Features & Columns
Meet the Spartans
One of the best film schools you've never heard of: San Jose State University's student training facility Spartan Films, which for the last 12 years has led students through summer feature-length filmmaking workshops. As Barnaby Dallas, the coordinator of production at the studio says, "We have something in common with Woody Allen—we're also always making one film a year."
Dallas and Nick Martinez, Spartan Films' coordinator of studio operations, sat for an interview at Cinequest headquarters at South First Street. Some of Spartan's productions end up exhibited at Cinequest, which is honoring Dallas and Martinez with a March 5 spotlight at San Jose Rep. The program includes a preview of Spartan's latest film, Always Learning, based on local filmmaker Robert Krakower's experiences as a home-schooled kid, learning to deal with outsiders.
Dallas told one group of students that any of them could write their version of The Breakfast Club. As he describes that '80s hit, it's a young-adults drama with one antagonist: "a story about people who shouldn't be together, who have to get together." That's when he found out that one of his students wouldn't know anything about high-school cliques: he was home-schooled.
Always Learning is a semiauto-biographical film, with scenes shot at the barn on Monterey Road where he and other home-schooled students met for square dances. With luck, Always Learning will have some of the success of two of Spartan's earlier productions released by Cinequest distribution. The makers of Spartan Film's biggest successes, Super Hero Party Clown and All About Dad, will be on hand at the one-day event.
Spartan Films is what is known as an ORT—an Organized Research Training unit—like some of the other subsets at SJSU. Like the Steinbeck Center and the Moss Landing Marine Lab, it's overseen by the school's deans. Spartan Films has what Dallas calls "a very respectful relationship" with Cinequest.
But Spartan Films features are not automatically rubber-stamped for Cinequest screenings. Cinequest co-founder and director Halfdan Hussey and programmer Mike Rabehl have at this point rejected every other one of the annual films produced by Spartan. This, even though Dallas collaborated with Hussey on his adult thriller Seizing Me, and Hussey is now teaching a class on the business of film at SJSU.
"It's like a chemistry lab or any other training facility," says Martinez. "We're training the kids, with the idea of a real film at the end. It's safe, but it's college. You're supposed to push the envelope."
"You can fail," Dallas says.
"Sometimes you do," Martinez adds.
Dallas explains: "That's not how we measure our success, anyway. It's the training and the education the students get that matters. Some of their films play in Cinequest or smaller film fests. But just because some of the films Spartan makes lack that home-run quality, the students still get trained."
Spartan Film's summer classes, resulting in an annual feature-length film, is a hands-on training experience that's immersive, high quality—and more cost-friendly than certain film schools in L.A. and New York City. Spartan is a SAG and DGA signatory. "We've work with the unions, they've worked with us," says Martinez. All About Dad—Mark Tran's film about the struggles between tradition and westernization in a Vietnamese family—had union actors cast in it because of a shortage of Vietnamese players locally.
Ned Kopp, a production manager on Phil Kaufman's The Right Stuff, has been a regular adviser among the professionals who've come in along with various other producers, directors and writers. "The education Ned was giving the students, he was also giving to us," Dallas said.
Classes are also visited by lower-pay-grade technicians such as gaffers and grips. On one production, Spartan brought in a martial artist to talk about choreographing a fight scene. It was a fight among high schoolers; the advice was to make the fight look like a humiliating inexpert brawl—"more degrading and intimate and clumsy, with a slap to the face in it," as Martinez describes the scene. The class even brought in a special-effects expert once, to advise the best way to film a toilet blowing up.
Despite the experts, Martinez says the studio is actually student-driven. "I'm not the one making the middle-of-the-night phone calls. There's no crisis management on my part; they have to do what they have to do. If I turn up on a set, and no one shows up, I'll certainly enjoy drinking the coffee. But it's going to be the students who have to figure out a solution to the problems that come up."
Martinez manages the prize-winning, half-century-old KSJS radio station, a job he wanted because of his interest in sports journalism. Dallas, a poli-sci major at UC-Santa Barbara, had started as a writer. "I had no intention of filmmaking," Dallas said. He published short stories, a children's book and a play; in Los Angeles, through a friend, he got a job writing Here Lies Lonely (1999), co-starring Vern Troyer (best known as Dr. Evil's diminutive clone "Mini-Me"). Dallas also worked on some "bad indie films" he didn't care to name.
