Alan Baker was looking for a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Pullman.
Of course Baker (’94 PhD) knew there were no actual Wright-designed houses in the town, but he needed to find a Modernist, spacious home overlooking the Palouse for an ideal movie location. As a location scout last summer for The Big Bang, an Antonio Banderas thriller in production, and other feature films, Baker wandered through Washington identifying, photographing, and securing places for directors to make movies.
The search for the Wright house in Pullman failed. But as we drove around the area, Baker, a communication professor at South Puget Sound Community College, gave me an insider’s look into the juggling act of schedules, locations, crews, actors, and equipment behind the creation of a film.
WSU has a long history of preparing students for work in television and film production. The broadcasting program started in 1964, but had its roots in journalism and speech from the early 1920s. KWSU-TV, the on-campus public television station, began operation in 1962, giving broadcasting students experience in all aspects of producing television shows. The station’s production division opened its renovated high-definition facility in 2008 to produce local programs.
Many WSU alums have moved on to careers in television news and entertainment. Edward R. Murrow, namesake of the College of Communication, defined television news broadcasting. Keith Jackson’s sportscasting career with ABC spanned 40 years and earned him honors from the National Football League and the Murrow Award. But the Cougs behind the camera make the stories on film come together.
“It’s amazing a movie ever gets made,” says Baker. “If any of the 85 people don’t do their job, the film goes over budget and over schedule and may never be released.”
It’s all about problem-solving and having a couple of fallback plans, says Baker. Location management showcases that need for flexibility; locations and schedules must change quickly if an actor drops out, funding falls through, bad weather hits, or any other unforeseen circumstance causes delay.
The location scout reads scripts and attempts to decipher what a director or producer needs for scenes. Once a location is found and filming begins, the logistical nightmare begins for the manager to take care of everything from bathrooms for a huge crew to power for the array of lights and other equipment.
Last summer’s location work for Baker included finding and managing places for director John Carpenter’s upcoming suspense movie The Ward, filmed primarily in and around Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake. “Carpenter doesn’t like to do computer-generated special effects, and we needed to burn down a farmhouse. It was quite the process getting permits to do that,” he says.
If a massive effort is required for a big budget movie, an independent film demands double the doggedness. Bill Jacobson ’88 discovered just how much sacrifice while toiling as co-producer and crew member on A Journey to Sundance, a documentary about indie filmmaking and the struggle to complete a film.
The five-year process began with Jacobson, director and co-producer Julian Starks, and co-producer Jennifer Sorenson trying to answer the question “What is independent film?” through a look at the annual Sundance Film Festival.
“We wondered what it took to move an idea from ‘soup to nuts.’ So we filmed us creating the documentary at the same time,” says Jacobson, who began as a theater actor at WSU and started acting professionally on an indie film in the 90s.
The Tacoma native described the process as “tedious.” After extensive planning meetings to figure out schedules, where to get money (beg, borrow, or steal?), and how to accomplish it all, Jacobson and the others packed up and headed to Park City, Utah, for the festival.
“We shot every day, all day at Sundance for three years in a row. You’re filming constantly because you never know what will pop up in front of the camera,” he says. They also shot extensive interviews whenever they could in Los Angeles with celebrities such as Vin Diesel, Jennifer Aniston, John Malkovich, Salma Hayek, and Javier Bardem.
Everyone has to be committed to an indie film, says Jacobson. “If money is tight and people start working for free, you have to believe. Many quit halfway and become disenchanted with the whole industry.”
Journey to Sundance still waits for release as the independent filmmakers look for a distributor, the next challenge of the business. Jacobson isn’t losing hope.
“There are always road bumps and hiccups along the way. My advice to those who want to climb into the industry comes from Winston Churchill: ‘Never give in. Never, never, never, never,’” he says.
Baker agrees with the sentiment, as he teaches a new generation of filmmakers in his community college classes. “Some love it, some hate it. But I don’t want them to be surprised.”
His digital cinematography class is entering its second year, with students working on a narrative short film. The students put in 18- and 22-hour days with Baker for filming due to the cost of leasing cameras and using locations—a realistic schedule even for big-budget features, according to Baker.
“I want my students to understand the work involved. Either they have a lot of money or connections to make their own films, or they have to be prepared to work very hard as a production assistant,” he says.
Baker calls on his work on feature films, plus his experience teaching television production at WSU and working at KXLY in Spokane, to give students a sense of the reality behind the lights. He remembers his own first feature as a tough time. “I was yelled at a lot and thought, I’ll never get another job. I discovered it’s a tight-knit community, and I soon had another offer for work.”
Baker’s students have already worked on feature films in the last year. For some, their introduction to the glamour of cinema came from cleaning bathrooms and removing asbestos on the set. They worked 19- and 20-hour days on set for Hit List, a movie filmed last year in Spokane.
He wants students to understand the importance of doing whatever it takes to succeed and tells them, “Be honest. Know how to say ‘I don’t know how to do that, but I’ll find someone who does.