Making Dreams Real
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Filmmaking Careers Born in Tallahassee
Right now, in the halls and classrooms of Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts — known to most as The Film School — about two dozen graduate students are putting finishing touches on movie scripts that, if impressively mastered, may soon kick off their careers and alter their lives.
Students at The Film School learn every aspect of making movies, from setting lights to sound mixing, cinematography, costume design and directing. Students obtaining their Master of Fine Arts in Production degree spend an entire year putting together these 15-minute thesis films. The stakes are high. If well received, the films can be their big break into the highly competitive filmmaking industry.
In 1991, for example, “Curdled,” a thesis film made by Florida State film graduate student Reb Braddock, caught the attention of a young Hollywood director — Quentin Tarantino. The now-legendary Tarantino liked the horror film so well that he opened doors for Braddock at production company Miramax, and it was made into a feature-length movie. Braddock is now associate dean of The Film School and teaches graduate students how to make their own thesis films.
Tallahassee Magazine spent seven months following the making of one such film. We watched 25-year-old graduate student Jonathan Bennett work to take an idea and turn it into a 14-minute film. His odyssey entails countless sleepless nights and the draining of his personal savings. He endures getting kicked out of a set location, an all-night driving excursion halfway across the country, and a heart-sinking critique by faculty members who — at first — can only see the flaws in his film.
Here is his story.
Bennett has been waiting six years for this moment.
He is about to pitch film ideas to Film School faculty advisers.
The faculty take on the role of executive producers. They approve the scripts, review casting choices and enter into contracts with the students, including a written demand that the students not alter their film’s premise once production ensues.
Bennett is nervous. Tall at 6-feet, 1-inch, with spiked brown hair, he oozes the earnest charm of someone who has fallen head over heels for the art of filmmaking.
He begins pitching stories to faculty.
“What about a young boy who lives in a world where lying, cheating and stealing was glorified?” Bennett asks. “This boy struggled with feelings of not belonging, and one day he meets a traveler who doesn’t do these things.”
“What about a guy who decided to enlist in the military to fight a war, and his friends and family were completely against it but he chose to do it anyway?”
A faculty member asks: “Which is the one you are really passionate about?”
It’s this one about soccer, Bennett said. Two brothers clash over how much time they should be spending playing soccer versus focusing on careers.
“I’m really passionate about the game,” Bennett explains. “I played in an adult soccer league in Tennessee, and I was the only guy on my team who spoke English as a first language. Cultures get me excited. I love the idea that people can speak 12 different languages but communicate through a game.”
That’s the one, the faculty tell him.
Bennett became acquainted with filmmaking as an undergraduate at Indiana’s Taylor University. He would cobble
together enough money and friends to make short films as an undergraduate, and by the time he came to FSU he had made a dozen small films.
“I want to tell stories,” he says. “I like movies like ‘House of Sand and Fog’ and ‘Gone Baby Gone’ that make people stop and think.”
By most measures, Bennett already has a foothold in the entertainment industry.
After graduating from Taylor in 2007, the Tennessee-bred Bennett was offered a job at DreamWorks Animation in Los Angeles, where he had worked as an intern. But his job was the sort of thing he was trying to avoid: managing spreadsheets and other tedious office chores. So Bennett chose to attend Florida State’s Film School to get his MFA.
He spent the fall 2009 semester of his final year in the two-year program writing a script while taking classes in directing, screenwriting, producing, sound and editing.
Six weeks into the semester, students are done with their all-day classes.
They are expected to prepare for 17 thesis films that go into production in January. Known as pre-production, this frenzied process is handled by the entire MFA second-year class as a team. A group of students travel to cities such as Los Angeles and New York to audition actors. Another focuses on food and lodging. Others concentrate on more tedious tasks such as obtaining corporate donations, office supplies and equipment.
The second-year MFA students work on the crew of one another’s movies. That way, FSU students learn every aspect of filmmaking. It also has a practical element because it saves the cost of paying for professionals.
