February 13, 2003

Among The Wolves

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We have all been exposed to the stereotypical “independent filmmaker:” aloof, dressed in black from head to toe, speaking with a strange accent, and constantly babbling on and on about “their art.” This may work for the Julliard crowd, and perhaps artsy circuits within Los Angeles, but what kinds of filmmakers does Cornell produce, if any? After all, Ithaca sits a little over 2700 miles away from the sandy beaches of the California coast.

Nick Muccini ’87 and Jim Tavares ’92 are two of the most unlikely filmmakers you’re ever going to meet. Nick graduated from the Engineering School, majoring in Electrical Engineering. Jim graduated a few years later with a major in Biopsychology. Nick and Jim began their professional lives working “normal” jobs. Nick worked as an engineer and Jim was involved in psychological research. But Nick knew his energy to pursue engineering projects was limited. “Every chip I tested burned,” Nick said with a laugh. “I knew it was time to try something new.” They met recently through a Cornell alumni networking function in the Los Angeles area, where both reside. As they shared their love of film, they decided to form a professional partnership and break into the film industry.

I met them while they were here at Cornell to present a program of eight short films. The program was first screened at the Cornell Club of Los Angeles last spring and garnered an excellent response. It was then the two decided to take the presentation home to Ithaca.

Mucinni said that they have made another call for alumni short films, and the response has been solid. They plan on making this event a yearly occurrence in the hopes that it can begin to “bridge the gap between Cornell and Hollywood” by strengthening alumni connections and relationships, which are necessary in a business so dependent upon professional partnerships and contacts.

So why begin your career by making short films? “You make short films for the experience, the fun, the networking opportunities, and in the end you end up with a product you can show around,” Nick explained.

We’ve all been to feature-length movies where around the half-hour mark we’re still waiting for the plot to develop and the main characters to be fully introduced. By that time you could have already seen at least one or two complete short films. “If you can’t tell the story in 10 minutes, then it’s not a short film,” Jim says. But even with such time constraints, Jim is more than up to the task. “For me, it’s easier to make short films because I have something in particular I want to say.”

Not that filmmaking is in any way, shape, or form an easy business. In fact, its ruthlessness is downright legendary. “Some people are attracted by glamour. But [the film industry’s] really not that glamorous. It’s lots of work” Jim said.

Tavares’ “The Sketches,” a trio of hilarious spoof commercials, was met with laughs and hearty applause. The kooky cast of characters included a quarterback of a fictitious Los Angeles based football team named the “Los Angeles Drama Clubbers” who was shamelessly advertising for a beer company.

Muccini’s film, “Last Writes,” is about a heartless Hollywood exec trying to con his dying brother in giving him the rights to his final, great script. It treated the audience to numerous funny moments, including a surprise ending that created an amusing stir.

Some of the short films screened as part of the presentation have already been the subject of awards and critical acclaim. “Merry Christmas,” written and directed by Cornellian Paul Marashlian, tells the story of an elevator operator alone on Christmas. The film earned numerous honors including a SKYY Vodka Short Film Award. It will soon be airing on The Sundance Channel. Muccini’s “Last Writes” has also garnered critical acclaim and is currently a finalist at HBO for a potential airdate sometime this year.

Nick is working on two other short films, both currently in post production. He is also in working with a group of writers on two feature length films. Together with Jim he is developing a series pilot for KCET television, the Los Angeles PBS affiliate. Not too shabby for someone who’s only been in the business a year and a half.

Aside from his collaboration with Nick, Jim is developing another television show with Budd Friedman, a stand-up comedy guru.

While a prized script in development might be a closely guarded secret, it is no secret that the film industry requires a strong will and a healthy appetite for rejection slips. “If you don’t have complete faith in your project, it can become difficult to get started, or even finish,” Jim says.

Fortunately, Nick and Jim have enjoyed their time in the movie business. “Being on the set is highly addictive,” Nick says. “Sometimes the night before a shoot you feel like a kid on Christmas Eve,” Jim says with a smile. “You can’t wait to get going in the morning.”

I asked if I could pry any other sure-fire secrets to success. “Perseverance and stamina are very important,” Nick said.

Jim agreed and added with a grin, “and don’t forget a hot tub scene.”

Archived article by Jason Mednick