February 24, 2012

SCA Family Stories: Reed Simonsen

Multi-Telly Award Winner Sits Down with SCA

Creating a student film is no easy undertaking, from gathering location permits to securing qualified actors, to each and every minute detail in between. To meet these conditions is a feat in itself; to go beyond them, remarkable. For USC SCA grad student Reed Simonsen, his recently award-winning student film Molly Goes West exemplifies this admirable effort.

In the following Q&A, Simonsen discusses Molly Goes West, the creative solutions he discovered while filming and his experience with collaborating with fellow SCA students on his ambitious film.

Reed Simonsen '12

Let’s start with your name and graduation year:

My name is Reed Simonsen. Officially, I’ll be graduating in May of 2012. I actually should have graduated a semester before but there were paperwork issues.

This is going out to students, what was the paperwork issue so they know not to repeat it?

Apparently, there was a communications problem between thesis requirements, graduation, faculty mentors and department heads. They all had to verify some paperwork and it got lost in the shuffle. It was nobody’s fault but it turned out I was like, “Where’s my diploma?”

They started typing and said, “Uh oh. There’s a problem. You can petition it,” but I decided just to wait.

The lesson is that, if you’re close to graduation, you need to be diligent with getting your paperwork in order. I wasn’t as diligent as I could have been.

Tell us about the Awards it’s won. What was the film?

My thesis film is called Molly Goes West and it’s a loose historical retelling.  It’s based on events… some actual, some greatly improved. It deals with the pioneer migration from Midwest America out west, particularly Utah. In this case, a young pioneer woman. It’s the trials and triumphs she has along the way. It was my master’s thesis.

I was pleased to discover that it won two Accolades; one for the Actress who played Molly, Christina Kurzius, and one for Student Film. It also won two Telly Awards; one for Film With a Spiritual Message and one for Student Film.

When a student starts out in 507 and 508, they’re told avoid child actors. Avoid period pieces. Avoid filming far away from Los Angeles. How did you get comfortable with these conditions by the time you got to Molly Goes West?

That’s a good question. All along the way from 507 up, I took on challenges gradually. I didn’t get too crazy too quickly. I tried to take on challenges that were possible with what I had.

I worked with a trained pigeon in 507. I worked with a trained cat in 508. In some of the intermediate directing classes - the TV Pilot Class - I tried to add little things. I worked with kids in the pilot class. That sort of thing.

I used the opportunities in the classes to play with different situations.

Do you have any advice to particularly ambitious students?

I do. Every single warning that Joe Wallenstein gave me about potential production problems came to pass. It was amazing [laughter].

He would sit down with me to go through my thesis and say, “these are the potential problems I can see.”

I made notes of them. I was prepared for everything but I honestly didn’t believe that I was going to have as many problems as I did [laughter].

What kind of problems?

Reed on the set of Molly Goes West

For example, the character Molly was pulling a handcart across the open plains. That was something that the pioneers did; particularly poor families that couldn’t afford large wagons that were drawn by ox or horse. A handcart is a glorified wheelbarrow.  They would pull it by human power.

They aren’t terribly heavy but they are cumbersome. A husband and wife would pull it with all their worldly possessions in the back.

Joe asked me, “Are you certain that your actress is going to be able to pull this handcart?”

I thought, “Sure. First of all, we auditioned a whole bunch of actresses and they’re all fairly tough. There wasn’t anything in the handcart but empty cardboard boxes that had a canvas over the top. It was art design. It’s light weight.”

Sure enough, on the first day of filming, she had trouble with the handcart especially when there were rocks or a gentle slope.

Because Joe had warned me, I had a backup plan. I had ropes and PAs. On a couple of occasions, we had to have one of our PAs dress up like Molly and pull the cart. That only worked at a distance.

I didn’t think any of those things were going to be an issue, but everything he warned me about happened and because of the warnings, we were ready.

Were you trying to produce something with a message from the beginning?

I consider myself a storyteller first. I actually will sacrifice images, art or production for story.

I had a wonderful team. All of the key players in the production were USC students. It was an incredible experience. Because of their skills, I put all of my effort into the acting, directing and building of the story.

My DP sweated bullets over making the shots look good. I felt the flavor and the power of the Trojan family. It felt like we were making the film together. I didn’t feel like they were helping me make my film. It felt like we were making our film.

That makes a big difference.

Huge. I didn’t have to micro-manage. We all knew the plan. We shared a common vision. So it was a matter of cutting people loose and they would come back and say, “I think we should do this because it fits with that. We should do this because it mixes with that.”

In contrast with that, last June, I directed a short film with a bunch of non-USC people. I really got to see the difference between USC students and other schools in general.

The piece was fine but the level of frustration and lack of professionalism were shocking to me.

What’s the one lesson from SCA that you find yourself relying on while you are making films?

I guess I keep falling back on Joe [Wallenstein] and his mantra of “safety first.”

That’s one of Joe’s primary lessons.

It is. That was one. There were quite a few situations where we could have had a “production disaster” but we pulled back and found a safe way to accomplish what we needed.

When I sat down with my mentor [SCA Professor] Amanda Pope, she was going over the script and the challenges and, in the end, she said, “You’ve got several distant locations, a period piece and animals. Quite a few animals. Good for you. Go make it happen.”

That stuck with me. It was her encouragement to go and make it work that kept me going. We did. We “made it happen.”

"Making it Happen"  on set

Many times I relied on [SCA Professor] Helaine Head. I took her television pilot class. She taught me the nuts-and-bolts of how to react when your times is up, you’re stressed, the actors aren’t doing what you need them to do, you can’t think clearly… just fall back on your core principles. That was a great lesson I’ve used many times.

There were days when we had the perfect plan and then everything fell apart. I would hear Helaine saying, “Do A to B to C. Get through the day.”

What’s next for you and your team?

Wonderful things. I’m in negotiations to direct my first feature. I hope it works out. There’s bumps and hurdles to overcome but it seems like we are on the right track.

I just returned from Midvale, Utah where I filmed a pilot for a reality show that is being edited by some USC alumni. We have two production companies that want to see it. Hopefully that will progress to the next step.

I have a couple of scripts out there and I’m writing a feature with an actor friend that we are going to take to a manager in a few months. It’s a start.