Students are given a $4,500 budget for their film. Many supplement the budgets with their own money — or what they can borrow from family and friends.
At casting sessions filmed in Los Angeles, actor Jeff Torres auditions for a key role. He’s tall and Hispanic, with wavy brown hair. He is from Rancho Cucamonga, a community east of Los Angeles. Bennett is immediately impressed.
“He’s just very compelling,” Bennett said. “Even though I wrote his words, I wanted to see what he would say next.”
Fortunately for Bennett’s limited budget, it was in Tallahassee that he found the actor to play the other main part. Anthony Perez, a senior in Florida State’s undergraduate theater program, is a serious stage and film performer.
Though Bennett’s script is written in English, he was looking for actors who were comfortable with speaking some of the lines in Spanish.
Perez is from Miami, and his father is Cuban. Perez wasn’t as comfortable with Spanish as Torres but played soccer most of his life and was a natural on the field.
“Anthony is a great actor,” Bennett said. “He carries a lot of confidence naturally.”
For Perez, he’s found his dream role.
“I love soccer,” he chirps. “I know what it’s like to struggle … When I thought about their relationship, that’s what made it pop for me.”
Bennett’s story is the tale of two brothers, Herman and Ricardo, who have the chance to play for a professional soccer team. Herman, the older, domineering sibling, believes it’s an irresponsible dream and that they should focus on their careers in home construction. Ricardo, however, pines for the opportunity to play soccer professionally and is eager to abandon his mundane life as a construction worker.
The film’s name: “El Baile” — “The Dance.”
It’s a cool, mid-February morning, and filming is set to start in a few days on Bennett’s movie. At 8 a.m., Bennett knocks on the door of a Betton Hills home. He’s thinking about using the home’s kitchen as the backdrop for an emotional scene.
Joining Bennett is Clay Hassler, the film’s set designer, and Stephen Griffin, the director of photography, along with two first-year students working on last-minute tasks.
Carolyn Smith and a yapping dog greet the crowd at the door. Smith’s kitchen is small and features a working 1950s stovetop and oven. A gleaming stainless steel refrigerator reveals a more contemporary look.
“Clay, this is the kitchen I told you about,” Bennett says. “Obviously the fridge is really nice, and that’s one problem. But I like the cabinetry and the doors. And this stovetop and oven have been around since the ’50s.”
“It’s gorgeous,” Hassler nods.
Bennett shows the students a guest bedroom that might work for another scene.
“I know that kitchen is really nice,” Bennett says.
The problem is Ricardo and Hernan are supposed to be poor construction workers. It wouldn’t be believable if they had a nice house or nice kitchen.
“That concerns me,” Hassler reacts. “It is really, really nice, and it looks like we’re in a house when it’s supposed to be an apartment, right?”
What’s really troubling Bennett is time, or the shortage of it. There are only have a few days remaining to find the perfect set locations.
“I’ll think about it,” Bennett tells Smith of her offer to use her home.
The First Day
It’s 5 a.m. when Lisa Lodico steers her car onto the dirt path that leads into the Forestmeadows Soccer Complex on Tallahassee’s north side. It’s quiet, and the Spanish moss over tree limbs cast creepy shadows on the field.
As producer, it’s Lodico’s job to get food for the actors, crew and extras. She ensures the locations are secured, and that actors, extras and crew are where they are supposed to be. Lodico is a firefighter of sorts, stomping out minor emergencies as they occur.
She already faces a minor crisis. The bathrooms at the soccer complex are locked. No one will have a way to use the restrooms, a plain violation of actors’ union rules that the student filmmakers must observe.
“We have to see to their basic needs,” Lodico explains. Thankfully, a maintenance crew arrives and unlocks the restroom doors.
As the students prepare for a day of shooting soccer scenes, they tug at their thick layers of sweaters, coats and gloves. Even students from Northern states have learned already that days and nights spent outdoors in Tallahassee winters can be grueling.
