The wannabe director seeks acceptance to elite USC film school any way no matter how sordid. 2,385 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The lights dimmed, the conversation stopped, the phones vanished, and the film came on. Being the first day of the new semester, the screening room was packed with film brats who had flocked to L.A. to study at the world’s most prestigious film school. Most of the time screenings started seven or so minutes late but tonight’s began on the dot. These were films the School of Cinematic Arts never wanted to show.
There are only a handful of top-tier film schools and even folks outside the business have a notion of the pecking order: UCLA, NYU, AFI, Columbia, Cal Arts followed by UT, Emerson, Chapman, LMU and perhaps U of Miami. But with little debate the consensus #1 cinema school is USC. Especially for directors. George Lucas, Ron Howard, Ryan Coogler, Judd Apatow, Jay Roach, John Singleton, Robert Zemeckis, James Ivory, Jon Turtletaub, Doug Liman, Jason Reitman, Taylor Hackford, James Foley, Walter Salles, Jon M. Chu, and Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum just to name a few. Add to that a slew of up and coming female directors soon to make their mark on the industry. Shit, Steven Spielberg got rejected from the program and he still endowed the school with half a million smackers.
No shame there because getting into USC film school is now more difficult than getting into Harvard. While other film schools were ransacking China to fill dwindling enrollments, USC could afford to reject 97% of its applicants. No one knew that better than Danny Shields, for he had already been rejected four times.
Colleges are intentionally vague about their decision-making processes, and in the diversity frenzy gripping Hollywood, it didn’t help that Danny was a white male applicant from a community college who would require financial aid. Still, Danny Shields was not easily deterred, which is, of course, a very desirable trait for a filmmaker. Directors need to be stubborn and Danny Shields was not going to be ignored.
He started shooting Thomas The Tank Engine movies when he was six, then progressed to Parkour free running movies shot on a GO PRO, and finished his horror feature before graduating high school. His dozen ultra low budget films had been screened at film festivals coast to coast, although the Saguaro Film Festival was as close as he got to one with name recognition, and there his magnum opus unspooled to a crowd of three. Nevertheless, he proudly included this and other recent examples of his work in the portfolio he submitted to USC.
It must be noted that Danny didn’t believe he had that much to learn. Unfortunately, Danny didn’t know what he didn’t know. Perhaps one cannot reliably see the mind’s construction in the face, but Danny resembled the regular dude slouching at the neighborhood sports bar who was never steered toward his buddies’ sisters. He was too seduced by ambition and glitz to realize that self-knowledge was perhaps the ground floor of the profession he was dying to enter. If being a great filmmaker was born of the ability to see things others took for granted, Danny was sightless.
Still, he fancied himself an accomplished cinephile, confirmed by Criterion collection logo on his iPhone wallpaper. When his phone rang it was the MGM lion that roared. His favorite night of the year was not Christmas Eve but the Oscars, and he rarely erred on more than one category. He frequently lost patience with the non-professionals who gathered around his family TV and saw the Academy Awards more as an excuse to party than to worship. The worst offender was his flakey but fetching cousin Chuckie. But Chuckie had to be invited because he was the star of Danny’s films. Every single one of them. Chuckie had yet to balk at any of Danny’s film-related requests, including the time he let Danny set him on fire while hopping on a pogo stick. Although nothing bad came of that, Danny did feel responsible for Chuckie’s permanent limp that resulted from a miscommunication on the set of his third and final Parkour movie.
Danny was losing patience as he approached the ass end of his 20s. He believed that if he would be accepted into the USC “mafia” he would be able to collaborate with Hollywood’s future auteurs and network the school’s rich alumni connections. Sought-after internships abounded for those with the right connections. Danny was well aware how others had jump-started their careers even when their last name wasn’t Eisner.
So Danny did his research. After fifteen minutes on the Internet he targeted a Mr. J.T. Quinn in the admissions office.
USC was vulnerable. It was no secret the university had been generating a lot of bad press recently. The school always had a problem with crime in the neighborhood. Recent campus scandals had already cost the school a cool $215 million and a wildly successful college president. Danny read all the articles. It took elite universities decades to put bad press behind them.
The school traditionally held an “open house” for prospective students that Danny was unable to attend the first four times he submitted applications back when he lived in Jersey. He was reasonably sure J.T. Quinn would be in attendance since his name was on the invite. Danny plundered the web for photos and finally found gold on social media when he watched a talk J.T. Quinn had given to underprivileged students at a local high school film club. The man who would determine Danny’s fate was a slightly effeminate man in his mid 40s who dressed in a SoCal version of Brooks Brothers, had matriculated at a blue blood New England prep school, and then studied architecture at Cornell, although he never practiced it professionally. He was a career academic specializing in strategic planning who ended up at USC two decades earlier when his wife inherited a monster of an old home in Pasadena within driving distance of campus.
Danny preened before the mirror, rejecting shirt after shirt in his windowless Las Feliz studio apartment. Even at $630 per month, he could barely make ends meet with his part-time job at Machete star Danny Trejo’s taco joint. After a few false starts outfitting himself in black hip director garb head to toe, Danny paired a backwards Seattle Mariners baseball cap with the kind of cowboy shirt John Wayne wore in the movie Stagecoach, albeit one missing a few buttons and sporting sleeves a touch short, and a thick pair of non-prescription glasses which Danny would remove and clean sporadically. He wanted to look fashionably unfashionable, but too many years in New Jersey gave our young director a hipster barometer that would betray him in L.A.
He took the bus down Vermont Avenue. When it rolled past the Coliseum, Danny had little problem imagining himself going to football games to please his future USC girlfriend who would be infatuated with an artiste who could predict the plays before they were run on the field.
