June 11, 2020

A Tale of Two Siblings: A Soldier in Iraq and a USC School of Cinematic Arts Student Reunite Halfway

By Chandrea Miller

On tour of duty in Iraq, Army specialist Seth Holbrook watches his sister’s SCA film finale screening

When the pandemic hit, USC senior Madison Holbrook was a month away from finishing her film for the School of Cinematic Art’s CTPR-480 class. It is an advanced production course where undergraduate students create four 12-minute films, from script to screen, in just 15 weeks.

“Who would have thought a pandemic would come in the middle of production?” Holbrook said. “We had just started post production and that’s when we had to go our separate ways.”

Brenda Goodman, Professor of Practice of Cinematic Arts, who has taught this film-making class for over two decades, reached out to her 40-plus students following the move to online instruction. Her message was simple--“We’re going to keep going and we’ll figure it out.”

Professor Brenda Goodman hosting the virtual screening for her Cinema 480 students/Photo Courtesy Brenda Goodman

Professor Goodman and the school supplied the editors and sound mixers with laptops and online editing programs to finish their short films: You Missed a Spot, The Order, Straw Man, and Spit It Out Margot, which was produced by SCA Film and Television major Madison Holbrook.

“It is really competitive, everyone wants to be able to be a producer, director, or have their script chosen,” Holbrook said. “But in the end, only four films will be selected.”

The selection of Holbrook’s film would prove to be history in the making. It was the first-ever all-female and non-conforming production in the history of SCA’s 480 class--the longest running production course at USC.

“Everyone, all the way down to our PA’s,” Holbrook said. “It wasn’t really intentional, like no boys allowed, it just happened that way.”

Holbrook said the biggest hurdle in finishing their film was the loss of in-person communication, but she said she was determined to keep communication open because filmmaking is, above all else, collaborative. 

“I would go on Zoom calls with the editor as she was editing to mimic the idea that I was there,” Holbrook said. “The biggest takeaway was adaptability—I learned you’ve just got to roll with the punches.”

Against all odds, all of the students finished their films by graduation and in time for their official film school screening. However, unlike previous years where screenings were held in-person at Cinema’s Norris Theatre with students and their families--this year, it would be a virtual screening.

“Of course, I was upset that we couldn’t have an in-person screening,” Holbrook said. “Then I thought, maybe this is an opportunity.”

Madison and Seth together at home in Loudon, New Hampshire, the night before she left for USC

An opportunity for her brother Seth Holbrook, an Army specialist currently serving in Iraq, to attend the screening. Since joining the military in 2012, he had missed most of his sister’s major milestones including her high school graduation and all of her USC events.

“He’s never been able to see any of my film projects,” Holbrook said. “I remember texting him, knowing he’s on an army base in the middle of nowhere, to see if he could make the virtual screening—this time, he said he could.”

There was one caveat: the screening had to happen precisely at 2:30pm on Sunday, May 17, 2020, due to the soldier’s regimented military schedule. 

Now it was up to Professor Goodman and the rest of the students to agree to that date and time to hold the screening. Some of the other students were living in other parts of the world with potentially conflicting time zones, including China, Finland, Hawaii, Sweden, Singapore and Thailand. 

“I put the proposition out to the class and, universally, they said, ‘Yes--we want to make this work for Madison, and we want to make this work for Seth,’” Goodman said. “I just couldn’t believe it, it made me want to cry. We know positive things will come out of this global stop and this was certainly one of them.”

Madison, who hasn’t seen her brother since July 2019, said it was an emotional moment to have her brother join in the screening.

“He finally got to see something of mine and I’m just so happy,” Holbrook said. “He was texting me through the screening and sending Snapchats saying, ‘I love you, I’m so proud of you.’’’

Army specialist Seth Holbrook said his sister has done everything possible to set herself up for success

Army specialist Seth Holbrook watching Cinema Spring 2020 Virtual Screening at army base in Iraq/Photo Courtesy Seth Holbrook) (Madison Holbrook watching her finale film screening from her apartment in Los Angeles/Photo Courtesy Madison Holbrook

“When you see her final work, not only does she love this work, but she is great at it too,” Holbrook said. “She has grown up so much in these past four years of her schooling and she has all the potential in the world to be successful in this industry. I couldn’t be prouder of my sister and I can’t wait to see what she does in her career.”

Madison said without the supportive community of her close-knit classmates and Professor Goodman, it would not have been possible.

Brenda Goodman and Madison Holbrook chatting during the virtual screening/Photo Courtesy Madison Holbrook

“Brenda was so supportive,” Holbrook said. “She was helping us every step of the way and has always been our number one support in the class.”

Professor Goodman said it was simply what filmmakers do: they collaborate and recognize the power of story being shared with everyone—even with a soldier on an army base halfway around the world.

Army Specialist Seth Holbrook watching the virtual screening of his sister’s film/Photo Courtesy Seth Holbrook

“Not only do we need film to be entertained and distracted a little bit, but we need it to think beyond what is immediately around us and understand the larger condition of life,” Goodman said. “That’s the job of a storyteller—these kids are storytellers.”

And future filmmakers.

“Their level of artistry and talent was always evident,” Goodman said. “But after they went into quarantine, they became so much more nimble. The fact that they could accomplish this in such a polished way and prove themselves in this environment—they will be a great asset to the film industry.”

USC Students and families watching the CTPR-480 Spring 2020 Virtual Screening from around the world/Photo Courtesy Cinema student, Andrew Leist

Holbrook said she definitely grew as a producer during this unprecedented time.

“I loved my last semester at USC,” Holbrook said. “It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it still turned out okay and here we are--we just screened our film, and everyone loved it, including my brother, and it was just positive in the end.”