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A USC PREMIERE

by Carol Tucker

Eileen Chambers, who earned her M.F.A. in production last August, was
practically still clutching her diploma when she found herself
producing a feature film.

“I went from being a student to a producer of a feature film in one
leap,” said Chambers, who is co-producer of Limited Engagement, an
industry-standard film being written, produced, directed and crewed by
recent graduates of the School of Cinema-Television.

“This is an ideal situation in the sense that there are people just out
from school, getting experience on a feature film, and yet we don’t
have certain pressures that come with a bigger production,” Chambers
said.

The cinema-television alumni are working on the school’s first-ever
feature film as part of the Post Graduate Film Workshop. Funded by a $1
million grant from Marcia Lucas, the workshop is giving recent
graduates the chance to work on every aspect of the production – from
writing, producing and directing to lighting, scouting locations and
coordinating publicity.

After reading about 50 scripts submitted by writer-producer teams, a
committee selected Limited Engagement, a “character-driven” story
written by Patrick Tobin and co-produced by Chambers and Doug-las
Ludwig.

“Everyone who read this script was moved by its true characters and a
story that reveals both urban realities and the transformative power of
human compassion,” cinema-television dean Elizabeth Daley said. “There
are so many talented graduates who need to bridge the gap between film
school and a career in the industry. The Post Graduate Film Workshop
allows an opportunity to put their craft into creative action while
earning a feature credit.”

The committee that chose the project included Lucas; Daley; Mark
Harris, chair of the Division of Cinema-Television Production; John
Furia, director of the Filmic Writing Program; Larry Turman, director
of the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program; and Larry
Auerbach, executive director of student-industry relations.

The film is being directed by Jeffrey Fine. Independent producer and
director Joe Manduke, whose credits include Alice’s Restaurant, A New
Leaf and The Gumshoe Kid, agreed to serve as supervising producer,
overseeing the entire project. Once the film is completed, the school
will work on finding a distributor.

Knowing the difficulty of starting a film career, Lucas wanted to
“provide what is currently a missing link between film school and the
industry. This production gives talent an opportunity no school program
or studio can provide – a hands-on learning experience that will result
in a real motion picture.”

Set in Los Angeles, Tobin’s story centers on the interracial
relationship between a classical pianist, Matthew, who is coming to
terms with AIDS, and Diana, an inner-city streetwise mother of two who
is working toward a better life for her children. The story transcends
the issue of AIDS and focuses on alienation, human compassion and
contemporary life on the streets of the city.

Harris described it as the kind of film that is hard to find in
Hollywood. “It deals with real issues and real people,” he said. “The
script was extremely well written. The characters were fresh, quirky
and real.”

Tobin, who wrote the screenplay several years ago in a workshop
co-taught by Harris, said he drew upon people he has known for his
story. His biggest complaint about “disease movies,” such as
Philadelphia, is that they focus on the sickness, and the characters
either take a back seat or are idealized.

“The reality is that most people who have AIDS have a very isolating,
frightening existence. They worry not only about health, but financial
issues and health insurance are huge concerns,” said Tobin, who
received his M.F.A. in production in 1990.

Through their somewhat unlikely friendship, Matthew and Diana form a
bond that stems from transcendent love and compassion. Diana is trying
to start a new life, while Matthew must deal with his fatal illness.

Tobin said that working with Lucas, an alumna of the cinema school who
has worked as an editor on such films as Taxi Driver, was a great
opportunity. “Marcia responded to a script that most Hollywood people
would feel wouldn’t sell. She and the school weren’t concerned whether
the film would make a million.”

Chambers and Ludwig, who earned his M.F.A. in production in 1992,
collaborated previously with Tobin on student projects.

Working with a mostly postgraduate crew has been different from working
with industry professionals, noted Ludwig, who has produced, written
and directed dramatic short films, educational and documentary-style
corporate videos.

“With this, you have to go a step beyond as producers and realize this
is not only a professional, industry-standard feature but an
opportunity for people to learn, and we can’t lose sight of that as a
secondary objective,” Ludwig said.

Fine, the director, is a 1991 graduate who has directed short films and
music videos. He won the Gold Prize at the Philadelphia International
Film Festival and the CINE Golden Eagle Award for his master’s thesis
project, Sandman.

“We have a wonderful script, with two incredibly wonderful characters,”
Fine said. “The goal has been to try to make those characters come
alive, and the hope down the line is that we get on the big screen and
people will come to see it.”

During the final days of a tight, four-week shooting schedule, the crew
was clearly tired yet energized by the film they were creating. Because
of the low budget, the logistics had proved challenging – shooting at
28 locations, including some tight interiors such as Matthew’s Hancock
Park apartment. Crew members worked 16-hour days, both on location and
in a small, stuffy office in Hollywood.

As location manager, Susan Lindau, who earned her M.F.A. in 1990,
scouted film sites that included a motel in Glendale (where Diana
lives), hospitals, a concert hall, bus stations, inner-city streets and
an elegant tea room. The crew ended up filming in Santa Monica, South
Central, Glendale, Hollywood, Hancock Park and the University Park
Campus.

“It’s really fun,” said Lindau. As location manager, “you become real
estate agent, detective and a researcher.”

As director of photography, Steven Douglas Smith, a 1991 M.F.A.
graduate, is responsible for “the look” of the film. “This film is a
gritty, somewhat dark and contrasty picture,” he said. “It’s a street
picture. I’m basically trying to create a mood with lights.”

Brooks Rawlins, the production designer, said Limited Engagement is his
first feature. He has been coming up with all of the set furnishings.
“I’ve had to meet people and wheel and deal over prices,” he said. He
rented some antiques for the set, particularly for Matthew’s austere
apartment.

Rawlins said he has benefited from the mix of professionals and
postgraduates on the crew. “I didn’t do this for the money,” he said.
“I did it for the experience and the fact that I think it will help me
out in the long run. It will be a good stepping stone.”

Stephanie Stein, who graduated in 1993 with a degree in critical
studies and production, also isn’t in it for the money. As assistant to
the producers, Stein does everything they don’t have time to do. She
also has handled product placements for the movie.

“Every time you work on a film, you gain experience,” she said. She
prefers the production side of the business because it’s “tough and
challenging. You have to meet deadlines, and things happen within a
moment’s notice.

“It’s also very rewarding at the end, at the premiere, when you get
that limo ride, and everyone’s waiting outside. Those are the
benefits.”

[Photo:] On the set of Limited Engagement, in the character Matthew’s
Hancock Park apartment, director Jeffrey Fine gives instructions to the
lead actors, Khandi Alexander and Alan Boyce.

[Photo: On the last day of shooting Limited Engagement, co-producers
Eileen Chambers and Douglas Ludwig continue to work the phones. During
the tight, four-week filming schedule, the crew worked 16-hour days
both on location and in a small, stuffy office in Hollywood. Because of
the low budget, the logistics proved challenging. Filming took place at
28 locations, including sites in Santa Monica, South Central, Glendale,
Hollywood, Hancock Park and the University Park Campus. “This is an
ideal situation in the sense that there are people just out from
school, getting experience on a feature film, and yet we don’t have
certain pressures that come with a bigger production,” Chambers said.