January 10, 2012

The Wonderful Women of SCA

By Cristy Lytal, InMotion

Kellee Santiago, Jennifer Au, Cassie Brooksbank, Leslie Iwerks, Dean Elizabeth M. Daley, Melissa Rosenberg and Erin Levy

Stacey Sher produces films that make waves — titles ranging from The Fisher King to Pulp Fiction, from Erin Brockovich to Contagion. But on the set of Gattaca, Sher herself was stirring the waters.

“It was a lower budget science fiction film, and we didn’t have the equipment that was going to make waves,” she said. “So I was lying on the side of the pool, moving a kickboard to make enough waves for the shot. Those are the great moments, when you just pitch in, and you do whatever needs to be done.”

Making a splash comes naturally to the remarkable alumnae of the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) — including Stacey Sher, Melissa Rosenberg, Erin Levy, Leslie Iwerks, Kellee Santiago, Susan Vaill, Jennifer Au, Nicola Marsh, Liz Blazer, Chera Kee and Cassandra Brooksbank.

“This is an amazing group of women, and they’re enormously generous with their time to young women coming up behind them,” said SCA Dean Elizabeth M. Daley. “I feel so good knowing that these women are out there to help support the next generation coming in. These women are just the perfect role models.”

Sher — a self-professed “movie geek” from an early age — first heard about SCA’s Peter Stark Producing Program as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland.

“The program was three years old when I first came, and we started out in the very old building — the portables or the bungalows,” she said. “And it’s not that I couldn’t have learned what I learned anywhere else by starting in an entry-level job; it’s just that it would have taken me a decade to have the overview and have the access to the people with real-world experience that were successful in their fields.”

Sher proved her eye for good material early on when she brought the script for Adventures in Babysitting to the attention of her then-bosses Debra Hill and Lynda Obst. Since then, she’s collaborated with visionary filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Richard LaGravenese.

“Women’s instincts are always to bring everybody together, so that’s why producing is a really great job for women,” she said. “It’s part camp counselor, part mom — taking care of everybody’s booboos and just making sure everybody’s happy and productive and moving forward. It’s a great life filled with adventure and learning.”

Chera Kee concurs, particularly if the learning involves zombies. An assistant professor of film and new media at Wayne State University, Kee credits her father for her spooky research interests.

“He really loves cheesy 1950s horror,” she said, laughing. “And so it was nothing when I was three years old to sit me down and be like, ‘Let’s watch Them! and The Killer Shrews and The Giant Behemoth. ”

After earning a master’s degree in Chinese literature and history from Harvard University, Kee enrolled in SCA’s Ph.D. in critical studies to explore Asian cinema. During a father-daughter outing to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, she wondered aloud where all the “old-school zombies” had gone, and her father encouraged her to ask her professors.

“Before I knew it,” she said, “I was writing an entire dissertation on zombies. I would have never dreamed that I could do anything other than Chinese language film, and now I teach a horror class and intro to film, and I’m hoping to teach a documentary class. And that’s all because of what I learned at USC. It really opens up your avenues of what is possible.”

Literary manager Jennifer Au has equally fond memories of her dad sitting her down to watch classic television and movies ranging from I Love Lucy to Taxi. She majored in critical studies at SCA, and after graduation, she worked for a film sales and production company, a management company, an agency and an author.

“I am a huge reader, and I love being creative,” she said. “And I need the business side of things as well. So I just thought, What about working in literary management?”

She interviewed with alumna Jennifer Levine at Untitled Entertainment, where she still works today.

“You have an incredible opportunity graduating from USC,” she said. “This is the Trojan Family. And it’s fantastic to have that network here as a woman and also just as a graduate of the program.”

Editor Susan Vaill also enjoys a close working relationship with an alumna, Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes.

“I remember one day hearing Shonda and another producer say, ‘What do you think [about the music]?’ I turned around at my Avid, and I realized they were looking at me,” said Vaill. “That belief that they have in me creates a lot of loyalty, so I’ve stayed with the show for eight years now, and I’ve cut over 40 episodes.”

After majoring in art history at Williams College, Vaill worked at an interactive television company before earning her M.F.A. in production at SCA. She likes to tell directors that her editing bay is “the room where we try things.”

Vaill experiments outside of the editing bay, too, and she’s currently directing the documentary My Evil Twin. She’s also participating in the ABC DGA minority shadowing program and will be directing her first episode of Grey’s Anatomy in January.

“In Hollywood, I’m a woman, and I am a huge minority,” she said. “It’s really important as women to foster some sisterhood and support of each other.”

As a woman in the gaming industry, Kellee Santiago is also in the minority, “which helps you stand out in a crowd,” she joked. As the co-founder of thatgamecompany, she’s also in “a position to help create more diverse teams in game making.”

With a father who worked in software, Santiago grew up as a gamer. After earning her undergraduate degree in theatre from New York University, she enrolled in the SCA interactive media M.F.A. program with the intention of creating multimedia stage performances. Her plans changed when she, classmate Jenova Chen and a student team created the online game Cloud.

“You play as this boy who’s trapped in a hospital and daydreams that he can fly through the clouds,” she said. “It’s a really simple game, but the response was incredible. Within a week, it had been tipped up on G4’s Attack of the Show, and we were getting hundreds of thousands of downloads. We crashed the school servers. That was my departure from the theatre and embracing of digital distribution because of its reach.”

It also inspired Santiago and Chen to found their company “to create games that communicate emotions that aren’t commonly explored in the videogame marketplace,” she said.

