Production Notes from the film "freshmen"...
Basically, my professor thought I was making a 50-minute thesis project... I didn't exactly show him the whole script for his review. But I was ready to make a feature, and to have access to my school's cameras, lighting and grip equipment, and post-production facilities, as well as their insurance, this was the only way I could afford it. So with nine credit cards and some financial aid money in hand, I was able to craft freshmen over the span of a year for under $35,000, and this is what I am presenting to you now. And I'll have to say my professor isn't too happy about it.
freshmen is about the lives of four incoming freshmen from diverse backgrounds: San Ling, a Chinese-American who is obsessed with pop-icon Billy Joel and loathes his Chinese side; Tonisha Watkins, an inner-city prodigy who struggles between being a pre-med student and paying the family bills; Rick Kennedy, a conservative East Coast transplant who wrestles with multi-cultural university life and dealing with a career choice he doesn't want anymore; and Judy Oz, a free-spirited party girl who takes on the college social scene until it spirals out of her control.
When I set out to write the script, I wanted to write about what college life was really about to me; I was tired of seeing all of these Animal House rip-offs and bad comedies showing that college is about wild fraternity parties, dorm rooms the size of houses with bathtubs, and a college population as culturally diverse as a small Norwegian village. To me, college was about being on your own for the first time and discovering yourself, about being aware of cultural identity, about just growing up. So I set out with a simple idea: follow four diverse characters from different backgrounds, and watch them interact with each other and eventually see them realize a little bit about who they really are.
I wanted to not only concentrate on the usual college stuff, i.e., relationships, parties, school, but also on things that were important to me, such as cultural identity. San's figuring out he wants to "re-learn" what it means to be Chinese after being ashamed of it for so long is a real issue in my life that I think many people of all cultures go through after landing in a place where they're not the only Asian, or Italian, or Latino, or whatever.
The keys, to me, that would make the film interesting and successful were three things: one, creating and developing interesting characters that were real and that one could grow to like; two, creating a sense of realism to the audience, through production and what I think would be real college situations; and three, humor... there are so many poignant, funny moments in life, and that's what I think keeps a film interesting and not too melodramatic.
The characters and humor are aspects I can only hope come through in the script and with my actors. Fortunately, living in Los Angeles gave me access to a wealth of acting talent. Receiving over 500 head shots made for a bear of a casting call, but it all worked out. All of my actors are undiscovered, talented working actors who understood the characters and play them with charm, wit, and tenderness that was more than I could ever hope for.
To create a sense of realism in the film, I worked for a documentary-style feel, using primarily hand held camera shots, forgoing the dolly and tripod, and trying for long takes. My director of photography, Brian Harding, specialized in shooting in this style and thrived with the challenges. Having primarily hand held shots also freed up some of my limited crew to help take care of other technical aspects of production, such as loading film or getting lunch. The shooting was done all around the Loyola Marymount University campus, as well as random locations in Los Angeles. A dorm room set was built on the school's sound stage for all the characters' dorm room scenes.
The production of the film was very independent and bare-bones, which partially meant there were times I was directing, acting, and producing all at the same time. It was an exhausting task, but it was as it was supposed to be: a graduate course learning experience. To me, what better way to be able to make my first feature than to have the semi-safe environment of school where I could experiment, let it all hang out, and discuss my work with my peers, then have them help me shoot it.
In the end, my hope for freshmen is to have a film that shows college as I saw it: a sprawling, multi-cultural landscape, where people think they'll be just getting an academic education, but instead also get an education on who they are and who they may become. Where people of different colors come around to talk about stuff, and after a while, stop thinking about the other person's race. And where kids come to grow up a little.