UTFI produces first all-student feature film

The University of Texas Film Institute (UTFI) began filming its first all-student feature film, "Dance with the One," this summer with the help of more than 40 students from six schools across campus.

This is the first film being produced through UTFI's Feature Film Lab, a two-year, five-semester non-profit program designed to train University of Texas at Austin students in all phases of professional feature filmmaking.

UTFI is reinventing the film school model by incorporating the production of feature films into the curriculum and training students in six areas of specialization: producing, directing, editing, cinematography, production design and sound.

"'Dance with the One'" is about a 20-year-old boy who lost his childhood coming from a dysfunctional family," says the film's creative director Alex Smith (M.F.A. '96), a Michener Center for Writers graduate. "He makes bad choices but is able to save his little brother from the sins of his father by becoming strong and showing brotherly love.

"The film shows potential for a family that gets healed. The strength of the writing is engaging, funny, heart-hitting and emotional at its core."

Joshua Smith Henderson, of the Michener Center (M.F.A '08), wrote "Dance with the One" with Jon Marc Smith. The film is directed by Mike Dolan (M.F.A. '07), a Michener Center graduate who has been a writer and director in the UTFI Feature Film Lab.

"Jon Marc Smith and I were inspired by a few kinds of Austin, Texans: the psychedelic cowboy, the successful Mexican-American businessman, the washouts and drug casualties, and finally the children of such people," Henderson says.

Department of Radio-TV-Film (RTF) Professor Tom Schatz, executive director of UTFI, and Smith are overseeing production.

"The script began as one of eight selected for a fall 2007 screenwriting lab, which culminated in a fully cast public reading," Schatz says. "It was one of four scripts selected to move on to the spring production lab where teams of student directors, producers, actors, cinematographers and production designers cast and shot key scenes from the scripts to better explore the films' characters, tone, look and market viability."

RTF graduate student Marcel Rodriguez is the director of photography, RTF senior Sam Avila is the art director and College of Fine Arts graduate Yvonne Boudreaux is the production designer.

"This film took the lead because of the performance aspect," Boudreaux says. "I and Mike Dolan, had a really good foundation during pre-production, especially when we were on location scouts. Everyday, I had to stay on top of the three aspects of production design, the present, which is on set, the past, which is wrapping out the location that was seen before, and the future, which is what will be seen tomorrow."

As production designer, Boudreaux creates a canvas for the actors along with cinematographer, Brian Nelligan, based on the director's needs for the space.

"We save a lot of time by having good communication among the director, the cinematographer and the production team," Boudreaux says.

The production process spanned both summer sessions, with full-scale pre-production taking place in the first session and five weeks of principal photography during the second session.

The crew includes 40-50 graduate and undergraduate students from the Department of RTF, College of Fine Arts (Theater and Dance), School of Architecture, McCombs School of Business, School of Law and the Michener Center.

Professionals from the local filmmaking community are mentoring students in each production department. These include producer Elizabeth Avellan ("Desperado" and "Once Upon Time in Mexico"), casting director Beth Sepko ("Office Space" and "Miss Congeniality") and actress Dana Wheeler-Nicholson ("Tombstone" and "Friday Night Lights").

Post-production will continue in the fall semester under the supervision of the Department of RTF's Keefe Boerner, formerly of Troublemaker Studio, who was visual effects coordinator on many Robert Rodriguez films.

"While success on the film festival circuit or even at the box office would be welcome," says Smith, "the ultimate goal is to give students an experience they can't get at any other university - creating their very own professionally made feature film with industry guidance and mentorship."

Will Crest, production office assistant for "Dance with the One" believes the film is a great collaboration between university departments with the common goal of making the best film possible.

"What better way to learn how to make a movie than by going out there and doing it?" Crest says. "Seeing the finished film will be super cool, but just being a part of the project is the real excitement and reward."

UTFI is still accepting applications for post-production in the fall semester. Applicants must be University of Texas at Austin students or recent alumni who participated in the UTFI program.

For information about UTFI and "Dance with the One," visit http://utfi.utexas.edu/.