A Cinematic Education : Two UCLA Extension instructors lead a diverse group of students on the fringes of filmmaking into the heart of the mainstream.

<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly for The Times. </i>

On an impulse, Michael Brewer left Boston with his young family just two years ago, packing everything into a U Haul trailer and aiming for the studios of Hollywood. Not that Brewer--owner of a lengthy resume as a documentary cinematographer--was new to the movie business. But this was different. This was the big move to Hollywood , the place where those big feature films get made.

For Brewer, the move reflected new ideas and new goals, something like that ubiquitous slogan on countless T-shirts: “What I really want to do is direct.”

He understood even then, of course, that moving from documentaries to features is an often difficult jump. And yet, Brewer said: “It was the type of thing where I knew if I didn’t do it now, it wasn’t going to happen.”

But now Brewer is readying “The Rhyming Zoo” for a screening Tuesday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The 25-minute story of conflicting family values, starring Meshach Taylor of CBS’ “Designing Women,” is just one of four short works created this year through a UCLA Extension course in making the short fiction film.


The 3-year-old program offers an intensive, nine-month experience to help those working on the fringes of mainstream filmmaking or related fields make the transition to features. Leading the course are a couple of industry veterans: producers John Thomas Lenox, whose credits include “Splash!” and “The Executioner’s Song,” and Simon R. Lewis, whose resume includes “Look Who’s Talking” and the Emmy-winning Home Box Office film “Age Old Friends.” They spend much of those nine months guiding and advising small groups of students through the harried steps of script development, pre-production and production.

What comes out of that experience, say the producer-mentors, are films of rare thematic maturity and quality for student productions. “It’s a valuable program for people with very diverse backgrounds, who often have important things to say,” said Lewis, who launched his own career as a producer in the late 1980s after a series of UCLA Extension classes.

“We have everybody from medical doctors to electronics engineers to agents and entertainment lawyers,” Lewis added. “They are very determined, because all of them recognize the opportunity that’s being given. So they put everything they have in it.”

Part of that opportunity for this most recent session included between $12,000 and $15,000 in goods and services toward making each of the productions. (The total budget for Brewer’s “The Rhyming Zoo,” which was written by student Michael Edens and produced by student Bennett Fidlow, was about $35,000.) The course also provides an option for working professionals who would be unable to continue full-time jobs and attend a four-year film school.


“It’s for giving people a jump-start for making a lateral move,” said Brewer, 35. “My discipline has a very visual basis, as director of photography for documentaries. That’s a lot different from making dramatic films, especially in the eyes of the powers that be in Hollywood. You get pigeonholed, and you are what you do.”

Probably even further removed from the mainstream was Vladimir Lange, a graduate of last year’s session and a former emergency room doctor who has been making his living creating medical product films and patient information tapes. His directorial debut from last year, titled “Bridges,” has since won several festival awards, including a Cine Eagle Award.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed combining pictures with words, telling a story visually,” Lange said. “And doing medical videos is just a small-caliber version of that. There’s very little I enjoy more than watching a good movie. And I always thought: ‘God, it would be great to create something like that.’ ”

Lange, 45, said he enrolled in the short-fiction filmmaking program after completing the extension’s five-minute-film course, also established by Lenox and Lewis. “What these guys put into this is truly amazing,” Lange said. “The times when they would be there until 1 in the morning discussing or lecturing or arguing about a project just gives you a warm feeling. . . . They really convey the feeling that they want you to succeed.”

Along with “Bridges,” at least seven of the eight films produced so far through the course have won some film festival awards, totaling about 30 separate prizes, Lewis said.

Prospective students of Making the Short Fiction Film are screened before enrollment. Admission is often based on some previous work, although writers are judged on a particular script, rather than previous script-writing experience. Ultimately, after several months of lectures and discussion and pre-production, four groups are chosen to receive aid to finance production.

Tuition costs in the program are $1,300 for writers, $2,100 for producers and $2,400 for directors. The application deadline for the fall session, which starts Sept. 22, is Sept. 4.

The Tuesday-night screening is scheduled to include “120 Volt Miracles,” “One Small Step for Cletus,” “Pandarus Flank” and “The Rhyming Zoo"--all made largely with donated professional casts and crews. Many of the program’s student productions have been successful in attracting high-caliber talent, at least since actress Sally Kirkland donated her performance in “Art Lover” during the course’s first year. Actor Ned Beatty appears in “120 Volt Miracles.”


“It’s kind of like an opportunity to check your grit,” said Meshach Taylor, who often donates time to student productions. “It’s not easy. You don’t have the same kind of amenities as when you’re working professionally. But at the same time, it’s a lot of fun.”

But Lenox is quick to note the differences in philosophy between the UCLA Extension course and traditional film schools. “USC and UCLA really deal with film as an art form,” he said. “We approach it more from a business standpoint. We are gearing toward narrative fiction films with a beginning, a middle and an end.

“I have found this program one of the most rewarding adventures of my life,” Lenox added. “There’s nothing like seeing a light bulb going on in someone’s eyes. There’s nothing like seeing something with potential live up to its potential.”