The Celluloid Ringmaster
Mike Million Directs His First Feature Film
Luke Wilson and David Koechner perched on a tree branch 60 feet up in the air while a camera crane filmed them. The actors wore harnesses, and a stunt coordinator watched from the ground. Wilson sat next to the trunk, where he rested one hand, but Koechner balanced precariously on the middle of the branch. The scene required twilight, so cast and crew only had 10 minutes to film the scene: a heartfelt conversation between best friends. “It was a trying moment, but we got it and it paid off with great performances,” says Mike Million (Col ’93) who wrote and directed the new film Tenure, a comedy about professors at a small college competing for the coveted “job for life.” Million shot the $5 million film in Pennsylvania over 25 days in April 2008. “The days were grueling, but I was pumped full of adrenaline for a month straight. I’d pop out of bed every day excited to go to work with a hundred people on set who were there to collaborate on a shared vision,” says Million.
Film directing was always Million’s goal, but his path has been roundabout. He attended the American Film Institute for screenwriting but left after a year with the conviction that the craft of filmmaking was best learned as a working apprentice rather than in school. He became a film editor and started a company called Third Story Films in Washington, D.C., that makes corporate videos, documentaries and commercials. He continued to write scripts and sold several in Hollywood. Million wrote Tenure in 2005, and it caught the attention of Paul Schiff, who produced Rushmore and My Cousin Vinny. After Luke Wilson and Gretchen Mol came aboard, the project got the green light from Blowtorch Entertainment in early 2008.
Million believes it was a boon to be both writer and director on his first feature film. He knew the story and the characters backward and forward by the time the cameras started rolling. “As a director, you need to be able to make decisions with authority,” he says. “If you don’t know what you want things to look like, how you want things to sound, you’re going to waste a lot of time on set.” On films with limited budgets, there isn’t time for lots of takes or multiple angles. “If the director doesn’t know what he or she wants, everyone in the cast and crew will sniff that out and it can lead to chaos very quickly.”
Though Million had experience directing short films, his first feature film offered new lessons. “On low-budget projects, the director often has to do everything and be a jack of all trades. I’d have to think about the story, yes, but I’d also have to think about whether the crew was being fed.” Working with a large professional cast and crew, he was finally able to concentrate on the performance of the actors and big-picture questions about story and tone.
His first feature also educated Million in the business of filmmaking. “You realize that a lot of people have spent a lot of money and they want [to make] their money back, which makes sense, but it can be hard to navigate the creative process with that kind of pressure,” he says.
A movie about academia seemed fertile ground for comedy to Million. “While I was doing research for the movie, reading articles about tenure battles, a lot of the stories were really funny, though unintentionally so. There is just something fundamentally comic—and tragic—about very intelligent people doing petty things.”
Million’s humor arises from realistic situations: the sometimes awkward relationship between professors and students, the struggle to make a mark in one’s field, and the envy of other people’s success. “If there is an idea that unites my work, it’s that there is no such thing as normal,” says Million. “Everyone has their quirks and everyone is different. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ way to live.”
Sarah Drew on the Small and Big Screen
Sarah Drew has always been a performer. “My parents remember a performance I did at my kindergarten graduation. They looked at each other and said, ‘Where did this come from?’” she recalls. “I just fell in love with being on the stage in front of people.”
Drew (Col ’02) started out in theater with a couple of professional jobs in middle school on Long Island. While in high school, Drew got her first major role, as the voice of Stacy Rowe in the animated television series Daria. “In college, on my spring breaks and other vacations, I’d go up to New York and record four or five episodes at once,” she says. “You can completely let loose in the sound booth: waving your hands around, turning red in the face, making the strangest facial expressions—and it doesn’t matter, because all the audience hears is your voice.” A few years later, she landed the role of Hannah Rogers on the WB television series Everwood.
In roles ranging from a bookish, insecure teenager to a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a psychotic killer nanny, Drew completely immerses herself in her work. Even her biggest fans sometimes have difficulty recognizing her in her many roles, which lately have included appearances on Mad Men, Medium, and Law and Order: SVU, among others. Being a virtual chameleon is valuable in acting, but it can also be a liability in an industry that champions a famous face. “Producers and casting directors sometimes don’t recognize me from one thing to the next,” she says, laughing. “But I’ve got a longer trajectory in mind: I’m more interested in struggling at the front end of my career and then having a career like Cate Blanchett. I’d much rather have that situation than be that ‘WB girl’, who does a TV show and then does a bunch of horror movies, all while playing the same character.”
The life of an actor in Los Angeles is sometimes grueling. In a typical week, Drew goes to several auditions to snag a job. For television pilot auditions, she says, “you just walk into a cold room, full of these execs, and there’s no chit-chat time. You just walk in, perform and walk out.”
