Summer 2010: Features

Candid shot from set of movie.

From left: Matthew Ryckman, Austin Reynolds, Chris Knific, and Jason Vigdor at work.

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Young Guns

A growing cadre of student filmmakers is causing a stir—from campus to Cannes

See for Yourself: Award-Winning Student Film

The Gerstein Report

When Even Death Forgot About Carl Swenson

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By Michelle Ye Hee Lee 10C

 Huddled in the dimly lit ETV office on a Monday afternoon, Chris Knific 10B selects a few seconds of film on the computer, deletes it, then replays the scene for the dozenth time. In this scene, the wife of an unfaithful husband bangs the mistress’s head on the floor repeatedly, eventually snapping her neck. Those two or three seconds could determine whether the violence is realistic enough for viewers.

“I think it’ll work really well once we get a neck crack sound in there. Like, we’ll really get a good squirm from the audience,” says Austin Reynolds 07Ox 09C, leaning into the monitor from his chair and imitating the sound of a neck crack to illustrate his point. Knific agrees, then moves on to pick at the next scene.

For these two, every second of this seven-minute short film, Do Us Part, represents eight months of planning, $11,000 raised on campus, and sixty-five hours of work on set. With less than three weeks left until the Emory premiere on April 22, the two now spend most of their free time in this office, editing. Just this afternoon, they have accrued a half-eaten yogurt parfait, cinnamon sugar bagel poppers, and a bag of Starburst candy around the monitor.

Do Us Part is the second independent student-made film at Emory in the past year, following The Misadventure, which premiered in November and has been accepted to two film festivals. Knific, Reynolds, and Jeremy White 07Ox 09C spearheaded both projects.

A cadre of student filmmakers has emerged in the past four years, carving a niche for itself with these two movies and several Campus MovieFest (CMF) films that have garnered local and national attention. It’s the first time so many Emory students have expressed passion for filmmaking since the 1990s, says Matthew Bernstein, chair of the Department of Film Studies. And the heightened student interest in film production is bringing about some new developments at Emory, both in classrooms and in the campus culture.

 In some ways, the growing interest in student filmmaking is serendipitous. Reynolds and White ran into each other at the Oxford campus library while renting film equipment and wound up becoming partners on The Misadventure.

Matthew Ryckman 11B and Matthew Fennell 11C, who were on the baseball team together, discovered they were both interested in filmmaking and became known as “the Matts” among the Emory film community for their collaboration.

But the growth of the student film community has also been a deliberate movement led by students who want to create a place for film production at Emory. Four years ago, EmoryVision had lost momentum as an organization, with outdated technology and no real leadership. Knific, who grew up with a father who created his own soundtracks for his home movies, became president in his freshman year, and with Stephen Beehler 10B, rebranded the organization as ETV (for Emory TV). They purchased the newest equipment and moved the system to digital hard drives rather than film reels. Now, ETV is the hub for students who want to experiment with film production.

Through ETV, a small film community began to form, and the same students swept the awards at Emory CMF finales for two years. Then, in spring 2009, the Matts appeared on the scene with their CMF movie When Even Death Forgot About Carl Swenson, a dark comedy about a man who repeatedly fails at killing himself and then dies when his friends throw him a surprise party. The Matts had realized they both had not only a passion for filmmaking, but a preference for gore. So they taught themselves how to shoot violence without using special effects, made fake blood out of an insecticide sprayer and maraschino cherries, and shot using a pizza box as a camera dolly—which they still use out of tradition.

The movie surprised more seasoned student filmmakers when it won Best Picture at Emory.

“They were kind of this close-knit group, they all knew each other. And we just kind of came out of left field,” Fennell says.

That year, three of sixteen films that made it to the grand finale and screened at the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner were from Emory, proving there was untapped talent on campus. The students wanted to bring the now-expanding film community together for the 2010 CMF, which led to The Gerstein Report, a drama about Kurt Gerstein, a German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer who attempted to stop the gas-chamber killing of Jews during World War II.

The Gerstein Report was ambitious. It was a period piece that required recreating Nazi Germany on Emory’s campus, and Ryckman and Fennell insisted the script be written in German. So Knific, the cinematographer, found locations that could be transformed into 1940s wintertime Germany; Jason Vigdor 10C, the art director, sewed Nazi uniforms and hand-made Jewish stars; a German teaching assistant coached the actors’ pronunciation; and Ari Blinder 11C, who played Gerstein, took photos of his character and actor Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List to Supercuts in Emory Village for his German SS haircut. (“The barber said, ‘You sure?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s for a movie.’ I had to get that disclaimer in there,” Blinder says.)

The result was a student movie that looks more like a World War II epic short film on the History Channel. Once CMF officials posted the movie on YouTube, students spread the word virally on Facebook and in classrooms on campus.

The movie won Best Picture at Emory and Best Drama at the Southern regionals. It moved on to win Best Drama at the international grand finale in June, where it was one of three movies nominated for Best Picture.

“I’ve been told by an executive in Hollywood that that film is better than a great many of the short films that are shown at Sundance—the quality, the scripting, the pacing, everything about it,” Bernstein says.

With the success of The Gerstein Report, the students opted to work together again on Do Us Part as a large collaboration of Emory talent and experience. The Misadventure had paved the way for fund-raising on campus, and investors—academic departments, student government, and University divisions—now knew what they were paying for. So Knific, the producer and cinematographer, and Reynolds, the writer and director, led a cohort of students and a few Atlanta professionals for Do Us Part. The movie screened to an almost-full Harland Cinema, and Knific and White are now finalizing postproduction to enter the movie in film festivals.