But the most sympathy goes toward the two main actors, Torres and Perez, who have to shoot scenes in thin shirts and shorts despite the frosty overnight temperatures.
At the start of the first day, Bennett is full of energy and at ease.
The first three days of filming are at Forestmeadows, where Bennett must shoot all of his soccer scenes, or roughly half the movie.
Bennett hovers near Torres and Perez as they play out a scene in which their soccer coach is telling them that managers of professional teams will scout an upcoming game. A tiny color monitor nearby shows what the camera captures. Chris Holcomb, the script supervisor, watches the scene play out next to Bennett. By watching the screen, Bennett is able to see if the lighting is off or an actor’s face is blocked.
“Cut!” Bennett yells. He jogs over to Robert Lumsden, the man playing Coach.
“So, Coach, you’re going to walk in over here,” Bennett motions, showing him where to stand. “Stephen will follow you.”
For this scene, Griffin holds the camera in his hands, like he’s controlling a video-game joystick. It requires concentration. Any slight movement jostles the camera.
The actors take their places. Following all of Bennett’s cues is Matt Ryan, the first assistant director. His job is to make sure the director gets what he wants, and that actors and crew are prepared for each scene. He delivers instructions through a megaphone. A typical scene starts with Bennett quietly telling Ryan that he’s ready.
“Quiet, please, roll sound!” Ryan barks. The actors scramble into place.
As the crew breaks for lunch, Bennett walks toward a folding table filled with snacks. A full-fledged meal is served, donated by a local restaurant.
Now, nearing the end of his first day of filming, Bennett is beaming.
“I’m so happy,” he says. “I’ve never been this happy after the end of a first day.”
The nearly 72 hours of production work at the soccer field is taxing, with filming going well after midnight each night. By Day 4, a Sunday, the crew has moved to a house under construction off Blair Stone Road. The students say that by now they’ve lost all sense of time. Is it Sunday or Thursday? Is it still February? Because the soccer filming the night before didn’t end until 6 a.m., the students have to wait the required 12 hours to start Sunday’s filming. But just because there is a 12-hour break doesn’t mean 12 hours of rest.
“They told us it was 13-hour days,” says Akil DuPont, a key grip whose job it is to help set up the camera and lights for each scene. “A 13-hour day is a short one,” he said. “When I worked as a set designer, it was more like 19- or 20-hour days.”
It’s not just Bennett who is losing sleep. Clay Hassler has spent several days toggling between filming sites and area stores, trying to nail down sets and costumes. Though Hassler has his own thesis film to worry about, he has spent hours preparing for “El Baile.”
He keeps a neat binder filled with sketches of Ricardo and Hernan’s costumes for each scene. He writes down “concept words” for each player to keep track of the colors he has chosen for them to wear.
“Ricardo is passionate,” Hassler says. “I tried to model his wardrobe and color scheme off that word.”
What a character wears may seem minor, Hassler explains, but it can have a big impact on the way a viewer perceives a character.
“The wardrobe informs the story,” he says. “Not as forcefully as the actors’ performances and camera work … but it does inform it.”
Though the graduate students are the whistle-while-we-work type, friction emerges on occasion. Hassler begged a construction-supply company to lend a circular saw and chainsaw to use as props. But Bennett decides against using the equipment at the last minute, instead asking Torres to pretend to install insulation. Hassler, irritated, asks Bennett why he went through the trouble of getting props that wouldn’t be used.
“Yeah, it was annoying,” Hassler later admits. He shrugs and calls it Bennett’s decision.
Last Days of Filming
By Days 5 and 6, the snacks on the craft services table are picked over. The students have moved to their final location, a worn apartment complex off Jackson Bluff Road. They decide against using Smith’s Betton Hills home, choosing instead an apartment to represent the hardworking, low-paid life Ricardo and Hernan lead.
Though the location seems perfect, it presents new challenges. The empty apartment needs furniture. Hassler must rent a truck and bring in a table, couch, bed, chairs and kitchen items to make the apartment look lived in. And it’s on the second floor. Everything gets lugged up and down stairs.