With a mixture of groans and good humor, Drew recounts an audition for a musical. “Julie Andrews asked me to audition for her production of The Boyfriend, which she was directing at a regional theater,” she says. “And you know, if Julie Andrews asks to see you, you say yes.” Although musical theater was not her forte, she went to try out. “I get there, and I’m wearing uncomfortable period shoes and a period-piece skirt,” she says, “and when I walk in all the other girls there have their legs up near their ears, wearing their dance shoes and tight spandex—they’re twirling and doing leaps, and I’m not even wearing stockings!”
She remembers a particularly inspiring moment on her first film shoot, Radio (Tollin, 2003), with Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding Jr. “It was my first day on the set of my first movie—my first time on a film set ever,” she says. “We rehearsed my first scene, with Ed, and we put one take down. Then Ed says, ‘Sarah, come here for a second.’ He made the whole crew gather around, and he said, ‘I want everyone to give Sarah Drew a round of applause—this is the first take in her future illustrious career.’ And everyone whooped and hollered for me, and I just about died.”
Drew is working on a new pilot, tentatively called Inside the Box and produced by Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy fame. It’s set in a Washington, D.C., television station, and Drew says it has “the intelligence of The West Wing with all the drama of Grey’s Anatomy.” She co-stars with another UVA alumnus, Jason George (Col ’94).
She has to wait to see whether the show will be picked up by a network, but she is upbeat about her acting career. “I cannot imagine doing anything else. As long as I feel that way, I’m going to keep acting,” Drew says. “When you actually get to do what you feel like you were made to do, and what you love to do, there is nothing like it. It’s just beautiful and exciting and fun—I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Sculptor of Reality
Jamie Ross Documents the South
Producer Jamie Ross carried a five-gallon bucket of bear scat and dropped globs of the pungent substance near the documentary film crew’s vehicles to keep the bears away. “As I hauled that bear scat,” says Ross (Col ’82), “I remember thinking that no one had ever told me that filmmaking would be anything like this.” Ross participated in the filming of the 2009 documentary Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People in the Great Smoky Mountains, sometimes laden with heavy film cameras and tripods. “Just lugging the equipment was tough,” says Ross. “When we started out in 2001, we were filming with Super 16 mm, not today’s lightweight video equipment. Our cameras weighed at least 50 pounds each.”
Appalachia was the culmination of an eight-year effort and was broadcast on PBS this April. The documentary is only the latest accomplishment in a long and fruitful career for Ross.
In 1981, a fortuitous friendship and a fascination with film created an opportunity for Ross to work with Ross Spears, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Ross learned quickly that documentary filmmaking bore little resemblance to Hollywood movie magic. The budgets were meager and many of the documentarians’ tasks were painstaking, slow and solitary.
Film editing and background research were among Ross’ first duties with Spears’ Agee Films. “A lot of film work is sheer drudgery,” admits Ross, “a lot of time spent in libraries. A lot of time spent getting to know your subject well enough that when you go for your interview, you get as much as you can from it.”
Yet, she says that on the whole documentary work is exhilarating because it allows her to experience firsthand remarkable events and people. “Ross and I used our press passes to get behind the scenes at the Bill Clinton inauguration. That was great fun.”
Even Ross’ appreciation for the natural world has benefited from her film work. “On Appalachia, one mother bear got so familiar with us while we were filming that she would leave her cubs with us,” says Ross. “She would make a certain noise in her throat and the baby bears would scamper quickly up a tree. Then she’d make another and they’d climb back down. I would never have had the opportunity to experience something like that if not for filming the documentary.”
Producing the Agee Films documentaries has allowed Ross to draw on her close ties to Virginia. Appalachia is narrated by Virginia resident Sissy Spacek and features Virginia writer Barbara Kingsolver. Tell About the South, a 1998 series of three feature-length films about modern Southern literature, is narrated by Rita Dove and features other Virginia writers, including Nikki Giovanni.
Ross’ work has taken her all over the South, from Civil War battlefields and gravesites for the film Long Shadows: The Legacy of the American Civil War to New Orleans and the Mississippi delta for Tell About the South.
Working out of her Charlottesville home, Ross is developing a new independent production company called Red Dirt Projects for documentaries that tell the stories of forgotten communities. She is also working on a book about a rural community in Virginia, just 70 miles outside of the nation’s capital, where the longtime land trust residents refuse to sell their land for any amount of money. It’s tentatively titled Cacapon River Voices.
“I’m all about people and place,” says Ross. “I want to give rural landscapes a voice.”
Check out the trailer for Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People.
