- By Amanda Kenyon Waite
In Park City, Utah, UVM senior Will Trowbridge is at home this week among filmmakers and movie stars. He's living the dream of any film student, soaking in the best independent films of the year at Sundance. But he's already achieved something most film students -- and plenty of professionals -- won't. At Sunday's premiere of Safety Not Guaranteed, he saw his own name roll by in the closing credits.
In May of 2011, the Peterborough, N.H. native spent four weeks on the film's set in Seattle as an assistant to Williston, Vt.-based director Colin Trevorrow. The story of how Trowbridge landed the internship actually began months earlier, unbeknownst to him, on two exercise machines at a gym in Vermont. There, film and television studies professor Sarah Nilsen, multi-tasking work and fitness, was reading the screenplay for Toy Story when her neighbor on the next machine over struck up a conversation about the film world. Nilsen's gym-mate was Trevorrow. Upon learning about his experience writing, directing and producing, she invited him and his writing partner to her screenwriting class, where students (Trowbridge included) grilled the two on their script.
But it was Trowbridge's move after the class, when he approached Trevorrow to continue the conversation, that left an impression on the writer/director. A few months later, Trevorrow called Nilsen asking for Trowbridge's phone number to offer him an internship on his new project, independent film Safety Not Guaranteed, written by Derek Connolly.
An invitation -- rather than an application -- for an internship was a compliment for Trowbridge. How Nilsen responded to the request is a testament to the tenacity of faculty in UVM's Film and Television Studies (FTS) program to procure internships for their students. While FTS is dedicated to the study, rather than the production, of the media, faculty are aware that many students have an interest in learning the ins and outs of the production side as well. To that end, professors have done what they can to make connections with alumni and locals to help students in the still-young program (the major and minor was created just five years ago). "I seize anyone I can -- even at the gym!" Nilsen says. "If I have an opportunity to do anything for students I absolutely try." With Trevorrow on the phone, she asked if he'd be willing to take more student interns. That question secured positions for two more students: alumnus Daniel Kelly '11 and junior Ashley Neuhof.
"They'll have film credits from working on this film. That just does not happen," Nilsen says. "To get on a major production that will likely be released from a major studio is not an easy thing."
Lessons on set
Safety Not Guaranteed is based on a classifieds ad that appeared in 1997 in Backwoods Home magazine: "WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke…You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before." The classifieds ad, popularized later on the internet, is the jumping-off point for what Trevorrow says in an interview on Sundance.org is "a movie about four characters who all need a time machine for different reasons." The film has garnered praise from the Los Angeles Times and Wired and drew spontaneous applause from the Sundance audience at its Jan. 22 premiere. But back in May, it was a low-budget film with just a hope of becoming one of the year's indie favorites.
It was a hope, Trowbridge said, that the cast and crew believed in. "The confidence on set was really high," he says. Both Trowbridge and Neuhof spent every day on set, Trowbridge assisting Trevorrow create daily shot lists and storyboarding and Neuhof wrangling passers-by and traffic to prevent ruining shots in some of the more public locations -- an important position when a low budget means every moment needs to count. Of course, both picked up the odd jobs to which unpaid interns are often accustomed: taking coffee orders, chauffeuring, clean-up and plenty of behind-the-scenes grind.
But Trowbridge is quick to point out the opportunities for making connections those situations afford. He recalls using his chauffeuring time (they covered more than 30 locations in the those four weeks) to learn what he could from people more seasoned in the business, like actors Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson and Mark Duplass. "Because of that," Trowbridge says, "I got to learn the ins and outs of their lives, and that was a completely invaluable experience. I can't say enough about learning about these people, how they got to be where they are and what they're doing now."
Neuhof, who is from Woodstock, Vt., remembers standing in for actors when the crew was lighting the set, an experience that was, well, illuminating. "It was really neat to see how you light a scene and what happens when you change the camera angle -- and how much work that takes."
This is not the only internship Trowbridge and Neuhoff have added to their resumes. In summer of 2010 and 2011, Trowbridge interned at Disney in production technology. "I was able to shoot with, and create work flows for new digital cinema cameras so future productions can come back to my work and make sure the cameras are perfect for what they're trying to do," he says. In addition to his work on 3D cameras and investigating methods of 3D piracy, Trowbridge was also tasked with producing and directing a short movie completely in-house, relying on no outsourcing. "It was a blast. I got complete creative control," he says, "and then I did a presentation for the technology executives, and they really liked it."
Neuhoff is now beginning her own stint on the studio side of the business as an intern at Paramount Pictures assisting a producer on the talk show Dr. Phil. Even though taking the position means missing out on Sundance this week, she's grateful to add a "big studio environment" to her experiences, as well. Her time at UVM is on hold, but she plans to return and finish her degree before pursing a career in the industry.
"It's been an incredible year," Trowbridge says, "I'm glad to be back in Vermont this fall, but I'm also excited to graduate and see what happens."