Lights, camera, action!

Sacramento’s first film school graduates its inaugural class

Leonard Carillo is the chief instructor of the Breckenwood Film Institute.

Leonard Carillo is the chief instructor of the Breckenwood Film Institute.

Photo by Don Lipper

It’s graduation day for the inaugural class at Sacramento’s first film school and instructor Leonard Carillo struts in wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts and announcing to the group, “The way the Seattle movement was for music, Sacramento is becoming known as an independent film capital.”

It’s a bold claim. Now if only they could get the projector to work.

Carillo uses the minor technical snafu as a teachable moment: “Moviemaking is all about solving problems.” While his business partner Ron Ellis wiggles cords and unscrews the lens, Carillo fills the void.

He warns the audience, “Some of you have only seen the nice, safe stuff I’ve made before. Tonight, you’re going to see a whole other side of me. The language and the emotions are intense. If you’re sensitive, now would be a good time to step outside.”

As the video of their digital short Day Care finally begins to unspool, each of the seven graduates of the Breckenwood Film Institute can only wonder how the scenes that they painstakingly—and problematically—produced would meld together in the final cut.

The Breckenwood Film Institute ( is the dream child of Carillo, who has been teaching film in Vacaville at Buckingham Charter School for the past three years. “I’ve been getting tremendous amounts of interest from people who have watched high-school students having an opportunity to make a film,” Carillo said.

Ever image-conscious, Carillo created the school’s name by combining Breckenridge (home to a large independent film festival) with Hollywood (home of the major studios). Get it? Brecken-wood. “I didn’t want to have Leonard’s Film School or Sacramento Film School,” he quipped. “I wanted something that sounded like it had some meat on its bones.”

Carillo has three shorts under his directorial belt and as a writer has two features optioned by Viacom. He’s done everything from direct commercials to toil as a lowly production assistant on movies such as K-Pax. The only constants are his jovial attitude and his Hawaiian shirts.

“I’ve been wearing them so long that they’ve come in and out of style and back in again. I have about 25 of these things and I’m getting three more directly from the island tomorrow,” said Carillo, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

For $800, Breckenwood students get three weekends of what it normally takes Carillo a semester to teach. “If you look at the price for film schools, this is one of the cheapest film schools in the area doing what we are doing. Most of these film schools are anywhere from $4,000-$6,000 and you’re not dealing with the equipment or the environment,” said Carillo. “Students are going to walk out of this school having a real good grasp on what it takes to make an independent project.”

Carillo doesn’t really lecture, he holds court. As master of ceremonies on the opening day of the course, Carillo tells his students: “I want to pull the curtain back. In this business, there is no Oz. There are only people like me who are pulling the levers and pushing the buttons to make it look like there is an Oz.”

Carillo was the wizard who wrote his students’ script, Day Care, which revolves around a conflict between an aging father and his adult son. He boasts that he wrote the dark script in just a day, how it just poured out of his pen. “It scared me. Wow, where did this come from? I love my father very much,” he said with an uneasy laugh. “Maybe some day I’ll get a shrink and figure all this stuff out.” The first student who had to figure the script out was Kevin Cooper, a professional actor who stars in Day Care as the bitter son. Cooper went to film school to hone his craft, explaining, “I know what it is like to be given a script and told to learn these lines, but I want to learn from the ground up what it takes.”

What it takes to make a film really is the ability to solve problems, such as the seemingly minor task in rehearsal when Herb Shrum, who played the father, was supposed to recite a Hail Mary. The only problem was nobody on the set was Catholic, so nobody knew the words. They’d have to figure them out before shooting began.

Stephanie Tucker and Nicky Vannoy—both of whom had worked with Carillo before—cut film noir window slats out of foam core, but it took most of the afternoon to finish half the job. Like on the old show MacGyver, these film students learn a valuable life lesson: there isn’t a problem in the world that can’t be solved using gaffer’s tape.

Abandoning the idea of carving out the slats individually, they quickly cut out a rectangle and used strips of gaffer’s tape for each slat. Film noir in five minutes. In between shots, Carillo placed strips of black tape on his eyebrows and under his nose, teaching the students that with gaffer’s tape, one can even do a passable impression of Charlie Chaplin.

Leland Vandermeulen is a pale lanky kid with green highlights in his black hair. He wears a black T-shirt that says “I have no job. I have no money. I have no car. But I’m in a band.” In fact, he plays lead guitar in a band. After taking Carillo’s class in Vacaville, Vandermeulen already has lots of set experience.

On Day Care: “I was sound engineer and I did the clappy thing.” It drives Carillo nuts when the students call the slate “the clappy thing” so, of course, they call it nothing else.

Vandermeulen’s big moment came in one scene when smoke needed to pour out of the barrel of a gun. Carillo showed the .38-caliber revolver to the students, ensuring that all the chambers were empty. He gave a quick lecture about gun safety on the set and then handed the pistol to Vandermeulen. “Here Leland, make this work.”