Writing With Light
Mark Bruner Pens a Crime Drama
In the episode Mark Bruner wrote for the CBS show Criminal Minds, the script called for an RV to be abandoned on the side of the highway by a family of serial killers. One of the producers wasn’t entirely satisfied with the plot point; he felt it lacked drama. “What if they blow it up?” suggested Bruner. The producer loved the idea and Bruner proved that he had a gift for the peculiar demands of TV writing. Bruner (Col ’07) wrote and directed short films during his time at UVA. He was a script reader for Cavalier Films and Dave Matthews’ production company, ATO Pictures, so he knows a good script from a bad one.
As soon as Bruner graduated, he packed up his car and drove to Los Angeles. He arrived in the city for the June hiring period, when the casts and crews of television shows are assembled each year. He’d been an unpaid intern on the set of Criminal Minds for two summers, and that June the show hired him as a full-time production assistant. “I make copies, run errands, even fetch coffee,” says Bruner. “But at the same time I get to watch and learn every step of the production process. I get to sit in the room where the 12 staff writers brainstorm and refine their ideas.”
Bruner saw an opportunity at Criminal Minds to get a script produced. “Each year, according to the agreement with the Writers Guild, the show makes one episode from a writer who isn’t on the writing staff,” says Bruner, “so I made a 20-minute pitch with my story idea.”
The producers picked Bruner’s idea, titled “Bloodline,” and he started working with the staff writers to develop his script. CBS approved the script, but then the writers’ strike delayed the production by almost a year. “We came back from the strike and the season was cut in half,” says Bruner, “so we had to wait.”
After the strike, CBS expressed concern about the content of the episode. “The motives of the killers were somewhat religious, and that no longer seemed appropriate, so I had to come with a new premise,” says Bruner. The killers were transformed into a nomadic tribe who lived according to their own anarchic code. “With help from the writing staff, I came back with something I was really proud of, and I couldn’t have been happier,” says Bruner.
Tim Matheson, formerly an actor and director on The West Wing, directed the multimillion-dollar episode last season. Bruner was on set as the writer for the eight days of shooting. “Actors would come up to me to get clarification about what I intended for the story and their characters,” says Bruner. “It was such a high.” Thirteen and half million people watched the finished episode.
The scene in which the RV gets blown up was shot at night in a big, open lot. “The pyrotechnics guys strapped the RV with tons of explosives,” says Bruner. “We only had one chance at it because we only had the one RV.” An actor lit the trail of accelerant on the ground that led up to the RV that was meant to trigger the explosion. “The first time nothing happened, so we all crossed our fingers and tried again.” On the second take, the flame traveled swiftly to the RV and, after an anxious five-second wait, the RV exploded. “The whole thing just blew up; it was a beautiful sight.”
Marc Lieberman Produces Films and Online Humor
Marc Lieberman straddles two worlds. As co-founder—with local businessman Barry Sisson—of Charlottesville’s Cavalier Films, he produces low-budget features and brings heartwarming stories to life in the popcorn-scented darkness of the cinema. He lives an old-school Hollywood dream.
But Lieberman (Com ’97) also produces for the Onion News Network, an online spoof of a 24-hour news network. In April, the Onion garnered a Peabody Award, but there’s nothing heartwarming about it. Indeed, the Web site is notorious for delectably cynical “news” flashes, such as “Child Bankrupts Make-A-Wish Foundation with Wish for Unlimited Wishes.” It’s irreverent, Web-based and targeted at young hipsters.
“It all keeps me busy,” Lieberman says. “All day, I’m looking at screens—editing screens, computer screens, screens to check out other movies.”
Lieberman produced the 2008 film Familiar Strangers, a sweet tearjerker about family, Thanksgiving and donkey basketball that was shot in Staunton, Va. Wacky but tender, it delighted theatergoers throughout Virginia, Tennessee and Texas. It’s slated for release on DVD in the coming year.
“Film scripts this good are rare,” Lieberman says, “and that’s what hooked me. To make a movie, you have to devote at least three years of your life to it and believe that theatergoers will spend money on it.” The fact that Strangers struggled at the box office leads Lieberman to speculate on the future of indie film.
“The problem is that the new generation doesn’t want to pay for content. And they want entertainment on demand, how ever it’s convenient,” he says.
As it becomes easier to download pirated films onto miniature screens on handheld devices, audiences for the communal pleasure of the movie theater dwindle. Thus, finding investors for movies is increasingly challenging. “Major studios don’t want to take risks on anything other than potential blockbusters, so small, intimate films suffer,” Lieberman adds.
That reality, along with the lack of top-quality scripts, means that while Lieberman is passionate about filmmaking, he’s also committed to the brave new world of entertainment that the Internet has created. “With the Onion, there’s never a dearth of material to draw from. You just look at the news,” he says. “And the short-form content we feature isn’t dissimilar to that of indie films.”
No matter the size of the screen that features his work, Lieberman is fulfilled by his experiences in production: “There’s nothing like seeing things come together, making something exciting materialize where it hadn’t existed before.”
