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Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee discuss Wreck-It Ralph PDF Print E-mail
Written by CUE Editor   
Thursday, 07 February 2013 09:20

Columbia MFA graduates Phil Johnston (FILM '04) and Jennifer Lee (FILM '05) launched into the big leagues of animated feature films this fall with the release of Wreck-It Ralph, the hit they penned for Disney about an arcade-game villain who decides he's sick of being the bad guy. The movie has been successful both at the box office and with critics, garnering an Oscar nomination for best animated film. Phil and Jenn have also been nominated for an Annie award for best writing in an animated feature production. The two took time to answer some of our questions about their paths from Columbia to Hollywood, and how working in animation differs from live-action.

CUE: What was your path from graduating to writing Wreck-It Ralph? How did you decide to team up on this script?

PJ: About a year out of Columbia, I sold a movie and a TV show and had financing for a movie I was going to write and direct. The movie didn't get made, the show didn't get made and the financing fell apart. Hooray! In the following years, I finally got a movie made (Cedar Rapids) and a TV show (Ghosts/Aliens, which never aired). I came onto Wreck-It Ralph in 2009 after meeting with the director, Rich Moore. He and I worked alone for about nine months, figuring out the characters and the story. Then the rest of the story team (the artists who draw the initial story boards) was put together, led by a guy named Jim Reardon-- a crazily talented dude who knows more about comedy films than can be considered healthy.

Interview With Allegiance Filmmakers, Mike Connors and Sean Mullin PDF Print E-mail
Written by CUE Editor   
Tuesday, 04 December 2012 01:17

Writer/director Michael Connors (FILM ‘06) and producer Sean Mullin (FILM ‘06) recently collaborated on their debut feature film, Allegiance an independently produced military thriller starring Seth Gabel, Pablo Schreiber, Shad “Bow Wow” Moss and Aidan Quinn. Connors and Mullin are both graduates of the MFA Film program and longtime collaborators. Both have military backgrounds, which connected them to the material and to a network of veterans and ex-military who helped the project get off the ground. Allegiance was acquired by XLrator Media and will be released On Demand in December and theaters in January. You can view the trailer here.

CUE: Congrats on gaining distribution for Allegiance, which is also just beginning its festival run. Can you tell us the plan for the film’s release?

Sean Mullin: Our film was picked up for distribution after we premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in June. Our distributors have found that the best way to release an independent film these days is to compress the three major platforms – Theatrical, VOD and DVD – into one tight window. This not only maximizes awareness for our film, but it also allows us to keep our P&A costs at a reasonable level. Our premium VOD release is scheduled for December 7th, our limited theatrical is planned for December 28th through January 4th and our DVD will follow on January 15th. We’ve also just partnered with an International Sales Agent and – assuming our projections for both domestic and international sales hold – we’re on pace to return all of our investors’ equity, along with a solid profit.

You two have been working together on this project for a long time. When did you start collaborating? Was it your common military backgrounds that first brought you together, or your approaches to filmmaking and storytelling? How has the collaborating process worked over multiple projects?

SM: Our similar Army backgrounds definitely helped bring us together, but we also have a very close mutual friend – Brian Reidy – who introduced us right around the time we were beginning the MFA program at Columbia. We weren’t in the same class, but we worked on all of our major projects together. I produced Mike’s thesis film (Recalled) and Mike was the cinematographer for the three films I wrote and directed, including my thesis (Sadiq). Our creative sensibilities aren’t completely the same, but there’s enough overlap that we’re really able to help push each of our projects in the right direction.

Michael Louis Hill (Film ‘09) PDF Print E-mail
Written by CUE Editor   
Tuesday, 04 December 2012 00:56

HaloSince graduating from Columbia, Michael Louis Hill has edited an indie feature, reality TV, commercials, and music videos, but he caught his big break this spring editing the webseries Halo 4: Forward unto Dawn, the largest budget webseries Microsoft has ever produced.  Below, Mike tells us about how he got the job, what his typical day was like, and how his Columbia education has helped him become the successful editor he is today.

"After Graduating from Columbia I moved back home to California but quickly joined up with a few classmates to make a feature film.  We traveled from Kansas City to Vegas shooting along the way.  I spent a few months on the east coast cutting the film with director Joe Saunders  (FILM ‘10) and then moved to Los Angeles.  After learning A TON working in the reality TV world for about 6 months I caught a huge break when a friend of mine put my name forward to be an editor on Bryan Singer's web series- H+: The Digital Series.  The director of that show, Stewart Hendler, then got hired to make the live action web series Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and hired me as his editor.