Day 5 is dedicated to filming an important scene in the apartment’s kitchen — a big argument between Ricardo and Hernan that serves as the movie’s emotional peak.
As soon as the kitchen scene is ready to film, Bennett orders all non-essential crew to leave. He wants privacy for the actors. It’s pushing midnight, but the set looks like daylight. The crew has taped paper over the windows and brought in an enormous lamp.
Bennett is convinced this is the key scene of his movie. So to prepare the
actors, he tries a director’s trick: a bit of reverse psychology.
Bennett explains his secret: “It was easier to get what I wanted from (one of the actors) by telling the other (actor) what to do.”
Instead of telling Perez to “act calm,” he tells Torres to calm Perez down.
Bennett decides to lie to Perez about what he wants from him.
“Anthony,” Bennett says, “I want you to be really calm in this scene.”
“I thought you wanted me to be angry,” Perez responds quizzically. “Isn’t that what we discussed?”
“No, I think you’re really calm,” Bennett said.
Confused, Perez follows the director’s suggestion.
Bennett then takes Torres aside. “I want you to do everything in your power to antagonize Anthony,” Bennett prods him.
In this manner, Bennett is giving his actors opposite instructions. One is told to remain calm while the other is encouraged to act like a lunatic.
He hopes to provoke a reaction. It works beautifully.
After the 10th take, Perez explodes.
“He just cracked and was really angry,” Bennett recalls. “It caused him to listen to what Jeff was saying and not really just doing what he had planned in his head.”
By Day 6, the crew is anxious to wrap the shoot and is fighting against waning daylight. Parents are arriving at the apartment with children who have volunteered to act in a scene in which Ricardo plays soccer with kids.
Lodico, aware of the impatient young extras milling about the set, urges Bennett to stop filming in the apartment and work with the children.
Crew members are preparing for the children’s scene when a man in a beard and suit approaches, looking unhappy. It’s Erwin Jackson, the manager of the apartment complex (and also a former candidate for Tallahassee City Commission).
Jackson finds Ryan and begins complaining to him about the filming.
“I got 15 phone calls last night from people who couldn’t find parking spaces,” Jackson says to Ryan. “You need to get out of here.”
The crew freezes. Worried looks are exchanged. Bennett pretends not to notice.
Though Jackson signed a contract giving the students permission to use the apartment for two days, he is angry that they are taking up parking spots. He tells the students they have until 5:30 p.m. to gather their stuff and leave.
In the final hours of filming, Bennett is getting kicked out of his location with no Plan B. Time is wasting, and anxious children and parents are waiting. There’s no truck handy to move the furniture, and Lodico is nowhere to be found.
In the next chaotic minutes, Bennett and Griffin leave with the camera, bringing Torres along in the hopes of filming another short scene before total darkness. They quickly film an improvised scene at a dumpster in an FSU parking lot without any of the appropriate set lighting or other equipment. “I probably won’t even use it,” Bennett said.
The children and their parents are abruptly dismissed. Hassler pulls in with a moving truck. The crew frantically packs up the heavy equipment and furniture. A plan is formed to meet at Lodico’s house, which she shares with Ryan and another film student.
Lodico’s house is affectionately called the “Film School House.” For years, Film School graduate students have rented it, and many students have been filmed there. Near Mission San Luis, the small house is typically decorated inside with movie posters.
All that’s left to shoot is a bedroom scene. Ryan’s bedroom, thankfully,
matches the look of the apartment.
“Don’t make holes in the wall,” Ryan says, pointing to a gash in his bedroom wall made during another filming. Lodico and Ryan are reluctant to turn their home into an impromptu set, but understand more than anyone that the show must go on.
A Rough Cut
Filming of “El Baile” finishes at 2:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.
By Thursday, Bennett and Allison Leger, the film’s editor, meet at The Film School to begin editing. They will have six days to piece together a “rough cut.” The students speak in film jargon, using lingo such as “Eight Bravo” and “Nine Juliet” to refer to scenes.
