November 8, 2013

Boots Brings Home the Awards

Television Project by Trojan Grad Hits Festival Circuit

The USC School of Cinematic Arts is known for its ambitious student projects. Students become adept at transforming sound stages and workspaces into alien worlds, haunted houses or, as a young Trojan named George Lucas did for his thesis film THX 1138, an electric labyrinth. Nowhere is this more evident than in Single Camera Television Dramatic Series,the production class that requires students to produce drama pilots. This year, one of the class’ student projects, a drama titled Boots, continued the School’s proud tradition of ambitious set pieces by transforming Stage 4 of the Cinematic Arts Complex into Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

Stage 4 at the USC School of Cinematic Arts during the production of Boots

Headed by recent SCA graduate John Nordlinger ‘13, Boots tells the story of an amnesic veteran who wakes up on Skid Row to find that he is being followed by paramilitary forces. He needs to hear the stories of the people around him so his memory can come back and he can figure out who he really is. The TV pilot recently won best student film at the Burbank Film Festival.

The project attempts to show Skid Row in a more sympathetic light than has been done in the past. “What inspired me was the homeless population on Skid Row,” said Nordlinger. “Originally, I wanted to do a documentary but I felt like we wouldn’t have enough time to get to know the people, that we would be exploiting them. (Professor) Nina Sadowsky suggested I do a narrative and I thought a really nice point of entry to do a story on Skid Row is to have someone there who doesn’t belong there. It was important to me to not show the homeless population as zombies or to reinforce stereotypes. They are people with families. Good people with bad luck or bad choices.”

Los Angeles’ Skid Row is located in downtown Los Angeles, less than two miles from USC’s campus. Despite the massive development money being spent to revitalize the area, roughly two-thirds of the homeless population of Los Angeles occupy Skid Row. One third of them are veterans. When Nordlinger first proposed this project, in 2010, the Los Angeles homeless population was 40,000. Today it is estimated to be 58,000.

Nordlinger described the film as a major learning experience—about the culture and people in the area. “I guess I knew academically about the struggles of the people of Skid Row but I didn’t know experientially,” he said. “If you spend time with these people and really listen to them—which isn’t easy because they’ve had bad experiences with other visitors—they don’t want to be exploited, patronized or preached to. They want to keep to themselves.  It turns out, they’re very interesting people with rich stories and quite a bit to offer society. They’re being cast aside and left on the side of the road.”

Boots was filmed as part of CTPR 479/ 486, which encompassed two semesters of work. The primary filming was done on Stage 4, the Student Services building in SCB and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in the Motion Picture Arts and Science Courtyard.

The drama pilot class, which has been in the curriculum for ten years, was one of the first to teach the fundamentals of episodic television production. “[The Class], was the first of its kind,” said Helaine Head, the Directing Instructor and Class Coordinator. “It used to be the only class of its type in the country. There’s a lot of dramatic television on the air. There are lots of job possibilities. When this class started, there was no way to learn how to be a showrunner besides getting a writing job on a show. We were teaching these skills before anyone else.”

The crew of Boots

The production desitn by student Lila Scott duplicated Skid Row closely enough to fool some of the faculty. “We were watching dailies one day and they were doing an outdoor scene on Skid Row,” said Joe Wallenstein, the Producing Instructor. “Sitting in the screening, I’m thinking “Son of a gun, these guys snuck off campus,” but its done on a stage, the production design was done so well that when you look at the pilot, you can’t tell.”

“This effort has been the highlight of my experience at USC SCA, a privilege and honor to tell the story of the disenfranchised and work with Helaine Head and Michael Cassutt intimately,” said Nordlinger. “Drue Metz—director, co-exectutive producer and ghost writer—was a close collaborator, spending hours with me in skid row, chatting with the inhabitants and capturing B-Roll.”

 In addition to Head, Cassutt, and Wallenstein, Nordlinger worked closely with several other faculty members including Stephen Lovejoy, Michael Provart, Douglas Vaughn, Gary Wagner and Midge Costin.