To make that fantasy a reality, Danny would star in his own film tonight. Diving into character, he used various sense memories from his past to rehearse an aggrieved look on his face. He remembered the time Chuckie deliberately peed on his face while they camped in his backyard. He imagined himself eating sour lemons while playing a trumpet, and squished his nose to create a little skin tent exercising the muscle on the right side of his upper lip. He distorted his face into a silent scream, flexing every muscle around his eyes, craning his neck skyward to communicate a boundary being crossed. It wasn’t difficult to remember how to act wronged after years of opening his USC rejection letters.
Around a mile north of campus, a sunburned, seething, smelly man in an armless frayed Levi jacket wearing motorcycle boots and a bandana switched his seat to the one directly across from Danny. The man laser focused Danny with a death stare. Up close the intruder had a patchy beard, greasy long hair, multiple earrings, and wore a faded t-shirt that once looked to have read “Guns & Roses.” His nasty smile revealed stained canines filed down into spearheads. Danny made the mistake of dropping his eye line, then, unable to help himself, turned back to confront the ruffian. Provoked, the man screamed, “You’re blocking my view, motherfucker!” Danny momentarily considered changing seats, but this was his night, so rather than vacate his seat in a gesture of defeat, he gunned his face into insane mode, then back to neutral before he impulsively sprung from his seat seven blocks north of USC to rid himself of this toxic character. He gave the man the finger just as the doors shut.
When the bus drove away Danny could hear the man cursing so loud it rattled the bus windows.
Twenty minutes later Danny sauntered up to the campus west gate a bit sweatier than he would have preferred, feeling more like a character actor than a leading man. But he was relieved to hear the security guard read his name aloud from the list of invitees. He was given precise directions to the School Of Cinematic Arts, but didn’t hear a word because he was studying the scar on the cheek of the female security guard. He imagined casting her in his next movie as a love interest starring opposite Danny Trejo, sure that he would be able to convince his boss to perform a cameo. After all, they did share the same first name and Danny was attuned to omens.
He strode onto the USC campus feeling like he belonged even though his latest application was still pending. Unfortunately, Danny never had an innate sense of direction. He made a wrong turn that took him past the building where the Heisman trophies were displayed. Danny had to ask directions from a few frat guys who amused themselves by each pointing in a different direction, universities being posh practice fields that nurtured the co-existence of adolescence and adulthood.
Danny spotted the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg buildings rising above a sweeping courtyard, Spielberg’s purportedly two inches taller. For a second he stood there in disbelief they he had gotten this far. He was feeling lucky.
He entered the School Of Cinematic Arts, blending in with the last guided tour of the facilities that, gratefully, was running a little late. The reception hall was decorated with posters of films made by USC alumni but, reflective of the current era, TV cast photos were beginning to dominate motion picture posters. Danny was far from the only prospective student who pretended not to stare, 27” x 41” one-sheets being the sheepskins of the profession.
Danny roamed amongst his competition for the few spots reserved for next year’s class. One of the applicants was rumored to be a nephew of the King of Jordan and was accompanied by two bodyguards. The go-getters worked the room befriending alumni they thought might help them get a foot in the door. Others were full of false modesty as they discussed the portfolios they had submitted with their applications. Danny heard a young man with a deep voice confuse the films of Paul Thomas with Wes Anderson’s, but didn’t bother to correct him. Still others dropped names like Marty, Spike, Quentin, Joel plus Ethan, and even Yorgos, as if they were on a first-name basis with their idols. Every time an alumnus entered conversations stopped and heads turned, hoping to spot an industry titan or studio bigwig. But most of these alumni were underperforming members of the USC mafia, on campus to do their own networking and enjoy the free libations.
Danny soon spotted J.T. Quinn, despite the fact that the academic did not look as young or as congenial as the photo posted on the school’s website. J.T. was accompanied by a spindly dark-haired woman with glasses. Although there was little confirmation of coupledom in their comportment, her name tag read Debbie Quinn. In person, J.T. Quinn was polite and unintimidating, traits that worked well for him in the halls of academia where most swordplay was of an ironic verbal nature.
An enthusiastic film studies professor sporting hand tattoos, a young woman who fancied herself far more iconoclastic than she actually was, quieted the crowd. She launched into an impassioned speech about how Douglas Fairbanks started the school 90 years ago, how there were 30 USC alumni films at Sundance this year, how art is a lie that tells the truth, that film makes the invisible visible, and how admission to the school is but a first step up a steep hill. Danny heard very little because he was beginning to feel the creep of performance anxiety. He tried to channel his cousin Chuckie who always managed to appear less nervous on camera than in real life.
UCLA gatherings had their alcohol donated by alumnus Francis Ford Coppola who owned his own winery and had recently patented a t-shirt that allowed the wearer to locate an itch on his or her back, further proof that the school across town produced the more out-of-the-box creative types. But tonight USC countered with a buffet table offering better than edible sushi from Little Tokyo, a stone’s throw from the university. Danny got close enough to overhear J.T. Quinn’s wife instruct him to eat something since they wouldn’t be getting home till late. And then he heard J.T. shoot back, “Debbie, I told you we’re leaving at exactly 9:30!” Danny’s clock was ticking.
As the after-party wore on, Danny kept a discreet eye on J.T. Quinn from a distance, using private eye tricks gleaned from movies. While he pretended to focus on people in a parallel eye line he lost sight of his mark. Suddenly, J.T. was nowhere to be found. Danny ducked into the men’s room where, thankfully, he found his mark. He overheard J.T. whispering to another colleague, bemoaning an applicant from a prominent showbiz family whom they had been “persuaded” to admit. But the bathroom was dark and Danny made a calculated decision to keep his distance. He needed something irrefutable that would leave little room for doubt.