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Film talent grows, far from the glitz

Special to The Times

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The Main Street set is fake, of course. A movie back lot built with a little bit of local flavor (the doughnut shop storefront is Krispy Kreme, native to North Carolina, ditto the Wachovia Bank). A female mannequin looks out from a curtained second-floor window on the quiet set; in the distance is the skyline of a small southern city.

The skyline is real. But it’s 2,450 miles from Hollywood, and here is where a tiny regional film school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts is churning out some notable talent these days. Among the most prominent examples are David Gordon Green, director of “Pineapple Express,” a stoner comedy that opened last week to $40-million-plus box office, and Danny McBride, a rising comic actor who appears in both “Express” and the action comedy spoof “Tropic Thunder,” which opened Wednesday.

The filmmaking program at this state-supported school boasts a conservatory atmosphere in a place that’s way off the beaten path. And that may be one of its assets. New York? L.A.? Full of distractions. Winston-Salem? It’s got old money, tobacco warehouses, and a lovingly restored historic district but not a lot going on for the 18- to 22-year-old demographic.

“It’s not a party city,” said McBride, whose performance in “Pineapple Express” stole the show, according to some critics. “There wasn’t a lot to do there but get drunk and make movies.”

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Dale Pollock, a former dean who now teaches cinema studies at the School of the Arts, has a similar view, although he didn’t address the drinking part. “The No. 1 attribute of this place is that we are out of the mainstream,” said Pollock, a former Hollywood exec and Los Angeles Times reporter. “Every feature that comes out of here has a quirkiness, off-centeredness -- a sometimes odd, sometimes uncomfortable blend of comedy, drama, and even violence.”

The school has only about 300 film students, compared to more than 700 at the film program at USC and close to 900 at the program at New York University. The North Carolina school is one of a growing number of regional film programs nationwide such as those at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Central Florida that are developing distinctive voices for film and television. The UNC School of the Arts was established in a 1963, but the filmmaking school is relatively young, having accepted its first class in 1993. The back lots and theater-sized classrooms were originally a cloth diaper factor, a testament to the declining textiles industry in North Carolina.

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‘A real safety net’

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Green, the “Pineapple Express” director who previously wrote and directed indie favorites “All the Real Girls” and “George Washington,” was one of the program’s early students.

“There was a real safety net of people I trusted and valued. I felt like I could take chances with narrative structures,” he said. (His first project, a domestic comedy based on the premise that soap hadn’t been invented, was called “Will You Lather Up My Roughhouse?”) “The students came from all walks of life. There were distinctive voices . . . and there was no alumni system, no one whose dad was in the business.”

Green himself had no idea what he wanted to do after graduating from high school in Richardson, Texas, in 1993. After an unsuccessful year at the University of Texas at Austin (“I was failing everything,” he says), Green signed up for the Marines. His sisters, who were taking ballet lessons, had learned of a new film school that had just started up in North Carolina at a place primarily known for dance, music and drama. “My dad and I went up there for the weekend and I loved it,” Green said.

The school has reasonable tuition and fees for in-state and out-of-state students (by law, 50% of its students must come from North Carolina). And unlike counterparts at most other major film schools, students at the UNC program do not end up footing the bill for their senior productions.

“They pay for everything you do,” said McBride. He said a buddy who went to a major East Coast school spent $70,000 on his fourth-year project, ended up in debt, and said, “All I got was a grade in the mail.”

Senior Tyler Milligan, who grew up in Naples, Fla., said he came to the UNC campus in part because it was the only film school he got into. But he’s glad he came. In May, Green came to speak to the students and told them how he raised money working odd jobs to pay for his first independent film. Milligan was able to shoot a third-year project, based on a nurse who had trouble relating to her patients, at a wing of a working hospital in nearby Yadkinville.

Jordan Kerner, who produced “Charlotte’s Web” and “Inspector Gadget” among other movies, is the newest dean of the UNC School of the Arts. He says he’s trying to “re-imagine” the place, keeping what’s right and adding new ideas. He wants producing students to learn to speak Mandarin, for instance. He brought in new Panavision cameras to replace what he called the “relics” students were working with. And he has begun a program called “American Immersion,” in which a group of students and faculty travels in search of narratives: One class visited the VA hospital in Philadelphia; another went to talk to Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. They’re not there to film but to listen to the stories of others and get ideas.

The process of learning how to make movies begins immediately in the freshman year, when the class of about 80 students is divided into groups and put through rotations in each of seven disciplines: creative producing, line producing (what one staff member calls “from book to Happy Meal”), screenwriting, production design, directing, cinematography and editing.

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“They learn to collaborate, they learn what they like,” said Patsy Seiler, executive assistant to Kerner. They also learn whom they like to work with, filling out evaluation forms on one another. “You can’t be a diva around here and get away with it,” she said. “You learn that you don’t chew out the bagel guy when he gets stuck in traffic.”

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The pool under the set

Much of this happens in warehouse-sized teaching theaters with a blank set, walls painted a drab yellow. In one exercise, students in a team are given five hours to dress a set, shoot a five-minute video, and repaint and clean up the set so it looks as though no one has been there. Under the floor of one set is a swimming pool; the floor unscrews so water scenes can be shot.

McBride originally wanted to direct -- in fact, he still does -- but when the other students found out how well he could act, he ended up appearing in all their productions.

“We would act in each other’s films out of necessity,” McBride said, in part because the drama department at the time had a level of resentment toward the new up-and-coming school that was attracting money and attention. (Some of those walls are coming down, Kerner says.)

“There is a tiny skyline out there,” Kerner said, pointing out his window to Winston-Salem. “But these kids are not pressured to be successful in the industry their first year. They are here to explore.”


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