Holcomb, the script supervisor, and Gloriana Fonseca, an assistant film editor, have taken copious notes on each take of each scene.
For each scene, Bennett typically filmed a wide, medium and close-up version. He also filmed close-ups from different angles, so both Torres and Perez’s faces can be seen when facing one another. From these puzzle pieces, Leger stitches together a film under Bennett’s watchful eye.
“It’s like telling her to paint a picture of a tree, a river and a sun and how to use these colors,” Bennett said of the challenge of editing as a team. “Then she does that when my idea of that picture is so completely different than hers. I want the sun down here, I want the river to go this way and the tree to have these kinds of branches.”
Six days later, Leger and Bennett sit in a screening room at The Film School, waiting for faculty members to watch a rough cut. Bennett observes intently as several faculty members, including Frank Patterson, the Film School dean, view the rough cut. There is no music and no polished touches. The goal is simply to get permission to shoot additional scenes, called pick-ups, in June to plug gaping holes in the film.
Braddock, the associate dean in charge of production, stands and asks the faculty what they think. Bennett isn’t prepared for what he hears — a barrage of criticism.
A Spanish-speaking faculty member says she can tell the accents of the soccer-playing brothers are different, like one is from Puerto Rico and the other isn’t. Another finds their jobs as construction workers hard to believe. Faculty members question whether Ricardo and Hernan are, in fact, brothers at all, because the actors playing them look and sound so different from one another. Worse, faculty members confuse one of the intense soccer moments between Ricardo and Hernan with a dream sequence.
Bennett buries his head in his hands even as faculty members continue to criticize the film. They tell Bennett that there was no victorious moment during the soccer game, and no way to tell how high the stakes of the game are to the main characters.
“I did miss the lyrical beauty of soccer,” Patterson said. “We are just looking at mechanics.”
Bennett and Leger emerge from the screening room shell-shocked.
“That was bad,” Bennett says, looking anguished. After six months of pouring his heart and soul into “El Baile,” he is heartbroken. He had a vision in his mind of how the film should look, but he now painfully realizes that this rough cut doesn’t match that vision.
“I knew what it could have been,” he says afterward.
After a few comforting words from Braddock, Bennett heads solemnly toward the editing room. There is more work to be done … a lot more work.
Fixing the Flaws
Through the rest of the spring semester, Bennett works on other students’ thesis films. Though directing his own movie was emotionally taxing, the months to come are physically draining. During the month of April, Bennett doesn’t take a single day off.
During one brief respite, he recalls the faculty members’ critiques. Are they even brothers? He lies awake at night, pondering how or if he can fix the flaws.
“I decided I was going to do everything I could,” Bennett says. “I read. I watched more movies. I talked to people.”
He finally gets faculty approval to shoot additional scenes in June and flies Torres back to Tallahassee. By now, Bennett has spent his allotted budget and has run out of money. He decides to pay his May rent late in order to purchase Torres’ plane ticket. He will use his summer allotment of financial aid to pay rent.
In the three months that have passed since the filming began, Bennett has decided to focus on better soccer action sequences. He arranges to film Torres and Perez in a real soccer game in Tallahassee, trying to capture genuine excitement and real passion.
He finishes shooting the pick-up scenes at 1 a.m. on a Wednesday. Then Bennett begins a drive to Houston to capture footage of Torres playing for the real-life soccer team the Houston Dynamos. By 4 a.m., Bennett, Griffin, Perez and Torres are piled into Bennett’s small Suzuki XL7, along with a camera and some equipment. They have just enough time to shower before aiming toward Houston on Interstate 10.
“I really pushed the bounds of professionalism just asking them to ride in the car with me for 12 hours,” Bennett says. By 3:30 in the afternoon, they arrive in Houston.
