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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Indie Dreams
Pomona's independent filmmakers passionately pursue projects outside the Hollywood studio system.

By A. McCollum Algeo

As a child, Paul Etheredge-Ouzts ’90 would curl up on the sofa to watch 16 mm films his mother brought home from the humanities class she taught. He watched film noir and sci-fi classics projected above the fireplace mantle. In high school Jennifer Phang ’96 became enchanted by images and would sneak around at night filming with a friend’s video camera. When Melissa Jo Peltier ’83 was only nine her father helped her shoot a film, which she then edited, and by 11, she’d written, shot, directed and edited her own Sherlock Holmes parody.

College at Pomona, just a traffic-jammed freeway from Hollywood, nurtured their dreams and now Etheredge-Ouzts has just completed his first feature writing and directing project; Phang is in post-production on the first feature she’s written and directed; and Peltier is a founding partner in a development and production company.


   
Melissa Jo Peltier '83 is a founding
partner in the firm that produced
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the highest-grossing indie feature film.
These and other Pomona graduates from the 1950s to the 2000s are working against the odds to make films outside Hollywood’s major studios. Some support themselves with work in film, others have “day jobs” and pursue their projects in spare moments and sometimes with spare money. One thing they all share is a passion for film’s power to affect us and a desire to bring stories to the screen, big or small, in any way they can.

Gabriel London ’00 got his start in film through his senior thesis. He created a major that drew on his interests in politics, psychology and literature. By senior year, he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker, and he credits Pomona with encouraging him by allowing him to make a documentary on prison rape to fulfill his thesis requirement. When he learned Human Rights Watch was funding a study about the same issue, he contacted them and pitched a documentary. With a $40,000 grant, London was on his way.

He finished two short films on the subject to accompany the study. London learned to be a filmmaker on the project, but he’s proudest of the fact that his film is now used to train prison guards. (See video clips.)

Ann Eldridge ’56 grew up around the movie business and majored in theater. As an educator she turned her interest in film to making documentaries about such topics as environmentalist Jean Stratton-Porter, the Underground Railroad, and, for her next project, the author Laura Ingalls Wilder. But don’t call her an educational filmmaker. “Don’t say I’m making educational movies,” she said. “What I’m interested in really is in bringing these Midwestern people to life … in a sense, education, but not in a dry, dusty way.”
London agrees that whatever purpose a film serves, the primary goal is a creative one. “Living in Hollywood I try to stay away from words like ‘advocacy,’” he said. “I like real stories, and I think real stories have the power to open people’s eyes to political phenomenon and the realities of our world.”

While every filmmaker has a dream project, most must also pick up projects to pay the bills, and hopefully get them closer to their goal. Etheredge-Ouzts toiled for years in art departments before getting the chance to write and direct his first feature — described as the first gay/horror/slasher film — something he finds ironic.

“I hate slasher movies. Hate them,” he said. “The idea that my first writing and directing job was going to be a genre I’d avoided … was very, very amusing.” As well as a chance to write and direct, it also presented a unique challenge – to interest fans of the genre and also keep himself engaged. In the end, his motivation was the same as London’s – a good story.

“I’m fascinated by people,” he said. “We’re so complicated and exciting in so many unique ways that exploring that interests me.” He created characters with depth that don’t adhere to the stereotypes of gay or slasher movies.

Peltier was a successful freelancer working non-fiction film and television, when she turned to scriptwriting. She saw several of her screenplays optioned and one eventually produced – but only after seven years of fits and starts.

The years of instability and frustration left her wondering what her next step should be. Two colleagues she trusted had reached the same point, so they decided to form a company. The first movie they produced featured an actress named Nia Vardalos, who asked them to look at a script she’d written. No one else would touch it, but Peltier and her partners believed in it. That script became My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the highest grossing independent feature film in history.

The realities of filmmaking mean that even after success, it can be a struggle to find a way to tell their stories without compromising. “It’s kind of a for-profit town,” London said.

But making films entertaining is the best way to ensure that a story gets told. “The ultimate goal is to communicate with all people, not just intelligent, well-educated people.” Though he’s drawn to stories that are often challenging, he said, “I would like to find a way to make them popular. I don’t want to make art house fare.”

Peltier is realistic. “If we really want to keep working, it can’t always be ‘will it better the world?’” she said. Still she focuses on turning out projects she feels good about. Having partners who share her vision and ideals is key to being able to do this, because it can mean turning down lucrative projects.

“A lot of filmmaking in general has to do with finding your partners who believe in you – who are ridiculously committed,” Phang said. “What motivates me is the talent of other people.”

For these, as for many filmmakers, the dream started early, when the obstacles in their path were distant and amorphous. But with each project, new obstacles appear and the odds against all of them are great. Every year people give up and turn to other careers.

Peltier and her partners once used their own money to send a group of university students to Egypt to resurrect the work of a paleontologist whose work had been destroyed. They were almost out of money, days away from bringing the film crew home with nothing to show for it, when the group found the second largest dinosaur ever discovered.

“We have many times, my partners and I, stopped and said, ‘Is it worth it?’ Peltier said, “Usually God sends you a little signal right after that to tell you why it is.”

Film credits

Ann Eldridge ’56
Untitled documentary on Laura Ingalls Wilder
Passages to Freedom (television documentary) – Co-Writer/Director/Co-Producer
A Walk in the Woods with Jean Stratton-Porter (television documentary) – Writer/Director/Producer
A Girl of the Limberlost (television movie) – Co-Producer

Paul Etheredge Outzs ’90
Hellbent (feature film) – Writer/Director
Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (feature film)– Art Department, swing gang
Love God (feature film)– Art Department, props
I Shot Andy Warhol (feature film– Art Department, lead man
JFK (feature film)– Art Department, assistant

Gabriel London ’00
Untitled documentary on rebuilding of a Tuscan Village
The Best Place to Start (television documentary) – Producer
The Golden Globes: Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret (television documentary) – Line Producer
The Rules of the Game: Prison Rape and Reform (documentary) – Director
The Rodney Hulin Story (documentary) - Director

Melissa Jo Peltier ’83
The Dog Whisperer (television series) – Co-Producer
Nightwaves (television movie) – Writer
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (feature film) – Co-Executive Producer
Titanic: Death of a Dream (television documentary) – Writer/Director/Producer
Titanic: The Legend Lives On (television documentary – Writer/Director/Producer
Break the Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse (television special)– Writer/Director
Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse (television documentary) – Writer/Director

Jennifer Phang ’96
Half-Life (feature film) – Writer/Director
Target Audience 9.1 (feature film) – Co-Director
Love, Ltd. (short film) – Writer/Director
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