Here is the full text from a profile on me published in the Arizona Republic on August 30, 1999. Reading it now makes me cringe, but I mean, hey look, I was a 19-year old kid who was convinced he was going to be the next Steven Spielberg. What do you want from me?
This version is annotated with some historical perspective.
Caught on Film: Valley Movie Fanatic Hopes USC’s Famed Film School is His Ticket to Hollywood
by Bob Fenster
Other people watch movies, Brent Celmins absorbs them. A Scottsdale kid who grew up watching, loving, and arguing about movies, Celmins has already broken through one of Hollywood’s most closely guarded gates: the film school at USC, where he just completed his first year.
Every would-be filmmaker in the country would love to get into the USC film program because so many Hollywood success stories have come out of it.
But it’s almost as hard to win admittance as it is to become a movie star by drinking soda on Sunset Boulevard. Of 14,000 USC undergrads, 150 a year are admitted to the film school. Only about 10 film-school students are from Arizona this year1.
The good news is that if you do get into the school, you’re going to spend half your class time watching great movies.
Film students are a breed unto themselves. Celmins, who graduated from Scottdale’s Chaparral High, is a film school natural. This is someone whose Christmas card is a a lengthy discussion of his favorite movies of the year. If they would let him, Celmins could probably write his Ph.D. thesis on film during the summer break before he starts his sophomore year.
What’s it like to spend a year watching movies, arguing movies, and, in your spare time, making movies?
“I don’t have to work at it because every single moment I’m enjoying it,” Celmins said2.
In a USC dorm with a variety of theme floors, Celmins lives on the Cinema Floor.
“You walk down the floor on other theme floors and all the doors are closed,” he said.” On our floor, doors are always open, and everyone knows everyone else.”
The camaraderie among film students surprised him.
“I was expecting fierce competition, but the people there are so close,” he said.
“The film students at USC aren’t the rich kids3. They’re the ones who press to do it. Film school is so competitive that it’s filled with people who really want to do it.”
Many of Celmins’ classes are held in the campus movie theater– the one designed by George Lucas, who studied film there long, long time ago [sic] and donated $1.5 million to build a film studio on campus.”
“It’s a perfect theater,” Celmins said. “Everything in it is perfect.”
His big freshman year class was “Introduction to Cinema,” taught by Drew Casper4.
“He’s a flamboyant, screaming, yelling man, who totally engages you,” Celmins said. “We were studying The Sound of Music, and he had one girl stand up and imitate the wind and another student do bird noises, then he had a third student stand up and belt out, ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music.’
“Some of the things he says (Casper hates Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) you can’t believe. I think he wants us to argue with him.”
In another class, “The Bad and the Dangerous in American Film and Literature,” students watched Rebel Without a Cause, Alien, The Godfather, In the Company of Men, and Thelma & Louise.
“The professor’s5. point was: Who is bad and dangerous in Thelma & Lousie? Is it the woman or the men they’re exposed to?”
Celmins also studied the films of Stanley Kubrick, his favorite director, whose final film, Eyes Wide Shut, was released posthumously this summer. The class on Kubrick changed gears dramatically when the director suddenly died in mid-semester. “Before that, it was how Kubrick expresses himself as an auteur with an active career,” Celmins recalled. “Now that he’s dead, he has a definitive world view. He hates everything, and he’s not afraid to tell you, which is why I admire him.”
For Celmins, going to USC film school means contacts and internships. He’s gotten to meet directors, film professionals, film critics.
“Eventually, the six degrees of separation become one or two degrees,” he said, “and then they become a personal contact6.”
Celmins also took advantage of an opportunity to work as a production assistant on a small-budget indie film for a day7.
“People who have done that kind of gofer work told us, ‘You’re going to find out quickly that it’s boring working on a film because you sit around all the time waiting.’
“But I found it one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done8.”
As a gofer, Celmins’ main job was ferrying equipment and dailies9.
What do USC film students do for fun when they’re not in class? Make movies.
Students in the film school organized the Ed Wood Film Contest, dividing into teams, each of which had 24 hours to write, shoot, and edit a film, all based on the same title. This year, the common title was, Hero in Panties. The students then vote on the winning film.
Celmins’ group spent four hours shooting and six hours editing, and came in second10. with an homage to “as many movies as we could work in,” he said.
Like many of the students, Celmins is writing a script or two on the side and looking forward to when he gets his hands on a camera. And like all USC film students, he holds the legend of John Singleton, USC grad, in awe.
Legend goes that Singleton entered the script for his senior project and it became Boy N the Hood, which he then talked a Hollywood studio into letting him direct because he knew the territory.
“The USC legend is that Singleton got a C on the project but an Oscar nomination for the film,” Celmins said11.
- I’m not sure of the school’s admission policies any more, but this wasn’t exactly true at the time of this writing. There were three different focuses in the film school, two– Production and Writing– were ultra-competitive and nigh on impossible to get into. The third–Critical Studies– admitted almost anyone. Guess which one I was admitted into? Hint: it rhymes with shmitical buddies
- I actually really enjoyed my freshman year of college. It was among the best years of my life, and I knew it while it was happening.
- A private school with a reputation, USC is sometimes called “The University of Spoiled Children.” A large portion of the film students I was friends with were grinding it out on tons of financial aid, work study, a lot of middle class geeks that just didn’t fit into whatever social paradigm they were exposed to back home.
- This guy was a legend at the school, but after taking like five classes with him over my time there, I was sick of him. Turns out, he’s a blowhard with a massive ego, nothing particularly interesting to say, and a tenuous grip on reality. In other words: a totally run-of-the-mill college professor.
- The professor was Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Literature for his book The Sympathizer. It was technically an English Lit class, not a film class.
- Whoa, was this a distortion of reality on my part. Number of professional contacts I made while a film student at USC: one… a documentarian named Kirby Dick, and I didn’t even meet him about a year after this article was published.
- I can’t, for the life of me, remember what I’m referring to here. There was the time that I got fired from being a director’s personal assistant after a day on the set. True story: it was an unpaid position and they made me drive to Malibu and back twice in rush hour before canning me at like 10pm. I cried because I didn’t understand how you could get fired from a job where you didn’t even get paid. People in Hollywood are dickheads.
- Yeah, again, I have no idea what movie this is. And I can even recall that shitty movie I was fired from: Latter Days staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, directed by C. Jay Cox. Obviously it wasn’t that interesting if I can’t remember
- If you insist, past Brent.
- The guy who came in first was John Chu, who is actually a working professional director. His movies include Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, GI Joe: Retaliation, and Now You See Me 2. Okay, so the guy isn’t exactly Martin Scorsese, but he makes movies for a living. I don’t. There you have it. BTW, I maintain to this day that my team’s movie was better.
- This may be apocryphal.