Interview with JAMES PONSOLDT PDF Print E-mail
Written by CUE Editor   
Thursday, 01 November 2012 01:22
Since graduating with his MFA in 2005, independent filmmaker James Ponsoldt has directed the acclaimed feature Off the Black, starring Nick Nolte; developed his screenplay for Refresh, Refresh through the Sundance Labs, then turned it into a graphic novel; directed a short documentary and contributed to Filmmaker Magazine.

His most recent project, the indie feature Smashed, stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul. Smashed premiered to great reviews at Sundance, was picked up by Sony Pictures Classic and hit theaters in on October 12th. 

For information on where the film is playing and to see the trailer, please visit the web site

How did you come up with the idea for Smashed? 

This film started as a conversation with my friend, Susan Burke, who became my co-writer on Smashed. Susan is sober, open about her struggles with alcoholism, and how she started AA meetings in her early 20s. One night we chatted about stupid things we’d both done while drunk. While sharing stories, we realized we had never seen a film that dealt with substance abuse in these terms: a story that tackled the issue in a way that was believable, but also real and funny. There was always an otherness about those films. Those characters were usually older, and the stories dealt with impact of their substance abuse on their friends and families. They weren’t stories where you went and enjoyed living in the film; they were stories – sometimes great ones – that left you feeling punished. We wanted to do something else. Once we started talking about it, the idea just became something I couldn’t get out of my head. 

Susan’s stories were both funnier and more upsetting than anything I’d seen captured in films. She knew the ins and outs of the 12 steps, and she had a lot of personal experience to draw on. I knew this was something that would only work if we wrote it together, because to tell this story in broad strokes, without the specificity that Susan brought, would have been a disservice to the subject. Smashed is fictional, of course, but Susan’s perspective lent a critical authenticity to the project.

This is the first time I’d collaborated on writing with anyone, but it felt like the obvious and natural progression. 

How did you decide this was the project you wanted to direct after the success of Off the Black?

There are a lot of stories I’m interested in telling, and after Off the Black I took another project, called Refresh, Refresh and based on an award-winning short story, through the Sundance lab. Moving forward with it was going to be tricky, for a lot of reasons. Small human dramas aren’t the easiest things to finance, and this one featured teen boys and violence and a setting in the high desert of central Oregon. It became clear it would be a slow process.

When the idea for Smashed came along, we just decided we wanted to write it in a way that money wouldn’t be an obstacle. We set it specifically in neighborhoods in northeast Los Angeles, knowing we could make it ourselves on a micro-budget if needed. Then, as it turned out, the project developed into something that connected with others very quickly and we were able to bring onboard producers and financiers. 

Was it any easier making movie number two? What elements were most challenging? 

Well, there was no more time. More time would be a luxury, but time is money. In fact, Smashed had fewer shooting days – 18 days. All the movies I’ve made have been done at a dead sprint, with no wiggle room whatsoever. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating. The schedule forces you to be very disciplined. But my goal is always to be as laid back as possible on set because that’s how you remain more open to random happy accidents. It’s easy to pre-plan everything and get locked into a concept. I do prep a shot list. But when the day comes, you have to roll with the punches and embrace what the world is giving you, and sometimes the shot list goes out the window. I guess, with the second feature, I’m getting better at that, at not getting stressed out when things change and don’t go according to plan. I’ve also been lucky so far.

How do you work with cast and crew?

I don’t do traditional rehearsal with actors. I have lots of very long conversations with the actors. Months’ worth. About the characters, about going to AA meetings, but not about “in this scene, do this.”

I knew this kind of performance would require a lot of trust. Especially since, once we got on set, there would be lots of stress, and things would change, but I wanted my actors to know they could go stranger, deeper, more spontaneous; that they had the freedom to do or try anything. The conversations were about developing that trust, and finding a level of synchronicity at every single beat.

As far as crew, I think the key is finding people to work with whom you respect and trust. Surround yourself with brilliant people who make you look smarter and more talented than you are, and then give them lots of autonomy and love their choices.

Do you work with a different crew on each project, or do you have frequent collaborators?

I’ve worked with different people. Logistics dictate that, to a large degree, I put together the team one project at a time, starting from scratch. And there’s definitely something nice about having different collaborators, because they each add different colors. That said, I’ve really liked the people I’ve worked with and hope to work with them again eventually.

