Campus & Community

Dudley’s budding celluloid heroes

5 min read

Olivia walked in the room, one hand clutching three beer bottles by the neck. She handed the bottles to friends sitting around a cluttered coffee table and settled on the arm of the couch, joining the conversation expertly, as if she’d heard it all before.

She had. Several times before, actually.

Olivia and her pals were acting their way through the final take of a scene in Check, Please, a film by Harvard graduate students put together as part of the Dudley House film program, an outgrowth of the Dudley Drama Program, which produces and presents plays each year.

Off the screen, Olivia is Bridget Wagner, a resident tutor at Kirkland House and a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biology. Wagner not only acted the part of Olivia in the movie; she wrote, directed and produced the 10-minute film.

Wagner is just one of several student filmmakers involved in the Dudley House program, which has taken about 40 graduate students interested in making movies through a semester-long series of workshops, lectures, and screenings designed to give them an insider’s view of how a short film is made.

“This gives them a chance to participate,” said Valerie Weiss, a doctoral student in biochemistry at the Medical School who, as the Dudley House Drama Fellow, runs the program. “Usually, when you think about making a film, it’s intimidating. I’m trying to make it easy.”

Technology’s rapid advance has helped Weiss in her mission. Rather than using expensive 16 mm film, today’s filmmakers are able to use relatively inexpensive digital video cameras that have recently come on the market. Besides the equipment itself being inexpensive, editing digital video can be done on a desktop computer, equipped with extra memory and video editing software.

“It is absolutely amazing for the independent filmmaker. You can make all your films digitally,” Weiss said.

The potential for digital video technology was highlighted last year in the commercial success of the feature-length movie The Blair Witch Project. Film students made the movie at a fraction of the cost of most of today’s feature movies. The Blair Witch Project’s unpolished feel was used to add realism to the predicament of the student filmmakers who get lost in a haunted forest while exploring local legends.

Though Weiss said she wasn’t crazy about The Blair Witch Project, she noted that the film’s success is encouraging for independent filmmakers. The movie also shows the importance of a great idea – student filmmakers exploring a legend that turns out to be real – around which to build a film.

In Wagner’s Check, Please the idea around the repeated punch line in the title is the commonality of dating and the effort to fit together human puzzle pieces that don’t always have even remotely similar shapes.

“It doesn’t take an experienced filmmaker to have a great idea,” Weiss said. “Do the idea as simply as possible.”

To help the budding filmmakers this semester, Weiss assembled a series of nine workshops and lectures that ran from January through March. The series featured visits by actress Debra Winger and director Michael Corrente, who directed the films American Buffalo and Outside Providence. The series also featured screenings of several short films coupled with discussions with their makers. Included were Lauren Ivy Chiong, who made Holy Tortilla! and Testament, and director Carlos Hamill and producer Barbara Bouquegneau, who showed and discussed their Twenty Peaches in a Box.

Not all the students involved want to be actors, or to direct and produce movies. Some come with an idea they’ve been itching to turn into a movie or with a desire to work behind the camera.

Students who participate in the program share an interest in making movies, but come from academic backgrounds as diverse as biology, history, and sociology. Most have little or no experience making films, though many have participated in school or community theater.

Tom Torello, a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biology, plays Jeffrey, the male lead who’s fixed up on a blind date in Check, Please. Torello said he’s been in Dudley House plays in the past and he enjoys acting because he gets to meet people with interests outside of science.

“You get to interact with people on a different level than talking about cells,” Torello said dryly. “It’s a bit more fun.”

The film project transformed Torello’s Somerville apartment into a movie set for a Saturday evening in early April. The scene that was shot there involves several friends talking Jeffrey into going on a blind date.

Though Check, Please is make-believe, academic reality sometimes intrudes – cast and crew had to take a break in the filming so Torello could run over to the lab to feed growing cells being used in an experiment exploring the sense of smell.

The crew in Torello’s apartment consisted of a cameraman, three actors, and Wagner, who acted and directed at the same time. The sets weren’t fancy, just the living-room furniture rearranged a couple of times to get better angles.

Though it took several takes to get the scene right, Wagner said the biggest surprise in putting together Check, Please hasn’t been the shooting; it’s how involved the whole production is.

“I’ve been in a theater cast before,” Wagner said. “Now I’m getting people to participate and the writing has been more involved. Here, I am directing a movie and I’m responsible for everything.”

A screening of Check, Please and nine other student films – covering topics from loneliness to vending machines – made during this spring’s film program will be held in Dudley House on Saturday and Sunday, May 13 and 14, at 7 p.m. The screenings are open to the public. More information is available on the Web at