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Reel Life Adventures : High School Students Discover Teamwork, Filmmaking in Project

December 17, 1995|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PACOIMA — It's a common Hollywood scene: The film editor, director and producer agonize over a shot in the confines of an editing room, leaning over an $80,000 editing machine.

"I just didn't like the way that line sounded," said the director. "It was too abrupt. Let's watch it again."

Francis Ford Coppola at work? Martin Scorsese? No, this is a group of high school teenagers editing their 72-minute student film, a production that has taught them almost as much about themselves as about filmmaking.

At times the fledgling filmmakers found themselves tangled in dramatic Hollywood-like clashes: threatened resignations, rivalries and ego-driven disagreements. But as their production nears completion, they have forged friendships, kept themselves out of trouble and learned the art of teamwork and perseverance.

"We went from being regular teenagers to making a kind-of Hollywood feature film," said Dan Aeverhard, the co-producer. "We all got into our roles and egos. A few times we had to say, 'Guys, we're just teenagers,' to bring everyone back."

These teenagers also had to become mini-moguls of sorts to produce their film, selling their idea to a television company and procuring some of the most sophisticated equipment around from production companies and studios.

The movie, "Common Bonds," is a complex and sophisticated tale involving a teenage girl who is caught breaking into a house and is sentenced to perform community service at a retirement villa. She befriends two senior citizens and uncovers an insurance scam that is seeking to bilk the elderly residents out of their savings.

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The production culminates nearly two years of work that began at Pacoima Middle School's television, theater and fine arts magnet. Now that the students are fanned out in high schools around the city, they still meet weekly, and sometimes daily, in the editing bay at their old junior high.

But the complicated lives and sometimes quirky needs of active high school students pose equally complicated scheduling adjustments.

A post-production meeting is rescheduled to accommodate an editor who needs to write a research paper for a class; someone else wants to get home in time for "Seinfeld" and "Friends," and an editor is asked to be an assistant director for a day while a fellow student takes the SAT, the college entrance exam.

Since the beginning, though, the students have had a grueling schedule. Writing the movie took a year--one group began the script and another group rewrote it. They all took a vote on the ending.

"I don't suggest ever writing with that many people again," said Elizabeth Eiben, a Grant High student and writer-turned-editor. "It's not a good thing."

The students plan to present the film at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in 1997. They expect to be the wunderkinds of the independent film festival, says Pacoima teacher James Gleason.

It was only a year ago that the budding filmmakers attended the festival, where they conducted a major schmooze fest of their own, working theaters and meeting rooms for professional help and donations.

The film festival also was a turning point.

"That experience changed them," says Gleason, who also attended. "They saw a whole part of the industry they hadn't seen before--the filmmakers showing their films . . . the famous ones and the unknown ones. But everyone was very approachable."

This time, Gleason said, "they want to go back as filmmakers."

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As a result of their festival contacts, mentors from the Directors' Guild of America and various production companies have guided the students throughout production.

They even sold the film. Encore Media, a Colorado-based company, bought the video and television broadcast distribution rights for $50,000, more than half of which has been used to pay production costs.

Even if the film is aired on television, the students still hope to secure theatrical distribution rights so "Common Bonds" can be shown in movie theaters.

They also scored so-called product placement deals, in which firms donate items to be shown or used during the film. Coca-Cola and Eagle brand snacks, along with a few others, are noticeable in part of the movie.

Also noticeable--if you know where to look--is the director's leitmotif. Antonio Manriquez, who currently attends Pacific Palisades High School, discreetly displayed a teddy bear about every 10 minutes in the film. Known as "the teddy bear thing," the rest of the staff hated the idea.

"Even the hair girl said it didn't look good," Manriquez said. "I told her, 'Deal with hair--not with art."'

And so it went. Manriquez said he came close to "breaking down" from exhaustion during production. Disputes erupted frequently among members, including an argument over the film's title, which was ultimately settled by a vote during a McDonald's break.

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"Teamwork was difficult to understand," Manriquez said. "I was 14 when I started this. A 14-year-old doesn't have many people skills. It was tough.

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