How did you keep practicing and developing your directing craft between Off the Black and Smashed?

Well, I was developing another project, which when it didn’t go forward right away as a film, we turned into a graphic novel. And I did some short films – a short documentary and a PSA for a great non-profit. I’ve also been writing for Filmmaker magazine, doing these director interviews, which has been a great way to stay connected to the film community and champion films I love. It’s also a great way to learn how other projects and filmmakers work. I can wonder how another director might tackle something, and then actually get a chance to ask Paul Thomas Anderson or Werner Herzog what they did when I interview them. 

What have you been up to since wrapping Smashed?

I’ve been promoting it, but I also went almost right into another film, an adaptation of a young adult novel by Tim Tharp called The Spectacular Now. This was another first for me: I didn’t write the script, and it’s the first time I’ve directed something I didn’t write. In fact, it had a life that far pre-dated me. Marc Webb, who directed (500) Days of Summer, was going to do it but then he got the Spiderman movie. So some producers who’d seen Smashed at Sundance and loved it sent me the script. I really wasn’t looking to direct someone else’s script, but this was the most honest story I’d ever read about adolescence and I wanted to be involved. 

In terms of what’s coming up next, The Spectacular Now will do the festival rounds, and I’m developing a few new projects. Some are very much indie in size and scope, but there’s also a bigger project, a science fiction thing, that could come together. 

Do you work with any of your Columbia classmates? Does the Columbia connection play any other part in your filmmaking these days?

I haven’t worked with my classmates, but I hang out with many of them out here in Los Angeles. We play poker together, and exchange script drafts. They give the smartest and toughest notes on scripts!

Having met people that went to a lot of other graduate film schools, I just feel really grateful for the quality of peers and teachers in the program. I feel like I got to grow up around really fantastic storytellers, such a diverse group, many of whom had had entire lives and careers before grad school. Since I was coming straight from undergrad, I really felt the bar being raised. I knew I had lots to learn, and really respected the level of commitment to storytelling and the sense of purpose of everyone at Columbia. 

When did you move to LA, and how does the indie film scene here compare to NY?

I moved to LA in early 2006. I’m originally from the south, and then moved to northeast to go to college and grad school, which meant almost a decade of real winters… months of not wanting to leave my home. So I was eager to try the weather on the west coast.

I’d also come out to LA a bunch for work stuff, and realized they were two totally different cities. LA is nothing like NY. And even though I loved NY, I was ready for a change. 

The indie film scene in LA has been as amazing and vital as the one in NYC. It’s odd, how people associate LA with the studio film and television industries, but not with indie film, I guess because the machinery of the studio stuff is so huge it kind of dwarfs the independent scene. But it’s a perception problem. LA is a great place to be an independent filmmaker, there’s a huge community and a lot of resources. 

Smashed is out in NYC and LA. Please go see it and support it!
IN MEMORIAM - Andrew Sarris PDF Print E-mail
Written by CUE Editors   
Tuesday, 24 July 2012 02:01
On June 20th, legendary film critic Andrew Sarris passed away at St. Luke’s Hospital.  He was 83 years old.
Credited with coining the term “Auteur Theory” and bringing the concept to America, Sarris was film critic for The Village Voice and The New York Observer.  His book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 remains one of the most influential works of film criticism to this day.  
He was also a Columbia University fixture.  He graduated with a B.A. from Columbia College in  1951 and received a Masters in 1998.  He taught  in the School of the Arts for decades, inspiring hundreds of students and teaching assistants to think and write about film as deeply as possible.  His presence on Dodge Hall will be missed.

We have reprinted Film Division chair Ira Deutchman’s remembrance of Prof. Sarris, as well as those of a handful of alumni.  

If you would like to read more recollections from School of the Arts faculty, please visit: 

I’m sure I am hardly alone in the devastation I’m feeling in hearing of the death of Andrew Sarris. I grew up reading his reviews in the Village Voice, and he was one of the major influences in my love of film.When I was a young aspiring cinemaphile, the much hyped feud between Sarris and Pauline Kael was in full throttle. Personally, I found myself more frequently in Kael’s corner. Her more emotional response to films seemed more in line with my youthful spirit, while  Sarris seemed both more orthodox and more academic than I was ready to accept at the time. In spite of this, his early embrace of auteurism was the kindling that lit my fire for many filmmakers that otherwise would never have been on my radar screen.
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