See the trailer for Familiar Strangers.
Kelly Thomas Produces Film in Greece
Kelly Thomas (GSBA ’03), a film producer with Mockingbird Pictures, was shooting her latest film far from home when she found herself in a bit of a jam.
“We were ready to go, we were filming in Greece and we were already there, and I was trying to buy plane tickets for our two lead actors—and one dropped out. And we needed him there in 10 days,” she says. “So I took a deep breath, and I took whatever the acid-reflux stuff is, and called my casting director in the U.S. and said, ‘OK, who can we go to?’”
The crisis ended well, with the eventual casting of the “perfect person” for the role. “It’s all serendipity,” Thomas says now. “If you can stick with the philosophy that everything happens for a reason, well—it’s better for your health, anyway.”
Thomas didn’t start her working life in film. She tried a couple of other jobs before joining Mockingbird Pictures in 2003, including consulting and a stint in academia, during which she received her Ph.D. in English and taught English at the University of Michigan. But, she says, “I always loved film, and that’s why I went to Darden. I didn’t know anyone who worked in the film industry, so I was always trying to meet people, talk to them and find out what their jobs were.”
She compares the position of the producer in a movie to that of a CEO in a company. “The director is the ‘president’ of the movie,” she explains. “As the CEO, I’m responsible for supporting the director—creatively, I’m very involved, but also in terms of making sure we hire the right people to support him. It’s like a mini-corporation.
“I love stories. I grew up reading voraciously, on a farm in the middle of nowhere,” says Thomas. “It was so isolated that I just read and read and read.” Through film production, she has found a way to marry her love of stories with her talent for project management. “I never thought I would be a writer, an artist or director, but I did know that my talent could be connecting people, and having an idea of financial responsibility. So producing is a perfect combination for me.”
Thomas was an associate producer on the 2005 film Nine Lives, which starred Sissy Spacek, Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and Robin Wright Penn, among others. “The film went to a lot of festivals, got a lot of critical acclaim and was very dear to us,” Thomas says. “I was at one film festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, representing the film at a screening. Afterwards, someone in the audience stood up and said, ‘You know, this film changed my life.’ And I think as an artist, what more can you ask for? We had made something that mattered, and that’s what I’m striving to do every day.”
See the trailer for Nine Lives.
Cinematic Jack of All Trades
Stephen Rubin Makes Films, Runs Film Festival and Establishes Distribution Company
“Collaboration, catharsis, constraints—that’s what independent film is all about,” says Stephen Jules Rubin, founder and CEO of Julesworks, a New Mexico-based film production company. “Constraints” may be the critical element—indie movies’ tight budgets, Rubin says, often force filmmakers toward a stylistic economy much different from big studio fare.
“On sets, you use a dolly to make moving shots,” says Rubin (Col ’96). “I remember when I couldn’t afford to even rent one—so I attached the camera to a shopping cart. One time, I used a wheelchair. You have to really get inventive with your shots and your story.”
Storytelling remains the first love of this Baltimore-born screenwriter/producer/ actor/director, but becoming savvy about money and marketing has allowed him to thrive in a cutthroat industry. “I’ve become a shameless self-promoter,” he says, chuckling.
Recently retired from a six-year stint running the Santa Fe Film Festival, Rubin continues to work the festival circuit—Sedona, Durango and Avignon, in particular—shopping the short films that have become the calling cards of indie filmmakers. The Lives of Angels, a metaphysical tale about lovable losers eluding the devil and finding love directed by Rubin, won a best short comedy award at the New York International and Independent Film and Video Festival last year. Rubin is particularly excited about getting exposure for another of his directorial efforts, Shrink, a wry satire of psychoanalysis. And while dark comedy may be his forte, Rubin takes as his motto advice from his friend Alan Arkin, “A good movie has to be about redemption.”
“I’m interested in ambiguity—that space between the search for truth and the suspicion that life might be meaningless,” Rubin says.
As well as making his own movies, Rubin also distributes other people’s work through his company’s subsidiary, Juleworks Releasing. He is currently distributing Susan Morgan Cooper’s An Unlikely Weapon, a documentary about iconic Vietnam War photojournalist Eddie Adams, and Giancarlo Esposito’s Gospel Hill, about spiritual crisis in the small-town South. And yet, “no matter what I’m involved in,” he says, “I want to entertain.”
To be able to concentrate wholly on the art side of moviemaking remains Rubin’s dream. Distribution, he believes, might ultimately fund that desire. “I can really position filmmakers well at festivals. I can show them, for example, that the edgy fare that works in Chicago might not in Sedona,” he says. “I can market films as an artist, but also as a businessman aware that postproduction—getting the word out—is just as important as making the film. Eventually, I hope, the distribution can pay for my own artistic projects.”