When the students and actors arrive at the Dynamos stadium, they discover a practice jersey laid out for Torres. The students were given permission to film in the stadium and soccer field during a practice and an actual game. Though Torres won’t be involved in any on-field action, they film him in a way that makes it look like he was.
Most of the footage in Houston was unscripted, Bennett says. He had Torres and Perez sit in the stands. In another, he instructs them to kick around a ball on a sidewalk outside a construction site. He films the Houston skyline, deciding the movie is now based there.
“I wanted this idea of his dream coming true, and his brother finally believing his dream was valid,” Bennett says. But Bennett lacks the necessary lighting and other equipment. It is just himself, Griffin and a camera. Bennett will have to take on the roles of dozens of other crew members and hope he gets what is needed.
Back in the editing room, Bennett and a new editor, Jacob Jester, try to make the film look seamless. The soccer scenes shot in February are sprinkled into the ones shot in June to make it seem like it all happened on the same day. Bennett changes the coloring to make it appear warmer than it was in February.
On a rare day when he has an opportunity to take a break from editing, Bennett opts to watch a World Cup soccer match, figuring his mind might need a break.
He gets in his car in the parking lot of The Film School. He puts a key in the ignition.
After pausing, he comes to a decision.
“I’ve sacrificed everything for this movie,” he says. “What am I doing?”
He gets out of the car and returns to the editing room. He sits beside Jester and stays at it for another 10 hours.
“I made a decision to really give this movie everything I had,” he says.
After editing, sound design and sound mixing begin. Bennett finds a film composer. And as luck would have it, he gets a good financial deal — actually, a great deal — on the price for an original score. Once again, Bennett is excited.
“The music makes a huge difference,” he says. “It effects how people emotionally perceive moments.”
It’s the end of July, and Bennett is nearly done with his film.
He has bought a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles with the hope of sleeping on a friend’s couch until he lands a job. He predicts that he will probably work without a salary at first, fetching coffee or making copies.
“I’m willing to work my heart out,” Bennett says. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
His last few days as an MFA student are approaching. He’s working on marketing materials for his film: a film synopsis, a press kit, a poster. He decides to market “El Baile” toward Hispanic audiences and has created a minimalist art design for the poster that portrays only outlines of two young men playing soccer.
The tagline: “What is life without a goal?”
On a muggy August evening, as rain
threatens, graduating seniors of the FSU Film MFA program gather at FSU’s Student Life Cinema. Just seven films are picked to be screened to family, friends and Film School donors. “El Baile” is one of them.
Bennett wears a tie and a suit jacket. His mother, father and sisters have flown in from Tennessee. He leans forward in his seat, scanning the packed room. Actors have flown in from Los Angeles and New York to watch, and each MFA graduating senior has beaming family members clamoring to see the culmination of years of work.
After a short introduction from Patterson, the Film School dean, the lights dim.
On the screen swirls a flame atop a gold torch, The Film School’s official logo.
After the screening of “Waking Eloise,” a thesis film about a young man who uses voodoo magic to wake his girlfriend from the dead, it’s time for “El Baile.”
On screen, the soccer-playing brothers, Ricardo and Hernan, tussle over their differing ambitions. Bennett watches the softly lit faces of the audience. They are focused and still. He takes this as a good sign. The movie appears to grab the audience, hold their attention, build to a climax and let them down gently with a satisfying ending.
Just as he wanted.
As the credits roll and the names of Bennett and the dozens of other film students who made “El Baile” march across the screen, applause erupts.
“It’s a strong piece,” Braddock, the associate dean, says afterward. “For me, one of the most important things about a film is it creates a visceral emotional response. Its message was something we’ve heard or seen before. But emotionally, the way he put that film together, it brings you into it.”
The students are surrounded by well-wishers. Bennett hangs back with his family. He’s one of the last left in the cinema lobby. He savors the moment.
The problems with the movie are “a mile wide,” Bennett says. “But at the same time, there is nothing I would do differently. I did everything I could.”
He walks out of the cinema and into the night. Next stop: Los Angeles.