Thursday, June 20, 2013

Beyond the Big Screen: Two Gordon Alumni Journey into the Film World

Show Business. The term alone brings thoughts of starving actors grappling at any opportunity to make ends meet. It is no easy world to tap into, especially while staying true to one’s own values. So how can recent Gordon grads pursue their dreams of filmmaking and acting in such a demanding, fast-paced industry? Is there hope?

Matt Levy ’12 and Jeff Ryan ’12 have spent the last few years developing the skills to “make it” in film. Matt aspires to be a director and Jeff an actor. Both were film buffs while at Gordon, taking film production classes and spending their free time making short films with friends. Jeff was a member of the Sweaty-Toothed Madmen and has always loved performing. He co-authored a feature-length script earlier this year with communications arts professor Toddy Burton. Both men had the skills, but lacked the opportunity. Until now.

Jeff and Matt played an important role in the July 5 release The Way, Way Back, starring Steve Carell, Allison Janney and Maya Rudolph. The film follows a diffident teen who comes into his own over the course of his summer break, thanks to the help of a supportive water park manager. Despite a (relatively) small budget of $5 million, the film is set to be a major motion picture release. Matt served as a production assistant, and had the important role of monitoring communications among the crew. Jeff played the role of Charlie, the free-spirited son of Allison Janney.

Toddy Burton (left) works with an actor on set

Film professor Toddy Burton first met the film’s acclaimed producer Tom Rice in Cambridge while he was scouting locations on the South Shore. Burton later contacted Rice seeking opportunities for students on the film and Rice told her about production assistant positions. She urged Jeff and Matt to apply. Both did, but were rejected. Matt reapplied as an intern and got the job. He joined 30 other unpaid interns for six arduous 80-hour weeks, mostly on his feet, performing whatever tasks the crew required.  A few weeks later, Jeff auditioned for a small part, on a whim while on his way to a friend’s wedding. The casting director hired him for the part with no callback. Both Gordon grads finally had the opportunity they yearned for. And the stories.

Jeff drove two hours to the filming location in Marshfield, Massachusetts and sat in a crowded room full of rambunctious extras until he was called  to make his way to the make-up trailer. “I honestly had no idea what to expect or how to prepare myself,” Jeff reflected. “I opened the door of the trailer and found Steve Carell, Allison Janney and other actors lined up in chairs getting their makeup done. I just froze. But they were welcoming, and engaged me in enthusiastic conversation.” Janney referred to Jeff as “son” from that point on. “She would call me over to her or ask me to do something and she would always say ‘Son! Do this!’ or ‘Son! Do that!’ I loved it!”

Jeff (left rear) shares a moment with his mother, Allison Janney

Jeff then walked out onto the set for the first time and met directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. “These guys are my improvisation idols. They were also super friendly. I received a warm greeting from both and they even complimented my audition tape.” The instructions he received were to “dance around the fire.” So he commenced a violent tribal dance of flailing limbs and charged expressions until the directors stopped him, encouraging a small adjustment. “After about 15, 20 takes, the directors called a wrap. I was completely winded. I also found out the producers were in the tent watching me, dying with laughter.”

Although the work was unpredictable and at times tedious, Jeff learned a great deal about acting through the experience. “Just watching Steve Carell act, I came to understand that acting is entirely in the eyes. The entire performance is based on internalizing the emotions and pouring them back out through your eyes.”

Matt on set at Water Wizz
Matt’s experience was also unpredictable. He learned days before the shoot that he would be a “walkie PA,” responsible for ensuring proper walkie-talkie communication among the entire film crew. Matt reflects, “I was a bit star-struck my first day on the shoot. I saw Sam Rockwell and Jim Rash and had to quickly get in the mode of ‘this is not a big deal, I’m just working.’” The second half of the film was shot at Water Wizz, a water park in East Wareham. “My job there was to make sure other park-goers weren’t too noisy. I basically had to tell paying patrons they were not allowed to have that much fun.”

So what leads to success in the film world? I asked Tom Rice, a producer for A Friggin Christmas Miracle, Can A Song Save Your Life? and The Way, Way Back. His take: “I think the key to success, whether you are pursuing acting or production work, is hard work and stamina.  It's not easy to find steady work in either, so you've got to really stand out as someone people want to work with.”

What about sticking true to one’s own values? Matt shares, “Christianity is not a natural part of the film world. Many people do not live by the same ideals and it can be greedy and childish.” Jeff mentions that it’s “all about finding people you can identify with, and following their example.”

Thankfully, both Matt and Jeff have connected with Christians in the industry. Burton has assisted both through video production classes in college and well after, ensuring they have opportunities to succeed. Burton shared, “It is fulfilling as a professor to connect your students and see them succeed. That’s what it’s all about.”

Matt (left) chats with a lifeguard

The Way, Way Back served as a fabulous stepping stone for both Jeff and Matt. Through a connection he made during production, Matt got a job working on a Sandra Bullock movie, The Heat, which was shot in Boston this spring. He currently lives in Brooklyn and has already gained important insight into what life as a director looks like.

Jeff will move to New York City in September to pursue acting and to intern with Elf producer Todd Komarnicki, reading scripts for Komarnicki’s company, Guy Walks  Into A Bar.

The Way, Way Back hits theaters July 5. For more information on the movie and the cast visit

Blogger: Mac Gostow ’13. A California native and communication arts graduate, Mac is a writer in the Office of College Communications  at Gordon College. He is currently an assistant to the Artistic Director at Improv Boston. Mac interned at CBS News in New York City, founded ScotRadio, performed with the Sweaty-Toothed Madmen improv troupe, and served as a show host for KURadyo in Istanbul, Turkey.

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