Class Acts : Student Film Makers Hope City College Will Be Their Ticket to the Movies

Times Staff Writer

Swinging one combat boot-clad foot onto the hood of a 1963 Chevrolet, Carla Weber leans into the glare of the lights. She motions to the soundman. She signals the camera operator.

Take One. Action.

Weber is a student in the film program at Los Angeles City College, and the scene she and her unpaid crew are about to shoot is the last in the film she enrolled in the program to make.

She is 35 and wants to be a film maker. But she doesn't have the money for the prestigious film programs at USC or UCLA. So she enrolled at City College instead.

Weber is typical of the more than 200 students in the cinema and television department of the community college. She works on the film at night when she gets home from her job. She balked at the high tuition costs of university-level film schools in Los Angeles, choosing to spend the $5,000 she earned at what she will only describe as her "first straight job" making a film instead. And she is absolutely certain that making movies is what she wants to do.

The film program at City College is 20 years old this year. Four Academy Award winners and countless film industry professionals are among those who have attended its classes.

But even with this impressive record, it is virtually unknown outside the film industry and overshadowed inside the industry by the cinema programs at USC and UCLA.

"When you say USC, you say, 'Yeah, that's where Lucas went.' When you say UCLA, you say, 'That's where Coppola went,' " said Tom Stempel, director of the cinema program at City College. "We haven't had anybody who's broken through in that way. What we have is a lot of people who work on a regular basis in the industry."

Some of the best of the films made by City College students in the past four years will be shown tonight at a screening being held by the film department. Admission is $10. The money taken in at the screening of 11 student films will go to the film department. And Stempel hopes that the high-powered film critics he has invited to the showing at the New Directors Guild Theatre in Hollywood will give some recognition to his students' work.

Although a degree from USC or UCLA is worth a lot in the competitive and image-conscious Hollywood film industry, the associate of arts degree earned by City College graduates does not generally open doors, officials at City College and other schools agree. In fact, only five or six of about 30 students who take the advanced film-making course at City College every year even bother to get the degree the school offers, Stempel said.

But what the program lacks in prestige, students say, it makes up for in the chance it gives students to do what they want to do--make movies. Out of the 200 students who go to USC, only about 25 complete their own films each year, and only 10 earn the chance to work on the advanced films fully funded by the university, USC spokesman Dave Werner said. At City College, any student who makes it into the advanced film production class can make a movie. Most of them do.

The cinema and television program at the college is a fast-paced course of study oriented toward film production. It is a peculiar corner of a school better known for its business courses and immigrant student population.

For its first 11 years, the program was housed in two run-down wooden buildings, its main filming area a former cafeteria. Since 1980, however, its home has been a gleaming white center complete with sophisticated film, video, television and radio equipment that took $8 million to equip and build.

The program attracts an esoteric mix of people as young as 17 and as old as 80. They are people who have made other careers in professions as varied as art and construction, business, poetry and acting. The typical student in the program is 30 or older, has already earned a bachelor's degree from another institution and wants to learn about film making without going into debt. A year in USC's film program costs $11,000; tuition in the City College program is only $50 a semester.

There is a catch. Although students at USC don't pay for much of the film and equipment they use, students at City College pay an average of $10,000 for most of the equipment needed to make their films. And though USC films are seen regularly by powerful film industry executives, City College students for the most part are on their own. It has been four years since the last screening of student films at City College.

"At LACC, it's pretty much you go through the program and then it's kind of up to you to do what you can with it," said Rupert Nadeau, a 33-year-old former student whose film "Tracks" is one of those to be shown tonight. "It's a place that's good for people who really are entrepreneurs. It's really just knocking on a lot of doors."

Got Agent

Nadeau, a former advertising copywriter, spent $20,000 to make his film. He finished it in December and then started knocking. The film got him an agent and now he is writing a screenplay for a production company. He says he went to City College more for the opportunity to use its sound stages and editing equipment than for the instruction.

Saundra Sharp, an actress who appeared on the television shows "Knot's Landing" and "St. Elsewhere," enrolled at City College at the age of 40. After 20 years in acting, she said, she decided she liked it better behind the scenes. Both of the films Sharp made at City College won film festival awards. She is now a research and assistant film editor on "The American Experience," a Public Broadcasting Service series.

"At LACC, very inexpensively you can find out what you're good at," Sharp said. "I know now that I don't want to pick up another piece of camera equipment in my life. I know that sound equipment makes me nervous. I know that my forte is production and writing, and it only took me $50 a semester to figure that out."

Several former City College students have achieved success in the industry. Ron Ellis won an Academy Award for best live action short film in 1980. The film began as an advanced student project at the college. Chris Walas won an Academy Award in 1987 for best makeup for "The Fly."

Not All Make Films

Not all City College students, of course, do this well. More than 100 leave the school each year without ever making a film, Stempel said. Others have no desire to make their own films, preferring to work on the production crews of films made by another student. Some former students are making low-budget horror films. Others are still knocking on doors.

Weber says she is apprehensive about what is going to happen to her after she completes her film, which is entirely set inside the 1963 Chevy. But she says doubt isn't in her vocabulary. She is just too busy.

On a recent day on the set, she was dressed in black to blend into the set's background. A striking woman with a quiet energy, she divided her time between talking to the actress who stars in the film, managing a crew of eight people and tending to details such as making sure that the fog machine was working and buying the right kind of film.

Weber says her film is a true story, 12 minutes of memories of something that happened to her when she was driving a cab in Los Angeles. She said she has been waiting for years to turn her memories into moving images on screen.

Now that she is doing just that, Weber says she loves making movies more than anything she's ever done.

"It's the best high I've ever experienced," she said. ". . . It's allowing yourself to be vulnerable to people. You're exposing yourself, your writing, your emotional beliefs. You are exposing your integrity and your professional creativity."

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