Normally all you have to do is put some gaffer tape around the gun and blow cigarette smoke in the barrel and shoot that. But no one on the crew smoked. For an hour and a half Leland tried everything from putting a couple of matches to a wad of paper in the barrel and setting them on fire. Eventually they got the shot.

Leonard Carillo and his students film a scene from <i>Day Care</i>.

Photo by Don Lipper

Students learned from Carillo and other professionals as they made Day Care. While students scurried around the empty soundstage, veteran cinematographer Steven Steinberg taught the lingo of his trade. “Everything has a nickname depending on whether you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast. For example, on the East Coast a small dolly move is called a ‘little creep’; on the West Coast it is called a Mickey Rooney,” said Steinberg.

He introduced the nuances of lighting with technical talk of F-stops and apertures, but ultimately brought it all back to the creative vision of his students: “It really is about communicating something, getting to the emotions involved. It’s not pictures, it’s feelings.”

This is the perfect approach for Aaron Lane, a student who looks a little like his patron saint, Clerks auteur Kevin Smith. “It has been great learning the technical aspects of it,” he said. “I’m more of a creative person. Just having to test with the light meter is so much blah blah blah. I can describe what I want but setting it up is too tedious.”

Lane spends a lot of time behind the camera, but that isn’t the job he’ll remember most. “My job was light-bulb blower. There was this scene in the film that had a close-up of a hanging light bulb that’s swinging in the breeze. To make it move I had to keep blowing it into frame,” he said with a smile. “That’s going on the resume.”

For Stephanie Tucker, the course “has really whetted my appetite for cinematography and lighting.” But for her the joy of filmmaking is its own reward. “You feel alive on a set. I was working as an extra on Leonard’s last film and it was a long, long day at a funeral home. I was exhausted. He asked me, ‘Could you do this every day?’ And without even thinking I said, ‘Sure, in a heartbeat.’ ”

When the actual Hail Mary scene comes, Shrum can’t remember the exact words of the verse. Nicky holds up the script a few inches from his face, while they shoot his performance in an extremely tight close-up. He’s letter perfect, but the script has the words wrong.

Shrum’s troubles are just beginning. Unlike many digital films, Day Care is shot using Hollywood’s standard coverage shooting style, which means that every scene was re-shot from at least four angles (overhead, wide master shot, medium shot and close-up). That means for one scene, Shrum eats five large apple fritters in a row. “I love apple fritters,” he said, “but by the end of the day, I was ready to puke.”

In the end, there was Day Care, a 28-minute film that its creators assembled to watch on graduation day. There is a Hollywood truism that every script page equals one minute of screen time, and this script was just eight pages. If the students noticed the short was more than three times longer than expected, they don’t let on. It’s big grins and back slaps all around.

No one minds the bleak characters, the intense language, the mangled Hail Mary. All they can see is their triumph. Visually it looks better than you’d expect from video. The black-and-white cinematography and expressionistic lighting capture the mood perfectly.

“We had a great time over the last three weekends,” said Carillo. “I went to film school for two years and I never made anything like this. In a day and a half of shooting, we made a 28-minute movie.”

Carillo looks over the student body, mostly clad in T-shirts and jeans. “I noticed that you all left your caps and gowns at home,” he quips before calling each student on stage to receive a certificate, attached to which is a little strip of 16mm film negative. It is from Carillo’s first film. “I wanted them to leave with a little piece of me.”

After the students get their class photo, Aaron Lane shows off his certificate to the five relatives who came with him tonight. “Let it be known that Aaron Lane has completed the Breckenwood Film Institute course as a certified Independent Filmmaker Emeritus.”

Adding to the experience and the certificate, Carillo pledges to continue working with these would-be filmmakers: “We have some plans to help them. We want to post their resumes on our Web site and get them as much work as possible through various productions that are coming to town.”

Adding a ray of hope, Studio Center owner Frank Casanova tells the graduation assembly, “There is a groundswell of independent film here. Twelve small movies are in production right now.”

Yet it is Carillo who has the final words of inspiration: “My hope is that you start to fulfill your dreams to make a short film. I have a library of books about filmmaking but it wasn’t until I saw this Walt Disney quote, ‘How you get started is to stop talking about it and do it,’ that I realized that’s what it takes. My hope is that they will say, ‘I know how to make a film now, so I’m going to start planning my project.’ ”

Some students have already hit the ground running.

Aaron Lane is writing his untitled feature that he describes as “Clerks meets High Fidelity meets The Big Lebowski.” He’s hoping to start shooting in the fall.

Leland Vandermeulen is working on his Goth band Coagulate. “We’ve got two songs now. When we’ve got more, maybe I’ll direct the video.”

Nicky Vannoy already has a lead on a film production job in the area.

Wes Young is starring as Jedi Knight Tha Sau in his Star Wars homage film A Deception of the Force (, which should be out shortly.

Stephanie Tucker, Philip Gonsalves and Kevin Cooper are mulling their options. Have your people call their people and let’s do lunch.