Working on set with an Oscar-winning director. Not a bad gig for a college senior.
Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film senior Benito Sanchez, of Lincoln, Neb., had the opportunity to work on Alexander Payne’s latest film, “Nebraska,” last semester, working as a camera production assistant and serving as the personal assistant to Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.
The film is expected to be released late in 2013.
“I’d actually been tracking the movie for about a year because I knew Alexander Payne was going to do a new project,” Sanchez said. “He’s always interested me because he is from Nebraska, and I enjoy his films quite a bit. To have an Oscar-winning director make a movie about your home state, that peaks your interest.”
But he almost missed out on the experience. Initially, he made calls to the production office to find out if any jobs were available, but they kept telling him to call back later. He kept calling.
He continued to contact the production company and eventually got in contact with Factotum Deidre Backs, who finally told him she could put his resume in with everyone else’s or she could get him on, pretty much guaranteed, as an intern.
“At first I wasn’t sure, but then I realized if I could get a guaranteed spot on there, then I’m going to take it,” Sanchez said.
Bad News First
Then, at the beginning of the fall semester, Backs called with bad news: the internship program had been cancelled by the studio due to legal issues, and he no longer had a spot on the film.
“That was really devastating because I was really expecting to be on the film. I’d tracked it for so long,” Sanchez said. “I re-enrolled in classes and started going to classes. It’s always good to be back in school, but it was a disappointment.”
Then, about 10 days before production was scheduled to begin on Oct. 15, Sanchez received another phone call from Backs.
“She told me the camera production assistant had to take another job and asked if I wanted to come out and interview,” Sanchez said.
Interviewed by the Fire Pit
He attended a Husker party in Norfolk the crew was attending for the Nebraska-Ohio State game, where he had the chance to meet Payne and interview with various members of the crew.
“They took me out to the fire pit and just grilled me with questions,” Sanchez said. “It was probably the most unique interview I’ve ever had. But they seemed to like me.”
Later he had a Skype interview with Papamichael, who has served as cinematographer for the Payne films "Sideways" and "The Descendants," as well as other films such as "This is 40," "The Ides of March," "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Walk the Line."
“He’s well respected and well known, so it was kind of surreal for me to be interviewing with him,” Sanchez said. “I was just in my room on Skype, so this is crazy that I’m talking to Phedon Papamichael.”
But Sanchez got the job.
“He said I should expect some long days,” Sanchez said. “I was going to not only be supporting the camera crew, but I would also be his personal assistant, so that was really interesting.”
Associate Professor of Film Rick Endacott is not surprised at Sanchez’s resourcefulness.
“I think Benito represents the type of high achievers that exemplify our Film and New Media students,” Endacott said. “He’s always seemed to have a solid personal compass and that has led him to make opportunities for himself as a director and for his peers. Benito wants to work at a professional level and has pushed himself in his student films to meet that goal. So it isn’t surprising that despite some setbacks, he found a way to land a job working on Alexander’s film.”
Sanchez Not Alone in Representing UNL
In addition to Sanchez, recent Carson School alums Jacob Heger (B.F.A. 2010, M.F.A. 2012), Jake Denney (B.A. 2012) and Rudy Jansen (B.F.A. 2012) also worked on the Payne film.
Assistant Professor of Film Sandy Veneziano served as Art Director for the film and said the experience was invaluable for Sanchez and the other Carson School alums.
“They’re actually in the real deal, on a real film set getting hands-on experience with seasoned professionals,” Veneziano said. “This is a real job, and you’re tested every day and hopefully mentored. I know Benito learned a lot.”
Sanchez felt at home on the film set.
“It was really crazy just being out there and realizing that a couple of days before, you had been sitting in classes, and now you’re working with an elite group of Hollywood professionals—the best of the best,” Sanchez said. “It was really awesome getting out there and meeting them because they were all very nice to me.”
Sanchez set up the monitor for the camera and made sure batteries were charged. He also wrangled cable, among other duties.
“I like to say that I was the grease in the camera department's operation. There were first, second and third assistant cameras, so there were three camera support guys there always doing camera stuff, but they couldn’t be everywhere at the same time, so I had to go grab something or go get something,” Sanchez said. “I was also doing Phedon’s personal assistant type stuff, so I would get him coffee or tea or water, I kept track of his bags, and since it was cold, I had to make sure he had his hats and gloves and everything like that. I just had to keep track of his things.”
