With the notable exception of Monty Python, the big screen typically fails to explicitly explore the meaning of life. Even lessons on how to court girls — in the classic European sense — are rarely found in Hollywood films.
But Bulldog Productions, a student-run film production company launched in 2003, is striving to become a platform for Yale undergraduate filmmakers seeking to experiment with ambitious and creative ideas. Each semester, BP runs a competition in which writers and directors submit scripts and proposals for a chance to get their films produced by the company. “The Soul of Genius: Yale, Yalies and the Meaning of Life” and “Three Syllables” were the two winning screenplays from this year’s competitions, both of which take a unique perspective on life and love.
BP recruits professionals to advise the productions and teach students how to work on a professional film set. Because Yale’s academic programs do not include classes in hands-on filmmaking, BP attempts to provide practical experience, co-president Jordan Bay ’08 said.
“It’s so hard at a liberal arts school like Yale,” he said. “It’s really hard to get any technical knowledge of what goes on a film set, and so we try to provide that opportunity.”
Bay said film production usually requires a prohibitively large amount of money, but BP is generally able to acquire its professional assistance for free.
“Most of the time you’re able to easily find quite a few professionals who are willing to work for free,” Bay said. “It’s a kind of benefit for them to work with up-and-coming directors and producers because maybe somewhere down the line, this kid is going to be the next Spielberg.”
Last year, a former member of BP was sent to the Executive Committee for submitting multiple Sudler Fund applications for the same project in order to raise more money than the Sudler guidelines permit. BP co-President Dariush Nothaft ’08 said the group’s registration was suspended during the ExComm process but subsequently renewed.
John Fischer and Max Porter, the producers of “Three Syllables,” were able to recruit Larissa Oleynik, who played Alex Mack on “The Secret World of Alex Mack” in the 1990s, to star in their film. While brainstorming ideas about the movie, Fischer and Porter, along with the writer of the screenplay, Christopher Adler ’09, were thinking of actors they would use in a “perfect world,” Porter said.
“We were joking around and saying we want this amazing, famous person and started making these long lists just for fun,” Fischer said.
The producers realized there was no harm in trying, and afterwards decided to try and contact professionals in L.A. Although some rejected the Yalies’ offers and most did not apply, Porter said, they received an e-mail from Oleynik’s manager. Oleynik agreed to shoot the film for free, he said, as long as the air fare was paid for.
“Her main incentive was a free trip to the East Coast — to be on vacation and see friends.” he said.
In “Three Syllables,” Oleynik plays the woman behind the newsstand in a train station, the object of a mechanic’s courtly advances. The short film is approximately eight minutes long, but features a humorous, twisted ending.
To obtain diverse material for other film shoots, BP has expanded the script competition to include submissions from students across the globe. The group’s executive board chooses five finalists and then picks one winner for the year’s big project, which is shot on 16 mm filmstock with professional assistance. Of the remaining four, one project is chosen for each semester and produced completely by students.
“The Soul of Genius: Yale, Yalies and the Meaning of Life,” directed by Nicholas Collura ’07, is one of these student films. In his work, Collura explores the mysterious question of genius as it is manifested in Yale prodigies and faculty members. Unlike works on historical geniuses, Collura’s film demands attention for its immediate cultural — and, for Yalies, physical — relevance. He also does not shy away from asking some students pointed questions like “Are you a genius?”
Most of the responses are modest, if the question is not completely ignored. Some joke, some giggle, some are speechless. But on the whole, it seems to be a question that no one can answer directly. In fact, Collura said, he had to change the angle of his piece so that his cast members would respond. He said the idea for the question, “What is the meaning of life?” came to him at the end of his interviews. Ultimately, this is the question that fuses the unexpected finale with an insightful theme in what seems a wholly effortless way.
But the process was far from effortless, said Paul Goehrke ’08, co-editor of “The Soul of Genius.” Goehrke said he and Collura spent 16 months reducing about 20 hours of film to 77 minutes and 8 seconds.
“The Soul of Genius” was BP’s first entirely student-produced film and also turned out to be one of their most economical. They only spent $183 on the whole project, Collura said: $150 for the digital videotape and $33 to feed the crew pizza.
After the films are completed and screened at Yale, they are frequently entered into national film festivals and competitions. But the filmmakers said competitions do not motivate their productions. In the end, BP’s goal is to provide Yalies with an opportunity to enjoy the process of filmmaking, on Yale’s tab.