s shoot. Boom operator, composer, communications officer and Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jason Krane, who’s here on his 21st birthday, is soaking wet as he races to load the tarp-wrapped lights and boom mics onto the film’s central prop, a bus labeled “Pleasant Valley Assisted Living.”
Those who aren’t running around are huddled under a cramped tent that houses assorted tables and now-soggy Zingerman’s sandwiches. The tent was set up near a sewage drain, and everyone is up to their ankles in water. Holding down one corner, Michigan State University graduate student and Co-Director of Photography Matt Ortlieb smokes a cigarette while gazing out at the sky.
“I can’t believe our whole set just went underwater,” he mutters.
The crew members are divided in equal loyalty to Michigan, MSU and Wayne State University, but right now they all have one thing in common: They’re drenched. The grips on hand back up a van until its trunk is nudging the edge of the tent, allowing for safe transport of the cameras. LSA senior Bhanu Chundu, the director of “Appleville,” laughs in spite of it all.
“We have 20 people and the only thing that matters now is this tiny little camera,” Chundu remarks. He makes a rectangle with his fingers and frames Ortlieb in an imaginary shot before hearing thunder in the distance. “We have to hurry.”
The unexpected weather has eliminated an afternoon’s worth of shooting from the film’s already tight schedule. Those cameras might be damaged, and considering how much is riding on the completion of this entirely student-run production, this is a big worry.
But for these aspiring Michigan filmmakers, unpredictability is something they’ll have to learn to weather.
The Hollywood of the Midwest
It may seem hard to believe, but the stormed-out set is actually part of a Hollywood happy ending for Chundu and other University student filmmakers. The victory is the fact they could make the movie in the first place.
Enrolling in film school in the Great Lakes State over programs based in Los Angeles or New York may seem counterintuitive. But not only are these students finding success in the University’s Screen Arts & Cultures program, many of them are also plotting out their careers within the state.
The recent success of SAC students and graduates could be seen as indicative of two promising new trends. One is the rising stature of the University’s SAC program — which is one of the most intensive and well respected film programs outside of the coasts and has just moved to hi-tech new digs in North Quad. And the other is the statewide movement to increase Michigan’s presence in the film community by growing and nurturing local cinematic talent.
There’s one person in particular who functions as a representative for both missions: Jim Burnstein, SAC professor and coordinator of the screenwriting department. Burnstein joined the faculty in 1995. Since then, he has not only built the screenwriting program from the ground up, but also helped give SAC its departmental status.
The lifelong Michigan resident was a local self-made screenwriter (“Renaissance Man,” “D3: The Mighty Ducks”) long before the state’s current film tax incentives made that career path look more sensible. He is also the vice chairman of the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council and played a crucial role in orchestrating those incentives in 2008.
Thanks to the efforts of the Council and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who approved the program with Burnstein standing by her side, the state now offers more tax rebates to filmmakers than anywhere else in the country. Productions that hire local crew members are eligible for a state tax credit as high as 42 percent. More than 100 films have been made in Michigan since the incentives were passed, and many of the movies brought here represent new in-state job opportunities for University film students.
This gives Burnstein a new opportunity to serve his students. With the help of LSA Dean Terrence McDonald, he has designed a summer internship program to give ten graduating students jobs on Michigan-made films like “Youth in Revolt” and the upcoming “Red Dawn” remake. And as part of the drive to showcase Michigan’s locally grown student filmmaking talent to fellow Michiganders, for two years now Burnstein and the SAC department have brought short films from their highest-level production class, SAC 423, to show at the Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF).
“Rather than all my students moving to L.A., the idea is they stay home and get to work on films here, make contacts, get training and eventually generate the budgets that become, you know, Michigan-made movies,” Burnstein said.
Ironically, the only recent Michigan-made movie to feature the University prominently was written and directed by a University graduate who didn’t come out of Burnstein’s SAC program. “Answer This!” — which was filmed on and around campus last fall and is having its Ann Arbor premiere at the Michigan Theater on Oct. 8 — follows a Wolverine graduate student through the world of competitive bar trivia. Writer-director Chris Farah is a Michigan alum, but his 1998 undergraduate degree was in English, and his Master’s in 2002 was in Near-Eastern Studies.
When Farah was a student in the mid-’90s, the SAC program wasn’t what it is today.
“The program that you’re talking about has really, really developed and come into its own under Jim Burnstein’s leadership over the last, I would say, ten years or so,” Farah said.
“There was still a feeling for many people that making movies was something that happened in Los Angeles … If somebody had been interested in pursuing that, you would have gone to UCLA or USC.”
The mindset’s a bit different now. Michael Burke and Erin Whittemore, two recent graduates from the SAC program who each penned one of the SAC 423 films shown at Traverse City, are both planning to stay in Michigan for the foreseeable future to pursue screenwriting careers.
“It’s a bit up in the air for me right now,” said Whittemore, an LSA graduate who wrote “Margaret and Izzey,” which is about a girl reuniting with her imaginary friend. “But for the moment, though, I’m staying here.”
“We’re slightly bigger fish in a smaller pond here,” said Burke, who holds a dual degree from LSA and the Ross School of Business. Burke wrote “Camp Chapel,” a comedy about a troublemaker sent to church camp. He viewed Traverse City as a chance to market his script to prospective buyers. “I will bartend for years before I give up the hope … I have some semblance of a chance to actually make it, and why not do my best to do it?”
Rounding the festival circuit
At noon on July 29 in Traverse City’s Opera House, approximately two dozen SAC students shuffle into the converted screening room, each wearing dressy attire and yellow lanyards around their necks announcing their identities as “FILMMAKER.” They are a mix of writers, directors, producers, editors, actors, composers and every other job title under the sun. They file into the reserved seating in the theater’s back two rows and settle in to watch an auditorium full of people watch their movies.