“Nebraska,” which stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte, tells the story of a father and son road trip from Billings, Mt., to Lincoln, Neb., to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes prize. Along the way, they land in the fictional Hawthorne, Neb. The film was shot entirely on location and in black and white.
“It was a different movie with no stage set,” Veneziano said. “It was like a traveling show with 57 locations an hour apart from each other.”
Teamwork Key to Challenging Environment
Sanchez said that environment was challenging to work in.
“We pretty much shot everything on location, so that meant we had to compete for space everywhere,” he said. “And you had to make sure you didn't mess up the locations. You had to work efficiently and fast because there was very little room for error, as far as scheduling.”
They also worked as a team.
“We weren’t individuals,” Sanchez said. “We were part of a team. And I got to know those guys really well, too, just being so close to the entire crew for 30-40 days. It really did feel like a family.”
Sanchez said Payne’s movies have a reputation for feeling like a family.
“He always remembered your name, I thought was really impressive,” Sanchez said. “He would greet you in the morning. I’d see the tone that he brought to set, and it just kind of infected everybody else. Everyone kept telling me that I was spoiled that this was my first feature film because I'm not going to get it as nice as this probably again ever.”
One of Sanchez’s best moments came on the very last day of filming when Dern gave a speech to the crew following his last shot in the film.
“During his speech he was talking and talking and talking,” Sanchez said. “And then he called me out very specifically and said, ‘Here’s somebody who is doing something very unique—he’s working on a movie, but he’s still in school.’ He said he'd never seen that before. It was really, really special on the last day of filming for Bruce Dern to call me out by name.”
Papamichael liked Sanchez’s work enough that he negotiated for Sanchez to continue working on the Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota shoots following the Nebraska shoot.
“They just told me I’m doing a good job, and they wanted to keep me around,” Sanchez said.
His preparation in the Johnny Carson School helped him be ready for this opportunity.
“What we get here is the base education of what we need to know when we get out in the industry,” Sanchez said. “I knew all the equipment. I knew the lights we were using. I knew why they were using the lights. I could have gone into this job without being in film school, but since I had gone to film school, I was much more prepared.”
Carson Film Series a Primer
Sanchez also participated a few days on the Carson Film Series shoot for “Digs” last spring, which also enhanced his experience.
“The Carson Film experience helped me out a lot, just getting into the mentality to be in that sort of experience and still learn, not just treat it as a job and going through the motions, but forming an opinion and understanding why things are like they are,” Sanchez said.
The Carson Film Series provides valuable real-life film set experience for students in which select industry professionals team up with students and faculty from the University and NET to create a short film.
“Any time one of our students gets to work with professionals, they learn,” Endacott said. “That was the whole purpose behind creating the Carson Film Series. Being hired, along with several other graduates of the Carson School, to work on ‘Nebraska’ shows that our students are coming to the professional set prepared to work and, more importantly, to continue to learn. In Benito’s case, being hired while still a student speaks volumes about his work ethic, his determination and his abilities. All indications are that he learned a great deal and, not surprisingly, impressed his professional employers.”
Sanchez is glad he chose to study at UNL.
“It’s really paid off, I think. Not only was I able to work on this ‘Nebraska’ film because I stayed in Nebraska, which is really lucky,” Sanchez said. “I’m about to graduate with very little debt, and that’s going to be huge once I move out to Los Angeles or New York or wherever I choose to go—because I will have a choice.”
Sanchez Eyes More Film Work
Though he intends to work professionally in film, Sanchez is not entirely clear on what the future holds for him.
“It’s always a tough question for film and new media students. You’re kind of forced to take what you can get [for work],” Sanchez said. “But there is also a lot of putting yourself in position to get good stuff. What I want to do is solidify my contacts, get through school, finish my thesis, continue to make movies and music videos, and then move to Los Angeles or New York and find work. I think now, especially with this experience, it will not necessarily be easy, but it might be easier.”
This semester he is working on his senior thesis film, which he says will be a cinema vérité or documentary style film on what it’s like to be young.
“The films I want to make illuminate some sense of truth in the story they’re telling,” Sanchez said. “What I’m trying to show with my thesis film is what it’s like to be 21 or 22 right now in this digital age. I want to capture what it’s like to be young and the relationships that you form and how you form those relationships. I feel like the only time I can truthfully do that is now when I’m young.”
Though he didn’t get serious about making films until high school and college, Sanchez said he has always loved the movies.
“I always loved going to the movies,” Sanchez said. “Cinema is just a magical sort of place where you see these larger-than-life images and larger-than-life personalities and actions. It’s hard not to be enchanted by that.”