Soon after Dallas arrived in San Jose, he made the film Drifting Elegant, which didn't play at Cinequest but did screen at a Marin County film festival. Working on the early student-made indie Pizza Wars is how Dallas got to know Martinez, as well as his fellow screenwriting teacher Scott Sublett.
"We were sort of there on the cusp between film and video," Dallas says.
As an independent filmmaker, Dallas has stuck it out long enough to be on the other end of the reign of film on film. He'll be on one of the Cinequest panels regarding 4K—the next step up in home motion-picture watching: the ultra-high-resolution system that will soon be available to low-budget filmmakers—which will be demonstrated with three screenings of three digitized classic films in three different styles.
Among the assets of Spartan Films is a Panavision 35mm camera—not quite obsolete, since some directors are refusing to abandon film entirely, for those certain moods digital images still can't capture. However, being ahead of the transition from film to digital has helped Spartan's micro-budget filmmaking. So did the connections to SJSU. The university's Radio TV Film and Theater Department (as it was then known) gave the downtown indie filmmakers access to studios, costume shops and scenery workshops.
For the summer program at Spartan Films, some 80 students apply, usually after having taken earlier classes in screenwriting or some of the theater arts in costuming or makeup. Some are alums coming in as interns.
Says Martinez, "At that point about 30 of the students who didn't understand the time commitment will drop out. It's like a full-time job for three months, and it's not paid, it's just for the experience.
"Organizing the students is one of the first tasks. We hire the assistant director and the production manager. Those five to six positions are already set. Typically, we ask the students, 'What would you like to be?' They always answer, 'Director.' 'Well, you can't be that, but ...'"
He continues, "We need people to find locations, donations for food, help building sets. It's like running a football team. The freshmen are not getting much playing time, the junior and seniors are getting some experience. You know at the beginning of the season what kind of talent you're going to need. The question is whether the script is viable. Can it be shot at this level? Does the person have a team that can handle it?"
"The way we find the project," Dallas said, "is through students who have worked on previous films. Once you've been a writer or director, you can't repeat that position, though maybe they'll be the producers of a later film. If you're in a major position, we'd shift it around. We don't want repetition."
Dallas adds that the models for the films Spartan Films try are first-time directors' work. "Clerks, Napoleon Dynamite—that's what I have all my students study in my screenwriting class. We generally pare it down from four or five ideas. Some of the ideas we don't use come back for seconds in following years."
As for subject matter: "We get the coming-of-age story a lot. Last year's Cheap Fun was about the best version of that we could have done. The locations in such a story are easy; you don't have to re-create a kid's home."
Ultimately, the project has to be exciting enough to convince the class it's worth it. Martinez says Spartan Films has the same problem of getting "butts in seats" that any mainstream filmmaker faces.
"The students have been through the feature-film program, so they understand how big this process is. They have to raise funds and find donors for the food for the crews. One year we had three separate restaurants pitching in."
Spartan Films has raised some $200,000 in funds from donors over the dozen years they've been around. The movies are all but nonprofit affairs; though the directors get 50 percent of any gross, the biggest funds coming in to date was a festival check for $600 for All About Dad.
Martinez stresses that "Barnaby and I don't get [gross] points. Our job is to facilitate this company."
Dallas adds that "it's hard to get a longer life for films like these—you're going to get a great experience and a cult film festival film at best. We don't tell our filmmakers, 'You're going to be the next Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino.'"
Martinez adds, "You understand this is going to be a calling card, a reel. But when you go down to L.A., you can say 'I've done this.'"
There have been successes. This year, Darren H. Rae, the best-boy on Always Learning, got a job doing behind-the-scenes filming on the location scenes of the Steve Jobs biopic Jobs. From there, he was hired on to the crew of Captain America II: Winter Soldier.
"These are the classes I dreamed about when I was going to film school," Martinez concludes. "What we're doing here is something not even USC is doing, because they're easier with the short films that don't take so much time and effort. No one else was doing this and we weren't sure ourselves if we could do it. But we're working at a state school, so we have no problem working this hard."