On June 12, 2007, Hollywood Industryites packed the Directors Guild of America Theater, eager to view the seven winners of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television's Directors Spotlight competition. With a roster of past student winners including Alexander Payne ("Sideways"), Todd Holland ("Malcolm in the Middle"), Shane Acker ("9"), and Gil Kenan ("Monster House"), the annual screening has a reputation for being a do-not-miss event for those interested in identifying student filmmakers with big league potential. While there wasn't a clear standout among this year's crop of Spotlight winners, all seven of '07 directors showed enough potential to make tracking them worthwhile.
This year's Directors Spotlight winners were selected by a sixteen-person blue ribbon panel of judges, moderated by Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore. With such diverse judges as Tony Bui ("Three Seasons") and Kirby Dick ("This Film Is Not Yet Rated") vetting the films, astute audience members correctly assumed they'd be in for a compelling collection of shorts.
The first film unspooled was a 7-minute comedy entitled "Ruthless." Director Julie Sagalowsky elicits solid performances from her leads in this pre-teen "Mean Girls"-esque dark comedy.
Next up: Kahlil Hudson's "The Nemesis Bird," which clocked in at twice the first film's running time. Shot on DVCProHD, this comedy about obsessive bird watchers contains more laughs than expected and proved to be an audience pleaser.
"House of the Olive Trees," which came to the screening with several UCLA student awards under its belt including Best Directing Actors, Best Script, and Best Narrative, was handicapped by a projection mishap in which the projectionist switched to another short after the first few minutes. When the 35mm MFA thesis film subsequently screened in full, the Greek-language romance seduced viewers so thoroughly that the 29 minutes and 45 seconds flew by. A Student Academy Awards finalist, director Thouly Dosios' short features one of the evening's most complex main characters, a prickly young woman determined to remain a loner despite her boyfriend's best efforts to make them a couple.
Another 35mm MFA thesis film, Justin Lerner's 24-minute "The Replacement Child," wore its Best Sound Design student award like a badge of honor. Shot over 11 days in the filmmaker's hometown of Wayland, MA, the religiously-themed film centers on a young man returning home to find his bed-ridden best friend withering away without any medical attention due to the family's spiritual beliefs. Benefiting from high production value, "The Replacement Child" played like a feature film on the immense DGA screen.
In contrast, Ted Chung's three-and-a-half minute black and white comedy, "Mike's," looked and felt like a scrappy student film - a much appreciated palate cleanser between the feature-like MFA offerings. In this sad sack tale, our hero Mike sets up a hidden camera surveillance system to prove his roommate or his roommate's girlfriend is stealing his food. Clearly, the students in the audience could relate, as "Mike's" earned hearty laughs.
The penultimate MFA thesis film, Thabo Wolfaardt's "Joburg," was shot in Johannesburg, South Africa. Running 22 minutes long, this gripping crime drama explores the limited options available to a desperate young man forced to carjack a pissed-off pregnant woman with her own problems.
The final film of the evening: another lengthy MFA thesis film, "Damn The Past!" Luckily, the jazzy title sequence served fair warning to the weary audience that this 29-minute film by Juli Kang was not going to be another intensely serious drama, but would instead be serving up an all-singing, all-dancing, happy-ending romance. With a dance-crazy heroine recently released from the nut house and a grease monkey hero who can only sing, "Damn The Past!" is a campy musical reminiscent of John Waters "Cry-Baby." It's no surprise that Kang's film won student awards for Most Original and Best Visual Design.
The evening began with a special Filmmakers of the Year presentation, in which "Little Miss Sunshine" co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Class of 1980) were honored. Dayton and Faris reminded everyone in attendance that film school continues even after graduation, as each new project undertaken is a learning experience.
The evening concluded with a catered reception, in which production insiders gossiped about budgets (how "Joburg" benefited from a $20K grant) and the actors in attendance worked the room. In other words, a typical industry gathering.
Contact information for the filmmakers and trailers of most of the shorts can be found on the UCLA Festival 2007 website.
Kim Adelman is the author of "The Ultimate Filmmaker's Guide to Short Films."