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Making Its Way Into the Movies

May 09, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

There is no mistaking California's newest college campus in the movie "The Shape of Things," which opens today in select theaters nationwide.

From the gnarled pepper trees that line the main drag to the sun-splashed, Spanish-style buildings at the core of the Camarillo campus, Cal State Channel Islands serves as the big-screen backdrop for director Neil LaBute's twisted tale of love, sex and art set in a small college town.

"It just represented the perfect time and place," LaBute said of the sprawling campus, sandwiched between farm fields and the scrub-covered Santa Monica Mountains.

"It's a sweet campus, kind of a throwback in a way," he added. "I'm sure once word gets out ... they'll get more business than they bargained for."

Judging by the last four years, word is spreading fast.

The fledgling university, a mothballed mental hospital turned state college, has been home to more than 50 productions -- ranging from feature films to music videos -- since 1999.

It served as the induction center for the epic "Pearl Harbor" and as a dark psychiatric hospital in the eerie psychological thriller "The Ring." One building doubled as a college dorm in the raunchy comedy "Say It Isn't So," while a dining hall became a courthouse anteroom for the HBO movie "Path to War." The campus also has served as a backdrop for television shows, from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the "The X-Files," and has provided the setting for nearly 20 television commercials. The new HBO series "Carnivale" is set to start filming on campus next week.

Taken together, those productions have generated more than $300,000 for Channel Islands, a significant cash infusion for a university that has been open less than a year and needs every dollar it can get during these times of budget shortfalls and spending cuts.

"It really is very good income for us," said the university's development director, George Dutra, noting that the funds have been used for everything from building renovations to computer network upgrades. "The amount we're talking about may seem relatively small, but we'll take whatever we can get."

California's college campuses have long been popular with Hollywood.

The red-brick USC campus, for example, has been featured in hundreds of films and television shows dating back to the 1930s. The university has as many as 50 shoots a year and last year generated more than $400,000 by renting itself out as a film set.

UCLA has an average of 150 still and video film productions a year.

UC Irvine provided the setting for a scene in "Ocean's 11," while Cal State Northridge provided a regular haunt for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Karen Constine, director of the Hollywood-based California Film Commission, said college campuses appeal to film crews because they offer a mix of architecture, a range of locations and the flexibility of shooting at all hours.

And like all other state properties, Constine said Cal State and University of California campuses have the added benefit of being part of the "Film California First" program, a government-funded venture that rebates filmmakers up to $300,000 for certain production costs.

"The diversity of locations is one of California's greatest draws," Constine said. "One of the great things about college campuses ... is that they are mini-cities unto themselves. They have the ability to become Anytown, USA."

Movie-making is not new to the Camarillo campus. In fact, in its previous incarnation as Camarillo State Hospital, the facility was featured by several directors drawn to its dark corridors and haunting hospital wards.

The closing scene of the 1948 classic "The Snake Pit," an Oscar-nominated drama chronicling a woman's descent into mental illness, was filmed in the hospital's south quad dining room.

More than half a century later, the tradition continues with the film "Manic," a dark drama shot at the campus in 2000 and also opening today in Los Angeles and Irvine.

The low-budget movie, shot in 21 days at the former children's unit, depicts a group of teens locked in a juvenile psychiatric institution and battling mental illness.

Director Jordan Melamed said finding the right location was key to the story and added to the emotionally charged atmosphere on the set.

"That place influenced the direction of this movie -- it influenced the outcome of this movie," said Melamed of the red-bricked adolescent wing, which has since been bulldozed to make way for university housing.

"I remember telling my producer, 'I want this place. I want to shoot there. Make a deal, get this place, whatever it takes,' " Melamed added. "I was going to sneak in to film if I had to."

Turns out, all it took was a call to Unreel Locations. The Los Angeles-based company acts as a liaison between film companies and about 125 properties, many of which, like Cal State Channel Islands, have historical significance.

Unreel Locations owner Peg Meehan said there is no doubt that the Camarillo campus is becoming increasingly popular with production companies, allowing it to take advantage of an ability to tap its past to help pay for its future.

"It gives me great pleasure to get them that money, and I think production companies feel that way, too," Meehan said. "It goes right back to the university, whether it's for groundskeeping or maintenance. And you know at these times that money is very much needed."

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