Liz Blazer embarks into equally unusual emotional territory in her whimsical animated documentaries, such as Backseat Bingo, which looks at senior sexuality.

After majoring in fine art at Skidmore College, Blazer worked as a mixed media artist.

“While working in the studio, I just literally saw my still images moving,” she said. “I realized at that moment that I always loved animation.”

She started working in the Israeli animation business on projects including the Palestinian-Israeli Sesame Street before pursuing her M.F.A. in animation at SCA.

She currently teaches at Kean University in addition to making animated documentaries including Food Court Diaries and Bridezillas. She also lends her talents to books for children with learning disabilities, and she recently designed an online game.

“USC enhanced my goals and my ability,” she said.

Writer Melissa Rosenberg also credits USC with upping her skills and saavy.

After studying dance at Bennington College, Rosenberg worked for a producer and realized that “television and films were written, and you can actually do this for a living.”

As an M.F.A. student in SCA’s Stark program, Rosenberg forged lifelong friendships and learned how to write production-friendly scripts.

“It’s understanding that if I say ‘and then Atlanta burns’ [like it does in ‘Gone with the Wind’] that we’re talking about millions of dollars and several weeks of shooting and thousands of extras,” she said. “It’s helped me work really well with production.”

She’s put that knowledge to the test writing Dexter and the Twilight films. She also plans to launch Tall Girls Productions, “because I’m six foot, basically,” she said, laughing. “My goal is to write and produce television and film and to create — not exclusively — complex, interesting roles for women in front of and behind the camera. I’m interested in the female Iron Man and the female Tony Soprano.”

Rosenberg has promoted gender equality as a member of the Writers Guild of America Diversity committee and co-founder of the League of Hollywood Women Writers. She encourages women to stay tough and, in her words, “just go for it.”

“You take a lot of hits in this industry,” she said, “and the question is: can you take a punch, and can you pick yourself up off the floor? Being tenacious is what we all need.”

British-born cinematographer Nicola Marsh embodies this quality. As a student, she recognized and tirelessly pursued the opportunities she had at SCA.

“For a cinematographer, access to that many ambitious directors that need somebody to shoot their content is just completely unparalleled,” said Marsh, who did her undergraduate work at Bristol University and shot news for NBC before earning her M.F.A. in production at SCA. “I came out of USC with a real reel that I could show to people.”

Since then, Marsh has shot narrative features and documentaries, including the Emmy-nominated Troubadours about James Taylor and Carole King.

“Shoot everything,” she said. “Kiss as many frogs as you can. You never know which one’s going to turn into a prince.”

Erin Levy, who won an Emmy at age 26 for her writing on Mad Men, offers analogous advice.

“Keep writing,” she said. “You never know when you’re going to be in a position to be able to show it to someone or do something with it. I am driven to write. It is a 24/7 job.”

In elementary school, Levy dreamed of becoming a novelist. When she was in high school, her father, Emmy-nominated television writer Lawrence Levy, suggested that she enroll in a USC summer screenwriting seminar, which shifted her interests to writing for the screen.

As an undergraduate at SCA, she took a rewriting class with alumnus Matthew Weiner. Years later, when he was looking for a writer’s assistant for his show Mad Men, he called Levy, who quickly earned a promotion to writer.

Her favorite Mad Men character is Peggy Olson, who rises through the ranksof the advertising agency under the mentorship of creative director Don Draper.

“There have been parallels drawn to the fact that Don promoted this woman who started off as a secretary, and Matt promoted me when I was a writer’s assistant,” said Levy. “I also love the idea that she is a woman who, although the word feminism didn’t quite exist, is going after what she wants and is a feminist.”

Like Levy, director and producer Leslie Iwerks always had a passion for entertainment.

“My grandfather [Ub Iwerks] was the creator of Mickey Mouse, and my dad worked at the Disney studio for 35 years,” she said. “They’ve got their two Oscars on the mantle side by side, and I hope to add a third some day.”

After graduating from the SCA production program, Iwerks made a feature documentary about her grandfather called “The Hand Behind the Mouse” for Disney. An old friend and close collaborator of Walt Disney,Ub Iwerks experimented with sketches of frogs, dogs, cats, cows and horses before creating Mickey Mouse.With his lightning quick pencil, he would sometimes complete up to 700 drawings a day. He also invented cutting-edge technology and developed classic Disney theme park attractions such as “It’s a Small World.”

After completing this tribute to her grandfather, Leslie Iwerks made the Oscar-nominated Recycled Life about the people living in the Guatemala City dump, the Emmy-nominated The Pixar Story, and the recently Oscar nominated Pipe Dreams about the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

“I like to inspire through filmmaking, and documentaries are a great way to do that,” she said. “They allow me to meet really good and interesting people all over the world and dig into subjects that are important.”

No matter where her filmmaking adventures take her, she always stays in touch with the Trojan Family.

“I really like the people at USC,” she said. “What Dean Daley has done for that school has been extraordinary. I believe in the school, and I know what it’s done for me. So I like to give back in the ways that I can.”

Just graduated alumna Cassandra Brooksbank has already had a chance to give back to her alma mater. Originally admitted to USC as a history major, Brooksbank earned her acceptance into the SCA production program after applying five times.

“I'm pretty persistent,” she said.

Meanwhile, she worked at the student-run television station Trojan Vision, where she volunteered to direct promotional videos that led to assignments from SCA itself, including her award-winning “Dean Daley Tribute Video.”

“That video was my love letter to the cinema school,” she said. “I got in depth with all the history of the cinema school and why it's so important to be at USC and what the dean's done for the school. I jump at opportunities like that.”