Thirty alumni of USC's School of Cinematic Arts were photographed Feb. 11 at Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts in Los Angeles.
Thirty alumni of USC's School of Cinematic Arts were photographed Feb. 11 at Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts in Los Angeles.
Claudia Lucia

USC Film School Turns 90: Famous Alums Gather to Share Memories of a Hollywood Incubator

by Mia Galuppo
March 01, 2019, 6:00am PST

To mark nine decades of film education, The Hollywood Reporter holds a reunion for graduates of the university's iconic School of Cinematic Arts, from Kevin Feige to Stacey Sher: "The program teaches you about the value of connections."

When Douglas Fairbanks first pitched his idea for a film school, everybody thought he was crazy — movies back then weren’t considered an art form, let alone a proper subject for academic study. But he did pique the interest of his fencing partner, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, who also happened to be president of the then-49-year-old University of Southern California. And that’s how, in 1929, USC came to offer its first film course, Introduction to Photoplay, taught by Fairbanks’ pals Irving Thalberg, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. Ninety years later, THR reunites some of the School of Cinematic Arts’ most influential alumni (and interviews three-decade dean Elizabeth Daley) for a photo shoot and some school-days memories, with reminiscences going all the way back to a time when classes were held inside a stable.

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Class of 1979

Scott A. Stone, producer, Legends of the Hidden Temple

When I was at the School of Cinematic Arts, we were in a horse barn — literally — left over from World War I. We were still using Super 8 film, and you had to take it to the lab and have it processed, pick it up, edit it and then bring it to class. There was a very small group of people. But everyone I went to school with was the son or daughter of somebody famous. One of my buddies was Kevin Jewison, Norman Jewison's son, another was Ray Bradbury's daughter. I could make a list. It was an interesting mix of people. And I was this kid from Indiana who had no idea what I was doing. I came here because I was watching The Tonight Show one night with my dad, and Jerry Lewis, the comedian, came on and was talking about how he teaches directing in the film school at USC. I looked at my dad and said, "A school taught by Jerry Lewis? Are you kidding me? I'm going there!" And I got there, and he wasn't teaching anymore.

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Class of 1985

Stacey Sher, 56, producer, Erin Brockovich and Django Unchained

I went to the Peter Stark Producing Program. We started in the barracks [the old building that housed the film school since the '40s, also known as "the stables," taken down in '82] and moved into the old new building in our second year. Our classes were at night because all our teachers were working professionals. In my class were Liz Glotzer [a producer at Castle Rock] and Neal Moritz [a producer of the Fast & Furious franchise]. I had this internship for a music video director, and I worked on all these crazy '80s videos, including Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." A [fellow USC student] was doing an internship with a writer named David Simkins. He said, "David wrote this script and maybe you could get him to meet Twisted Sister." The screenplay was called Twisted Summer. Nothing came of it. But when I had finished the Stark program, David gave me this script of another movie. It was called Adventures in Babysitting. I brought it to [producer] Debra Hill, whom I was working for on a trial basis, and she hired me [at Hill/Obst Productions]. The program teaches you about the value of connections.

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Class of 1986

Jay Roach, 61, and Suzanne Todd, 53, director and producer, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

SUZANNE TODD I came when they were tearing down the old film school, which I guess now we have to call the "old old film school" because there have been two since then. But the "old old" one was a tiny kind of ramshackle building that [had a sign that] said "Sleep is for sissies" when you opened the door. Most people in film production come to USC wanting to be directors. They knew that George Lucas did it. I was one of the rare ones who really wanted to be a producer, so when it came time to do the 480 [an advanced-level production course where students make their senior thesis film], I got to meet with all the directors, and I basically got to pick who I thought was the most talented person. I wanted to pick this guy.

JAY ROACH It was called Asleep at the Wheel, and it was about a person who was headed to law school and gets kidnapped by a sort of hippie free-spirit woman who takes him on a ride before his LSATs and changes his whole life. While you're shooting, you're constantly under crazy scrutiny and being checked all the time. It was supposed to be "learn how to shoot on a budget."

TODD We did spend a little bit more money on food than some of the other crews because I had gone on a game show — $100,000 Pyramid — and won a bunch of money. When you're shooting and the crew is tired, you have to serve them a hot meal.

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Class of 1991

Lee Unkrich, 51, writer-director, Coco and Toy Story 3

I didn't get into the film school until my fifth application. I just kept applying even though I was never getting in. I wanted them to know that I wasn't going away. We were still working on film back then, but it was right at the transition. I was editing, directing and shooting 16-millimeter and Super 8 at the beginning, but by the end of my time, the Avid Media Composer came out. It was the very first generation of it, and Avid was really interested in getting people in the industry to switch over. But nobody was. They made a deal with USC to set up a lab that they could fill with Avids where they could bring editors in to train, and they allowed students to have access to it. I was a big computer nerd at the time, in addition to loving film, so it was like a perfect fusion for me. I ended up just living in that lab, learning the Avid inside and out. And it ended up paying off. [It's] what brought me to Pixar in the first place. They were making Toy Story, and they didn't want to edit it on film, they wanted it to be all digital because it was going to be the first digital movie. So, they reached out to Avid, and I ended up being on a list of people who were recommended. I got brought on for what was supposed to be a four- to six-week job at Pixar. And here we are, 25 years later.

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Class of 2014

Steven Caple Jr., 31, director, Creed II

I was class of 2014, master's program. MFA in directing. I worked at the sound window [at the entrance to the room where students check out sound equipment for their projects]. I liked it because it was an easy gig. It's an area a lot of students neglect, and it's the last thing they think of. The equipment's easy. "Here's your boom," and they're out of there. You could write your script or do whatever you had to do for class. But I also threw all the networking parties and shindigs. My first semester, first week, I had a huge party at my house. I lived close to campus on West Adams, but there was no furniture. So everyone came from our class and sat on the floor and everyone was in the backyard. At one point we got a bigger house, so we had a jumping gym in the backyard and an inflatable slide. I was sort of the hub, I guess, where we all came together and got a chance to know each other. You've got to find times where you can just cut loose because the curriculum is so intense and you don't really get breaks. So my parties were that.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.