January 7, 2019

SCA Family Stories: Stu Pollard '95

The Producer of Rust Creek on his Time Inside and Outside of USC

Alumni Jen McGowan, Stu Pollard, and Julie Lipson

Stu Pollard is a Trojan in more ways than one. The Trojan family is a blend of students, faculty, staff, supporters, parents, and alumni who come together to make one of the best film schools in the world (number one according to the Hollywood Reporter.) Pollard graduated with his MFA in 1995 and returned to his alma mater to teach film production years later.

Most recently, Pollard has been running his independent film company Lunacy Productions which screened their film Rust Creek at USC on the 6th of December in advance of a January 4th theatrical and VOD release via IFC Midnight. Lunacy is a Trojan Family affair and SCA Family stories sat down with Pollard to chat about his journey.

For more information on Rust Creek, please visit: https://www.rustcreekthefilm.com/watch-at-home/

SCA: Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name and title? SP: My name is Stu Pollard and I'm the producer of the new film Rust Creek. I'm an alum and faculty at the University of Southern California and Film Independent. In the Spring, I’m co-teaching a class at USC called Organizing Creativity: Entertainment Industry Decision Making.

Tell me about Rust Creek. Rust Creek is a film directed by fellow USC alum Jen McGowan and written by USC alum Julie Lipson. It’s a survival thriller about a college senior who’s got the world on a string, but in a matter of moments, falls from that perch of youthful invulnerability and is fighting for her life in the frozen woods of rural Kentucky.

Rust Creek is available on VOD: https://www.rustcreekthefilm.com/watch-at-home/

The movie was produced through your company Lunacy. Can you tell me about that? Lunacy has been the moniker of my creative endeavors for the better part of twenty-five years. The current iteration was founded a little over three years ago to get away from the "one at a time" feature film model which is insanely challenging. Emphasis on insane.

The new model allows us to run more like a mini studio - we have an allowance for overhead, we selectively invest in other projects, and we develop our own material. The basic idea is to avoid having all our eggs in one basket.

Our Director of Development is Harris McCabe, who is also an alum (and a former student). He’s a gifted writer himself and he works directly with a wide variety of screenwriters on all the projects in our slate, many of which have strong USC ties. While we’ve been involved with several films that have been released recently, including And Then I Go and This Is Home, Rust Creek is the first we’ve completed that we developed and produced completely in house.

How did your relationship with Julie come together? I met Julie when she was a senior at Middlebury College and I was guest lecturing and screening a film I directed called Keep Your Distance. We kept in touch after she graduated and moved to LA. She started sending me short scripts she was working on and I remember always liking what I read. She went on to go to USC. Julie on to attend the USC Screenwriting program and as she was finishing up, I was starting to teach 507. We met at the SCA Coffee Bean and when she told me she didn’t have concrete plans post graduation I asked her if she’d be interested in writing something for hire. I pitched her a story about a young person’s first extended brush with mortality and Julie ran with it. Years later, that became Rust Creek.

So this film was born at USC? It was bred, born, and practically reared at USC. There are a lot of USC connections. If I hadn't started teaching here, Lunacy and Rust Creek wouldn't exist. The opportunity to teach came at an ideal time. The business had taken a pretty good toll on me and I wasn’t sure I was going to keep at it. But getting into teaching was life changing. I learned some things as well of course, including that I had knowledge and experience that a younger generation could benefit from.

And the great thing about film is that, in many respects, as soon as your students leave your classroom they become your creative peers. That’s part of the energy that fueled me to get back in the game. And many of those connections made with former students blossomed into meaningful professional collaborations on Rust Creek.  Alexandra Jensen was our storyboard artist and post super, Daniel LeVine our assistant editor, Chateau Bezerra our VFX supervisor, Derek Sepe one of our sound mixers.

And of course beyond those SCA connections, there’s also co-producer Nick Bertelsen, executive producer Brian Zager, sound mixer Kari Barber, and then the most important USC connection of all.

Rust Creek’s director Jen McGowan. Exactly. The script wouldn’t exist without Julie. The film doesn’t get made without Jen. Between myself (mid 90’s), Jen and her classmates from the mid 00’s (editor David Hopper, sound designer Gabe Serrano), and all the recent grads and current students who’ve worked on the film, it’s like we had three generations of SCA alums on our crew.

You told me that you knew Jen was a unique talent from the very beginning. Why did you hire her to direct the film? Passion. She loved the material. It was evident when she got back to us after reading the script and it remains clear to this day. She has always been incredibly enthusiastic about this project. And it wasn’t never just lip service. She also brought on tons of talented people to work on this and she inspires everyone to give their very best effort. And on long, cold days in the middle of nowhere, that’s what you need from your leader.

Jen is an inspiration in so many ways. It’s hard to know where to start. She is the hardest working person I've ever met in film. We're two years in and she's working as hard as she did when she first signed on. She’s always thinking ahead. Always anticipating. She remains incredibly committed to this film even though she’s got a lot of other plates spinning.

USC has a strong DIY/low budget alumni base. It even has a class taught by Jason Squire on DIY filmmaking, now. What’s been your experience in that world? Mostly good. But it is not for the faint of heart. The upside is you have a lot of control over what you do - when you are fortunate enough to secure financing. The flipside is that you have also a lot responsibility too. Reporting obligations, tax reporting, ROI, etc. You are not just a filmmaker anymore, you are also an entrepreneur.

To a certain extent, it’s easier now because your dollar goes so much further and you literally have instant access to worldwide distribution via the internet. But it’s also more difficult because there is so much content out there and monetization is challenging to say the least.

But the bottom line is my colleagues and I have gotten to make a lot of things and work with a lot of great people. And over the last few years especially, we’ve been able to create a lot of meaningful opportunities for young people trying to get a start in this business.

Is there anything you learned as a student or a teacher that you find yourself going back to over and over? Something I learned as a student, and that was consistently reinforced to me as a teacher, was the importance of a good reputation. One of the most rewarding developments in my classes was an idea that originated with a student (Jon Yon Kondy), who thought it might be helpful for his peers to get some tips from students who were a semester ahead. To hear about their experience, how to navigate 508 trio dynamics, line up internships, you name it. Not in a large, formal setting. But in their familiar classroom setting with just a few other people who could talk openly and honestly. What started then as basically a “508 preview” evolved a few years later into an end of semester panel than spanned everything from 508 to 546 to how to land your first job.

But the point of this long story is to answer your question: Every single one of those end of semester panels, which was always made up of different groups of students and alums, always ended up focusing a great deal of time on the importance of reputation. It determines how you are perceived at USC, and in many ways how successful you will be once you graduate. Your reputation sticks with you. So how you act now matters. How you treat people now matters. So work hard. Show up on time. Do what you say you're gonna do. Be accountable. Own your mistakes. Share your successes. And ultimately walk out of here with a sterling reputation. That’s the best way to maximize the potential of this significant investment you’re making in yourself.

Rust Creek opened theatrically and VOD via IFC Midnight on January 4th.