Making the student feature film Don Quixote was a monumental task.
The process took 10 directors, a full writers room, a cohort of producers and Academy Award-nominated actor James Franco as an instructor.
Don Quixote clocks in as the longest student production in the last two decades at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and was not only a massive accomplishment in storytelling, but a lesson in the ego-checking art of collaboration. The film debuted Jan. 8 at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
When James [Franco] first mentioned it as a concept, my initial reaction was terror.
“James [Franco] and I taught a class together in 2013,” said Professor John Watson, who co-taught the class. “Don Quixote was the second time we had worked together, and he was the one with the idea to make a feature. When James first mentioned it as a concept, my initial reaction was terror. It was breaking new ground, and there were certainly a lot of people who thought I was insane. They thought it would never work. How did you get 10 students with big egos to make one film? How do you do it?”
‘Gratified to get in’
An adaptation of Cervantes’ timeless novel, the film was produced as part of an advanced production class that was envisioned and steered by Franco, Watson and business partner Rabbit Bandini.
Asked about Palm Springs, Watson said, “We were very gratified to get in and thought it was a terrific opportunity because of the type of festival it is. I think the most significant thing was that we got a chance to show it to a crowd that wasn’t film students. Sometimes, we get a bit critical with our work, and it was nice to have an audience that just went along for the ride and had a nice laugh.”
In addition to the success on the festival circuit, the film marks a new paradigm in film education. For Don Quixote, each student took one “section” of the film and worked as a crew member for the sections created by other student directors.
During the process, Franco developed a new technique of creating “tests” for each section.
The student directors would take their own cameras and shoot their section of the film crudely. Then, they showed it to the class to problem solve prior to assembling the whole crew. Not only did this tactic give the students practice on their scenes, it also created unexpected benefits.
“We discovered two actors during the tests,” Watson said. “One actor who played Quixote in the test became a priest in the final product and the actress who played Dulcinea got the role.”