Notes from Movieland: 14: Sundance, 28: Hollywood High


I promised to write about Antonio (Tony) Manriquez a few blogs ago. He’s one of the cinematic child wonders currently coming up through the ranks. Though still pursuing his own moviemaking expression on some level, Tony, 28, now teaches other youngsters the magic of moviemaking. One of the reasons I wanted to write about Tony was his incredible passion for and knowledge of not only the craft of moviemaking, but the world of film.

While we sipped our coffee concoctions at the Borders cafe in Sherman Oaks, Tony swooned over Kubrick, quoted scenes, deeply analyzed moments and meanings from his oeuvre and generally made me want to squeeze his brain for every drop of infinite filmic knowledge he seemed to have compiled and stored therein.

Mostly, I wanted to absorb by osmosis some of his enthusiasm. Then again, some of that enthusiasm had been tempered by time and circumstance. He’d become just a wee bit cynical about ever having a career as a director. Not that it’s a secret society or a hidden fortress… Someone’s gotta do it. It might as well be Tony. Or me. Or you, for that matter.

When I interviewed Tony about the youthful foray into directing that landed him at Sundance, he diverted me with his ancient reservoir of compassion and convinced me to delve first into my own soul. Well, I’m done with that terror-inducing exercise in public self-analysis (a few blogs ago) and am actually grateful to Tony for goading me into taking that little revelatory journey. A few people actually enjoyed it.

Back in middle school, Tony attended the Magnet Program in performing arts in Pacoima, California. He was 14, it was 1994 and, ahead of himself in maturity and intellect, he hated school. Surprise, surprise.

A group of 13-year-olds from his school went to Sundance as audience members and came back on fire, empowered by the crap they’d seen there. “We can make a better film!” they declared and proceeded to prove it.

James Gleason, the head of the film program, asked Sundance’s Geoff Gilmore how to get the kids into the festival and was told it had to be shot on film. Yes, actual celluloid. Ah, the good old days. The kids, under supervision, concocted a script about a few friends who break into a woman’s house as a prank and, after being caught, are sentenced to community service at a nursing home.

Tony wasn’t part of this original group of kids. He was busy learning about moviemaking on his own. He did everything I tell myself I should be doing. Very motivated kid. He made his dad take him to a shop in Burbank where he could buy actual scripts. He analyzed them, compared them to their cinematic incarnations and absorbed all he could about story structure. He was fascinated by the missing scenes in Wayne’s World. They were in the script—why had they been excised in the film? He had to understand or his short life wouldn’t be worth living! You know, the normal machinations of the teenage mind.

When the Pacoima student film’s chosen director, a 15-year-old, couldn’t seem to pull it together, Tony was brought on board to lead the crew to the finish line. Besides their passionate teacher, the students had four DGA mentors aboard including Arnold Laven and Donald Petrie (who discouraged Tony from going to film school and encouraged him, instead, to study creative writing, theater or any other discipline in preparation of becoming a moviemaker). They had $50,000 and a lead actor who was four times Tony’s age. I wish I could have witnessed it: Teen directing geriatric actor. The film was called Common Bonds.

Tony described his experience with the “real” negative cutter, Larry Mischel, as if he’d worked with the god of all cutters. If you recall, film could once be touched, scratched, caressed, cut and printed. Tony’s excitement was bubbling to the surface and I knew he felt the sensuality and tangibility of the negative just as I once did years and years ago.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock—I love the digital democratization of movies, but cripes, it can be so UGLY! It’s much more difficult to master film but it’s also harder to ruin its visuals. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the potential of color correction to enhance the look, and thus the visceral impact of digital imagery. All it takes is a few more weeks in post-production and you could paint some subtle visual magic.

So, the Pacoima middle school movie, Common Bonds, landed in Nirvana and Tony went to wallow in the attention with his fellow classmates. The year was 1997. I’d call it the tail end of Sundance’s glory years. Right around the time it became every indie moviemaker’s nightmare and every Hollywood agent’s cocktail hour. Probably the last year a film with no recognizable actors or director screened. (Okay, I’m exaggerating… but I’ve been attending since 1994 and I have witnessed the shift up close and personal. I don’t think it’s quite what the honorable Mr. Redford had in mind… but that’s fodder for another blog.)

Tony’s biggest complaint? The bitter cold. He’d never been in snow before. His second complaint? They screened his precious film in a hotel conference room which seated no more than 100 people and was projected from a machine that had one dim, warm-toned tungsten bulb and you could hear the sound from a handful of other screenings going on simultaneously in neighboring rooms.

Their film also screened in the actual Sundance Institute screening room. Because of the subject matter, the organization bussed in an entire audience from a nearby retirement home. They had a Q&A afterwards: About twenty 16-year-olds volleying answers to the geriatric crowd. Tony said he got the “bizarro Sundance experience.” His best memory? The Cholesterol Hiker’s pizza. To die for.

Tony couldn’t get tickets to any other screenings during his short stint so he explored the contra-world of Slumdance. He landed in a basement filled with tents, watching films projected from video and eating popcorn and soup. Basically, you’d trade your ID for a movie, watch it in the tent and return it for the next one. Tony loved the truly underground ambience of it all. He fondly reminisced about his tent-viewing of the Italian Danger: Diabolik by Mario Bava.

How did I miss Slumdance? Damn. I just remember the good old rebel fest Slamdance days. And does anybody else miss the Sundance that once was? The “independent” festival of Mr. Redford’s initial imagination? I do.

To leap forward to the present, Tony, after leaving high school early, spent some time assistant teaching and then teaching high school. He’s now teaching all six newly-created moviemaking courses at Hollywood High School and is committed to making it the best program in the country. Tony also teaches a Saturday class at Cleveland High and, as an Apple-certified trainer, continues to teach adult courses in Final Cut Pro.

As much as Tony loves teaching, he’s a little misty when he talks about the possibility of directing again. He says, “once a teacher, always a teacher” and I don’t know if he’s empowered or trapped by his strength to teach. I know he’s passionate about empowering his students to weave their own digital stories, but I wonder if he has given up completely on empowering himself. He asks himself the same question.

The funny thing is, Tony is 28. He thinks it’s too late in the game for him. He just needs a little dose of optimism. With the life experience, compassion and sheer joy of moviemaking spinning his psyche around, there’s no way he’ll leave this lifetime without attempting to sculpt out a story from his unique point of view.

Once you’ve inherited the movie gene, there’s really not much to do but surrender to it.

Optimistically yours,
Anne

Anne Norda is an award-winning artist, writer, director and producer with one feature, Red Is the Color Of (Best Feature Film, 2007 LA Femme Film Festival), under her belt. She was born in North Hollywood, schooled at the Parsons School of Design and was a Fulbright Scholar in photography. She’s a Finnish and U.S. citizen and has lived in Paris, Helsinki, LA, NY and Bangkok. Her dream is to run a major movie studio. Or be a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and dedicate her life to art and the transformation of humanity. Whichever may come first.

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