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Film Grads Set New Standards for Independent Cinema

CC's Max Minghella, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross and Richard Gere star in Berger's Bee Season.

Columbia's graduate film school prides itself on teaching cinema not simply as a craft but also as an art. According to acting dean Dan Kleinman, this unique approach has earned it the reputation of being "one of the two most successful programs in the country, along with the one at the University of Southern California."

This fall is a testament to the effectiveness of the school's approach, with high-profile independent films by two graduates gracing our cinema screens.

Producers Jeff Sharp (SOA'01) and Albert Berger (SOA'83) have already made names for themselves in independent cinema. They continue to set new standards with the fall release of Proof by Sharp and Bee Season and Ice Harvest by Berger.

Annette Insdorf, who chaired the Graduate Film Division in the early 1990s, says that Sharp and Berger "exemplify the strengths of Columbia's M.F.A. program": its focus on screenwriting as the basis of all strong filmmaking and its emphasis on film history.

"Having seen and appreciated Bee Season, I can see how its filmmaking team has learned from great movies of the past, including those of Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski," she notes.

Never a Dull Moment with Producer

Jeff Sharp

Jeff Sharp was no film novice when he first arrived at Columbia. After earning a B.A. from Colgate, he moved to Los Angeles and, with no experience, landed a job as a development assistant for director Oliver Stone on The Doors and JFK. He went on to work with the late author Randy Shilts and director Joel Schumacher on And the Band Played On (1993), an independent film on the discovery of the AIDS virus.

Despite this hands-on experience, Sharp remained unsure of how to pursue his goal of becoming a producer. Oliver Stone advised him to try film school, and Sharp duly enrolled in the Columbia program.

However, he never stopped working in the business even while a student, helping to start up the Hamptons International Film Festival, which, like the Sundance Festival, celebrates American independent cinema.

Jeff Sharp's Proof features Gwyneth Paltrow and Alumnus Jake Gyllenhaal

Shortly after completing his coursework at Columbia, Sharp teamed up with John Hart, a producer he'd met at Sundance, to pursue their common goal of developing, financing, marketing and distributing independent feature films and theatrical productions.

Hart-Sharp Entertainment quickly moved to the top of the industry, producing the Tony award-winning revivals of Chicago and Annie Get Your Gun, as well as the acclaimed independent films Boys Don't Cry (1999), You Can Count on Me (2000), Nicholas Nickleby (2002), A Home at the End of the World (2004) and P.S. (2004). (For more on the company, go to http://www.hartsharp.com/index.php.)

Most recently, Hart-Sharp produced and financed Proof, which marks Gwyneth Paltrow's return to the screen under director John Madden, who guided her to an Oscar in Shakespeare in Love.

Based on David Auburn's prize-winning Broadway play of the same name, Proof is the story of the daughter (Paltrow) of a brilliant mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) who has lost his mind. The father believes his daughter has inherited his talent, while she fears he has passed on his mental illness. In the wake of her father's death, she struggles to come to terms with this legacy, developing a relationship with one of his students -- played by Columbia alumus Jake Gyllenhaal (CC'02) -- in the process.

In addition to Proof, which opened in New York in September, Hart-Sharp have produced The Night Listener, a psychological thriller starring Robin Williams, to premiere at Sundance this coming January.

Sharp's advice for up-and-coming film producers? It's important to have the courage of your convictions, he stresses. When Sharp first read Auburn's Proof, he

wasn't sure he could see it as a film, but he optioned the play nevertheless.

"I went to see the theater performance, and I was amazed at how well the actors were able to connect with the audience," he says. "The story says important things about our parents, about how we inherit both their genius and their madness. It's a powerful theme."

Sharp also credits Columbia's "high-quality resources and faculty" for contributing to his success. "I have continuing friendships and relationships from SOA to this day, many of which have helped me with my career. These relationships would not have happened naturally out in the world -- that's the special thing about Columbia."

As already mentioned, Proof stars Jake Gyllenhaal. Patrick Stettner, SOA'95, and a Columbia friend of Sharp's, directed The Night Listener. Sharp has also staffed his Noho office with several SOA students and recent graduates.

Albert Berger: From Screenwriter to Producer

Upon graduating from Tufts University, Albert Berger returned to his native Chicago, where he bought and managed the Sandburg Theater, a revival showcase for obscure and classic films. Then it was back to school, this time Columbia's graduate film school -- a step that would ultimately lead to a high-powered film-producing career.

While at Columbia, Berger befriended classmate Gabe Weber, and the two became screenwriting partners. After graduation, Berger moved to Los Angeles while Weber stayed in New York. Within six weeks of sending their scripts to studios on both coasts, they had landed their first screenwriting deal. Berger and Weber collaborated for a total of eight years, writing scripts for Paramount, TriStar, MGM, Orion and producer Roger Corman.

Berger, however, eventually grew dissatisfied with the screenwriting life. He wasn't interested in watching most of the films he'd been hired to make, and no one was making the kind of movies he did want to see. It was time to make the leap into producing, "so I could pick the things I wanted to do and do more than one project at a time."

He found a new partner in Ron Yerxa, and since 1993 the two have run Bona Fide Productions, which specializes in lower-budget, thoughtful films. The team has produced eight movies to date, including Alexander Payne's Election (1999), Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill (1993) and Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain (2003). ( Cold Mountain was the exception to the pair's lower-budget rule. They had optioned the book before it became a hot Hollywood property.)

Berger also served as executive producer of the award-winning documentary Crumb (1999), about the 1960s cartoonist Robert Crumb.

November is a big month for Berger and Yerxa. On Nov. 11, they release Bee Season, an adaptation of a Myla Goldberg novel, with Richard Gere as a desperate father who embraces his 11-year-old daughter Eliza's quest to become a spelling bee champion while his wife (Juliette Binoche) sinks into depression. Columbia College student Max Minghella plays Eliza's talented older brother.

The second film, Ice Harvest (release date: Nov. 23), based on a novel by Scott Phillips, tells the story of two minor mobsters, played by John Cusack and Billy-Bob Thornton.

How does a successful producer decide on a project? "All you need is an idea," Berger says. "If you find something that you feel has to get made, that's a great start. If you read a book you really like and you can get control of that book, you can then bring it to a writer, actor or director."

Like Sharp, Berger credits Columbia for pointing him in the right direction at a critical moment in his career. Reflecting on the School of the Arts in the early 1980s, he says: "It was an exciting time to be there. You had a wonderful mix of viewpoints -- often contradictory -- about how to write or direct." He continues: "SOA is an extraordinary place. Unlike NYU and other film schools where the training is for practical jobs in the industry, Columbia is creating filmmakers and writers with an artistic frame of reference."


Published: Nov 02, 2005
Last modified: Nov 01, 2005

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