Outside the screening room is a table with various booklets and swag promoting Ann Arbor and the University as a place to host big studio film productions. The front of the booklet reads, “Ann Arbor: The Smart Location.” Clearly, the students aren’t the only ones hoping to walk away from the festival with some deals in their pocket.
There’s a good crowd here, especially considering these student short films are competing in this time slot with Hollywood-caliber productions like “Solitary Man” and “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” both screening simultaneously in venues a few blocks away. But not only is the audience sizeable, it’s also ecstatic.
Film industry precedent states that crowds at festivals are always going to be more appreciative than normal, but it’s still hard to deny the rapturous reception given to “Camp Chapel” and “Margaret and Izzey.” When the lights go up, the applause is wild — for the films and for the parade of students and professors who take up the entire expanse of the stage afterward.
Admittedly, the crowd contains many University faculty, alumni and associates, who may be inclined to applaud for their school as much as for the films themselves. Still, to even have their films present at one of the largest festivals in the Midwest is a big deal, and the experience provides a taste of the future success every student on stage is striving for.
“We always kind of said this was the gateway into the real world of filmmaking,” Burnstein says to the crowd. He points to the student producers of each film, LSA senior James Alsobrooks and recent LSA graduate Mercedes Holguin. “If you want to know who’s gonna be running Hollywood, even if Hollywood’s in Michigan, take a good look.”
A reception is held for the students after the screening at sushi bistro Red Ginger. It’s sponsored by the Miller Canfield Law Firm, which specializes in entertainment law and also paid lodging and other expenses for the SAC 423 contingent’s stay. Here the University students and professors intermingle with a cross-section of professional filmmakers who are also showing works at the festival.
Burke proudly shows off the personalized business cards he brought along; each one is attached to a flash drive containing the entirety of his “Camp Chapel” script. He’s hoping that someone will bite.
Festival founder Michael Moore shows up at one point for a quick speech. The former UM-Flint dropout and current Spartan fan tries to playfully insult the University, but he’s drowned out when the entire room breaks into a rousing chorus of “The Victors.”
Nevertheless, the students are all eager to talk to the Oscar winner, and promptly swarm him after he’s finished his speech.
“I tell them that they should definitely go to the University of Michigan and then drop out,” Moore said before the festival when asked by the Daily what advice he gives to students looking to pursue a career in filmmaking. “That’s the great thing about U of M is that it works both ways. Stay and get your degree, or go for a while and drop out. Any time spent at the University of Michigan will be time well spent.”
Moore is a bit more serious during the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council meeting the next day. He explains that he’s funding the “State Theater Project,” an effort to renovate rundown movie theaters throughout the state. His sincere desire to revitalize the state through film-based initiatives have made Moore, along with Burnstein, one of the most influential men in the Michigan film community.
Prior to Moore’s announcements, Burnstein takes the floor to present the council with the Michigan Creative Film Alliance. The program, he explains, is a joint effort between the state’s top three research schools — Michigan, MSU and WSU — to produce an ultra-low-budget short film, with actors from the Screen Actor’s Guild. The 21-person crew — comprising seven students from each university — was selected by a joint committee of professors from all three schools.
The film? “Appleville,” a heist comedy written by Whittemore. Chundu had been chosen to direct, meaning that the Michigan Creative Film Alliance would be making a movie both written and directed by University of Michigan students and filmed at the North Campus Research Complex.
When Burnstein finishes, Emery King, head of the council, asks the SAC students sitting in the back of the room to stand up so the room can acknowledge them. “Good luck to you with your careers, and thanks so much for being here,” he says.
The room claps.
The third act
“So remember when I said an ideal situation coming out of Traverse City was getting a job?” Burke wrote in an e-mail in mid-August, as “Appleville” was shooting. “Well it worked!”
Though not involving screenwriting as he had hoped, Burke’s new job still rounded out a nicely cyclical story: He had joined the PR team for Farah’s “Answer This!” Fittingly, one of Burke’s central tasks was to organize a short film competition encouraging people, including students, to submit their own “love letters to Ann Arbor.”
Meanwhile, Whittemore, Chundu and the rest of the “Appleville” crew had to learn fast in order to complete a film bigger in every way than anything they had attempted before. Camera tracks were made out of actual metal instead of the plastic pipe and sandbags typically used for SAC 423 productions. Police officers had to be on hand when prop guns were used above a certain eye level in case passers-by mistook which kind of shooting they were seeing.
“All this stuff I learned in just the last two months,” Whittemore said of the in-depth production process. Despite the increased crew presence, everyone on set still had to perform multiple jobs out of necessity.
Thankfully, the storm on the 11th didn’t set the production back too much, and the crew was able to reassemble later in the day to squeeze out another couple hours of filming. They even finished on schedule, which bodes well for the floating prospect of the Michigan Creative Film Alliance becoming an annual program.
But first, “Appleville” needs to make something of itself. Chundu and Krane, along with various editors, sound designers and supervisors, are currently buried deep in post-production. They have to turn in the finished product by Dec. 10 for its planned premiere at the Detroit Film Theater this winter, and Chundu hopes to take it to more film festivals in the coming year. For the current students involved in the project, they now have to balance their Creative Film Alliance work with a full credit load at school.
If their endeavors are successful, there will certainly be yet more reason to believe in the power of the University’s SAC department. Combined with the state’s already-existing tax incentive, the program can create and support Michigan’s homegrown filmmaking population.
But what happens from there is anyone’s guess. This is the movie business, after all.