- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2007

Director James Foley doesn’t mind people seeing the film projects he completed before making a name for himself.

“They should show everybody’s first film before their films in the theater, to see if they evolve or devolve,” says Mr. Foley, of “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) and “After Dark, My Sweet” fame.

Theaters would have to bump too many commercials and trailers before that happens, but film enthusiasts can get the next best thing with a new DVD compilation.

“Reel Talent: First Films by Legendary Directors” (released Aug. 21) assembles a who’s who of University of Southern California film school graduates, from Mr. Foley to George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”).

The shorts are grainy and were made on microscopic budgets, and the less said about some of the performances, the better.

However, knowing the nine directors’ subsequent works makes the viewing process akin to an awakening.

Try watching Mr. Lucas’ “A Man and His Car” and not think of 1973’s “American Graffiti” — let alone the many high-speed chases in the “Star Wars” features.

Similarly, Mr. Zemeckis’ “The Lift” highlights the young director’s affinity for blending supernatural elements with traditional storytelling.

Mr. Foley’s own short, “Silent Night,” developed from the time he spent working as a psychiatric technician during college.

“I’m proud of that film in context of where I was in my head at the time and my abilities,” he says.

“Silent Night” follows a frustrated worker at a mental institution charged with quieting a saxophone-playing patient.

“It had feeling to it … I thought that’s what distinguished it,” he says.

Mr. Foley, whose latest feature, “Perfect Stranger,” arrived on DVD this week, recalls the atmosphere that helped him produce the engaging short.

“It was a contagion,” he says of his fellow students’ take on their art. “Cinema … you breathed it, and you drank it, and you soaked in it,” Mr. Foley says.

Those vibrations didn’t just emanate from his peers.

“I really felt the professors wanted us to succeed,” he adds.

Mr. Foley continued his foray into darker sentiments with his first professional projects, including the 1986 drama “At Close Range” with Sean Penn.

Critics, he says, began pounding on his work for such sullen themes.

“I got beaten over the head with ‘darkness.’ That’s where ‘Who’s That Girl’ came from,” Mr. Foley says of his calamitous collaboration with Madonna in 1987.

“Reel Talent” uses the term “legendary” loosely. Shawn Levy’s films, for example, may make big bank (witness “Night at the Museum”) but he shouldn’t expect an honorary Oscar in 30 years.

Yet “Reel Talent” might inspire young filmmakers to consider the growing pains today’s artists suffered to make it in Hollywood.

Mr. Foley, in fact, finds his own inspiration from viewing his past work.

“For me, it comes at a good time,” Mr. Foley says, adding that he’s re-energized by the collection as well as a new habit of viewing a DVD a day while working out on an elliptical machine.

“I’m falling in love with film [again],” he says.

Christian Toto

Too cool for school

“Chalk,” a mockumentary about the teaching profession, may have a lot of its audience members reliving uncomfortable moments from their high school days: the embarrassing gym class lessons, the stammering new instructors who never quite hit their stride, those uncomfortable parent-teacher conferences.

Director Mike Akel and his co-writer, Chris Mass, surely must have drawn on their schoolyard memories, right?

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Akel says.

In fact, when the longtime friends began brainstorming about the film, they were both employed as teachers in Austin, Texas. Mr. Akel says the job was so “intense” and the material “so fresh” that “a lot of the characters and even scenes” came directly from his years as an educator.

“I think maybe part of it was that there are enough movies out there that have the kids’ perspective,” he says. “We wanted to show that what really goes on at school isn’t just gang violence and sex and drugs; there’s so much underneath that landscape.”

Ergo, “Chalk” provides a humorous peek into the illustrious teachers lounge. Inside, viewers discover insecure new history teacher Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), his cocksure counterpart Mr. Stroope (Mr. Mass), goody-goody gym teacher Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer) and recent administrative recruit Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan).

Through their “interviews” and “candidly” captured words (largely improvised, by the way), the characters show teachers not as untouchables mounted atop a pedestal or as authoritarians on power trips. They’re people. They gossip, politick, gripe about their fading social lives and grow emotional when so moved. As in real-life, their stories are sometimes riveting, while others are snooze-inducing.

At the outset, “Chalk” presents the bleak statistic that 50 percent of teachers quit within the first three years. It doesn’t point definitively to any answers, but it does suggest a few. It shows that the job isn’t easy, there’s no real instruction manual, and the payoffs aren’t always plentiful.

Mr. Mass says teachers have to do more than just prepare lesson plans. They have to be counselors, friends and disciplinarians. On top of that, he adds, “You have to deal with the administration and red tape.” He says that although most teachers he knows get into the field “to impact the future” and “open kids’ eyes” to subjects, he believes that in actuality, they get to do this only a small percentage of the time.

Now that their feature film debut has taken flight, both Mr. Mass and Mr. Akel have added the prefix “ex” to their teaching titles. They’re focusing on moviemaking and pitching a TV show based on “Chalk.”

For the time being, though, they’re enjoying life outside the classroom door.

“Chris and I were talking about it today,” Mr. Akel says. “The buses are out, and school’s starting here…. We don’t miss that. We miss the kids.”

Jenny Mayo

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