Hollywood 101

October 11, 2004

Nick Marinello
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Lights, camera, action. Come next semester, these words will be added to the lexicon of the curriculum of theater and dance department.

sylvesterThanks to the interest and support of a Tulane alumnus who is an established Hollywood actor and writer, the department's long-nurtured plan to implement a course in hands-on film production will be getting its first take this spring, and sequels may be forthcoming.

"It is necessary for our students to have production experience," says Barbara Hayley, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. "Part of our job in the arts is to provide students with options to find work, excel in their careers and be successful."

To that end, the department is opening a special topics course that will not only involve students in the actual nuts and bolts of film production, but has for its ultimate goal the creation of a commercially viable film.

Harold Sylvester (A&S '72), a New Orleans native who has written for such high-profile projects as television's "NYPD Blue" and "City of Angels," in meetings with the department last year, decided to help develop and teach the course.

Since then, he and theater and dance faculty members Hayley, Ron Gural and Jim Fitzmorris have been ironing out the details for the project. The department is basing the course on a prototype Sylvester developed for acting students in Los Angeles in which improvisational acting techniques were used to generate storylines.

"I put the actors into a room and said, 'tell me about yourself,'" says Sylvester, who lives on the West Coast. "We took the stories and formed them into scenarios and then turned those into a 90-page screenplay."

The plan for the Tulane project, says Sylvester, is to have the students essentially transcribe their improvisational work and then develop that into bits and pieces of a screenplay.

"The concept is to work out the scenes and hope the scenes tell a story. You cut and shape the scenes, make them filmic." According to Sylvester the method is comprehensive and void of theory. "Just do it," he says. It's also collaborative. "This has to be an ensemble in every sense of the word. Not everyone can be a star. You may be a boom operator."

The course will accommodate 20 to 25 students, some from other institutions such as Xavier University and Delgado Community College. While the first half of the semester will be devoted to developing a screenplay, the second half will focus on the actual production. Both Sylvester and Gural acknowledge that key positions such as cinematographer and lighting designer will need to be filled.

Otherwise, students will be required to roll up their sleeves and make a movie. For Gural, who teaches a class in video production, the film course is a natural for students.

"I think a lot of film actors were trained as stage actors; it's important for students to learn both disciplines."

If the course proves to be successful, says Hayley, it might become a pilot for a coordinate major in film production that would bring together the curricula of a number of other departments on campus including art, communication and music. How will success be measured?

"When you see the kids light up as the process becomes comfortable," says Sylvester. "The other marker is a more tangible result. We are looking for a saleable commercial product."

After a post-production process that will take place next summer, the department should have a product that is ready to market, says Sylvester. The project already has the interest of Russell Palmer (A&S '71), a local businessman and classmate of Sylvester's.

Palmer was a partner in negotiating a deal for Sylvester's feature-length screenplay, Passing Glory, which was sold to Disney Studios and first aired on Turner Network Television in 1999. Sylvester says he's already "made some calls" and has parties who are interested in what he and his students come up with. "Everyone is looking for smaller stories," he says. "They want stuff that is not Spiderman."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000