Coincidentally, this group of aspiring filmmakers forms a complementary film crew. Vigdor, a film studies major and visual arts minor, has a knack for creating a professional set design on a college-student budget (a car crash scene in Do Us Part cost only $55 to set up). Beehler’s internship experiences and organizational skills make him an effective line producer who keeps the shoot moving on schedule. Reynolds and Fennell, both creative writing majors, are always brainstorming new story ideas.

“We all acknowledge the division of labor,” Fennell says.

 The students aren’t the only ones interested in cultivating filmmaking futures at Emory. Faculty in the Department of Film Studies and Goizueta Business School have been working to make their programs more targeted and comprehensive for aspiring filmmakers.

A new film and media management concentration, effective this fall for BBA students and film studies students, is the first collaboration between Goizueta and the College of Arts and Sciences. It consists of two core film studies courses, two electives, and a capstone course, through which students will develop a concept for television, film, or new media and then create the content. By next year, the program will include a trip to Los Angeles for the students to meet with agents and Hollywood executives.

Hollywood is increasingly bridging the gap between the creatives and the “suits,” according to Andrea Hershatter, BBA program director, and this concentration mirrors that shift. In the past, Hershatter and film studies lecturer Eddy Von Mueller 07PhD taught courses on the entertainment industry and film production, respectively, but there was no cohesive curriculum for students to learn both the creative and practical sides of the business.

“I think it’s just this wonderful culmination of student passions matching intellectual resources at Emory,” Hershatter says. As the mother of an aspiring director, Jessica Hershatter 11C, Hershatter says she has gained greater appreciation for the creative process of filmmaking.

Beehler and Knific showed that there is a desire among business students to embrace the arts as a viable business, Hershatter says. Beehler created his own media company, and Knific almost singlehandedly raised $24,000 for The Misadventure and Do Us Part.

“It’s about celebrating the complete talents of our students and encouraging and embracing the fact that they want to pursue their passions—assisting them in figuring out a way to do it that is consistent with a career,” Hershatter says.

Emory’s ties to the industry are getting stronger, which may open more opportunities for current students. Four Emory alumni—Dan Costa 01B, David Roemer 02B, Ajay Pillariseti 02C, and Vijay Makar 02B—created CampusMovieFest in 2000, then called iMovieFest, long before the film studies department offered any film production courses. They lent camcorders and laptops to students to create movies in one week, then screened the movies during the first festival in 2001. Since then, CMF has grown into the world’s largest student film festival. Emory alumni still make sure that CMF at Emory is “a really seminal experience” for students, Hershatter says—and it’s evident during the CMF week every spring, when large groups of students crowd the booth in Coca-Cola Commons at the Dobbs University Center, renting equipment, registering for the competition, and talking with officials about their movies.

Emory alumni in Hollywood also are becoming more influential, and they’re starting to give back to students. Alumni working at the Gersh Agency in Los Angeles have helped students build connections on the agency side of the business. Graduates in the studios are reaching out as well—such as Scott Budnick 99B, executive producer of the highest grossing R-rated comedy film The Hangover, who has hired Emory students as interns on the set of his upcoming movie this summer.

“There are a lot of younger alums in the industry working at talent agencies, working at emerging companies. I think that creates the perfect environment because they’re not so high up that they’re distant, but in a few years they will be at a level where they will be really respectable in the industry,” says Ryckman, who landed an internship last summer in LA through a baseball team alum. “So right now, they’re very, very willing to help out.”

 Emory is not a film school; in fact, students say the prevalence of premedical and prebusiness students can make it feel at times like a preprofessional school, despite its liberal arts focus.

It might be easier to be a film student at schools that breed filmmakers, such as New York University or the University of Southern California. Emory students don’t have a big-name alumni base to fall back on yet, and there is only one narrative filmmaking course offered per semester.

But students say it’s because Emory is unlike those schools that their experience is unique.

“If I had all my opportunities handed to me, I wouldn’t have tried as hard. And now, I’ve learned so much more because I’ve been in a place like Emory,” Knific says. “Just because we have to try a little bit harder, you’re forced to do great things.”

In the past four years, with the help of film and business faculty, students have created a formula for filmmaking at Emory. There are now budget documents and production schedules that can guide new projects. The Matts plan to pursue another independent movie next summer, and by now, they’re considered moviemaking veterans on campus.

Through the film-business concentration and the holistic approach of Emory’s liberal arts program that teaches film history and theory, Mueller says, students learn to become “adaptive thinkers” who can adjust to changes in the industry—which is far more valuable than knowing only how to work a camera.

“A student who’s had to do the kind of critical thinking that we’ve demanded of them . . . they’re going to be better able to answer the kinds of questions that are constantly being raised about media, because they don’t just know how Final Cut works, they know how the viewer works, and they know how the industry and the viewer work together,” Mueller says.

But perhaps what most sets Emory apart from the hypercompetitive climate at renowned film schools is the spirit of camaraderie and support. These students are in the minority here, which forces them to work together and pool their various interests and talents. They hail from different areas of the University—economics, English, business, theater studies—rather than just the film studies department.

There is an unofficial motto among these students: “If one of us makes it, we all make it.” It’s understood that the first one who gets a break will try to bring the rest of the group along.

After all, just one student’s foot in the door could lead to the next blockbuster hit by an Emory film crew—coming soon to a theater near you.

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