“We’re expecting to get into Sundance soon,” Romulo “Rom” Alejandro says. The 22-year-old UVA senior has recently been talking to the head of Sony Pictures Classics and exchanging e-mails with David Gordon Green, the indie-star-turned-Hollywood-player who may be adapting John Grisham’s latest book. Alejandro tells me over coffee on the Corner about how he and other members of the student-run Filmmakers Society (FMS) have helped change the course of UVA film.
Headed for reel life: UVA senior and filmmaker Rom Alejandro is off to film school in California, but not before making a mark on UVA’s meager media studies program.
Though it’s hosted a film festival for 20 years, UVA has never seemed interested in having its film students actually make movies. The homepage for the Media Studies Program says it’s “not production-oriented.” Since 1999 the only class where any films get produced has been Kevin Everson’s cinematography class in the art department. Media studies has instead focused on “history, theory, and technology and their impact upon contemporary life.”
This may be changing. On June 1, media studies will become a full-fledged department rather than just an interdisciplinary major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Next semester, Academy Award-winner Paul Wagner will teach “Advanced Practicum in Film Production” and Hugh (Police Academy) Wilson is on board to teach screenwriting. But more than anything else, the move towards real film production at UVA may have been spearheaded by a handful of students who, outside of class, have been making large-scale, story-driven movies.
In his application to UVA, Alejandro wrote, “If media studies is our science, then film production is our lab,” but upon arrival, he found the lab lacked basic resources. At FMS’ initial meeting that year, Alejandro and fellow freshman Han West sat in a low-ceilinged, windowless room in Clemons, and stared in horror at the meager equipment spread before them: two cameras, two tripods, two mics. In the years to come, the pair organized crews, networked and raised funds, working to make FMS a kind of off-campus film school and production company.
Han West isn’t interested in making YouTube videos in a dorm room. At 21 he’s worked on several big movies, including The Departed, and he has no aversion to making commercial films. Given UVA’s tradition of teaching storytelling, it should be helping students do just that. In fact, West sees UVA creating a new liberal arts school of filmmaking. He envisions the school, removed from the influence of both Hollywood and New York, turning out filmmakers interested in mainstream movies that are grounded in cinematic tradition. “Film is the literary medium of our generation,” he says.
In three years, FMS films have grown in size and ambition. In 2004, Jarrett Conway’s movie, AM:PM, which involved the flipping of a car, was made for several thousand dollars. Alejandro and West, along with friends Konstantin Brazhnik and Dustin Thompson, worked on that film as freshmen, and it set a precedent for the films all four would eventually craft themselves. Brazhnik made Sticks & Stones, a period film about slavery, and Alejandro’s Play Date was screened five times to a total of around 400 people, raising $1,000 for FMS. In 2005, West’s Loss of Life, utilizing a crew of 30, played its one and only time to a crowd of almost 300 (before the second screening, the film was accidentally destroyed).
Despite being credited by Alejandro as being “at the center” of everything cinematic at UVA, Kevin Everson (who has shown his movies five times at Sundance) is cautious about FMS’ current endeavors. “We’re overproducing shit [at UVA],” he tells me one day before heading to Los Angeles to screen his film Cinnamon, a feature about African-American drag racing in and around Charlottesville. “We’re not getting the content through.”
Everson feels that there’s too much focus on lots of equipment and big crews, and not enough on what is being filmed. The smaller, more experimental art films turned out by his cinematography students are, as Everson sees it, telling stories more through setting and visuals than dialogue and actors (which is perhaps fitting coming out of an art department perspective).
But Everson’s lessons are not lost on Alejandro. Roskosmos, a Kubrick-esque sci-fi epic he premiered last October, is the most ambitious film to come out of FMS, yet it’s clearly an art film. “Roskosmos is as far away from narrative as [Rom]’s ever gone,” West says, “and as far away as he will ever go.” The film just won Best Drama and the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film at Brown University’s Ivy Film Festival. “[Roskosmos] has been my calling card,” Alejandro tells me. “Had I never met Kevin I never would have made [it.]”
Having helped to shape changes at UVA, West and Alejandro are anticipating the next step in their careers as filmmakers. West is waiting to hear from the film school at New York University and Alejandro has been accepted at Cal Arts. To finish out their careers here, they’ll have a joint screening of new and old films on Wednesday, May 2 [see the trailer for Brothers Manor on c-ville.com, a film by Han West premiering May 2], undoubtedly a chance for them to reflect on the shift that is underway film-wise at UVA. Recently, on a morning break from shooting, surrounded by high-definition cameras, matte boxes, banks of lights, tripods and mics, West turned to Alejandro and said, “Did you ever think we would see the day that we would have so much available to do this?”
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