For Cal State Northridge student Angelique Lettich, the opportunity to work with internationally recognized movie director Don Petrie as she finishes her senior film project is “thrilling.”
For Petrie, director of such international hits as “Grumpy Old Men,” “Miss Congeniality” and “My Life in Ruins,” the opportunity to return to his alma mater this fall as “artist in residence” in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts and work with future filmmakers was one he could not pass up.
“For one thing, it’s an opportunity to stay up to date on the latest trends and even new technologies. For instance, these kids are more attuned to the computer/digital world than I have ever been,” Petrie said. “But I am also here because it presents me an opportunity to work with the students.
“I know from when I was [at CSUN] as a student a long, long time ago, that students in state schools are much more driven because they are having to work two jobs in order to just have the wherewithal to attend college. They are very committed to getting their education and getting everything they can out of their education,” he said. “These kids want to learn and are eager to learn, and hopefully I have something to teach them.”
Cinema and television arts professor Nate Thomas, head of CSUN’s film program, said Petrie, who graduated from Northridge with a degree in theater in the 1970s, will be working directly with the students selected to take part in CSUN’s annual Senior Film Showcase, which takes place every spring.
“We originally asked him to work with the student directors, but he wants to work with all the students involved in the senior film projects, from the directors to the producers, writers and the crew. He is really taking it to another level,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the program was “lucky” to have someone of Petrie’s caliber, “one of the top A-list directors when it comes to romantic comedies,” willing to spend at least one day a week working with the student filmmakers.
“At other universities, artists in residence may spend a hour or two a week working with the students,” Thomas said. “But not Don; he’s spending hours each week with the kids, getting to know them and their work personally, and really sharing his experiences in the movie business. They are learning so much that goes way beyond what we can teach them in the classroom. An opportunity like this, to learn from an acclaimed veteran filmmaker like him, comes once in a lifetime if at all.”
Lettich, whom Petrie is mentoring through the creation of her senior film project, “Schwartza,” called working with the veteran director “one of the most thrilling, inspiring and scariest experiences I’ve ever had.
“We could sit around and watch movies and discuss directors all day. But what Mr. Petrie is doing is way beyond that,” she said. “Mr. Petrie is approachable. He talks to you like you are in the business, not like you are a student. He is such a respected director and has so much experience. And yet he relates to the students so well. We know we can talk to him and we know we will learn so much from him.”
Petrie brushed aside the accolades, saying that what he is learning from the students-insights on trends and technology-as well as their enthusiasm for filmmaking more than makes up for the time he is giving.
“Besides,” he said with a laugh, “I’m not working on a project at the moment.”
Petrie said he hopes to draw from all his experiences as a filmmaker in his lessons with the students.
“I can hopefully given them a glimpse of the realities of working in the business before they go off and get in the middle of it,” he said. “It’s one thing to make a film within the walls of academe, but it’s another to take a meeting with a studio rep and pitch themselves and their project. That’s what I hope to teach them, the nitty gritty of the movie business.”
Among his topics are what directors look for in and how to audition actors, how to pitch a project to studio heads, and how to “take a meeting.” He also hopes to hold a workshop for theater students later this semester on how to audition for a director. The key to all this, he said, “is communication.”
“These students can have all the technical expertise, talent and training, but if they don’t know how to communicate it to the studio people, who are often more business people than artists, they may not get the job,” Petrie said. “I’d like to see these kids get the job.”