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Budding filmmakers are flocking to FSU

Actor Stephen Guarino's challenge: When his eyes rivet on the generously displayed cleavage of a woman customer, they must clearly ogle with envy, not lust.

Guarino is playing a waiter struggling to get the cash for a sex-change operation.

The movie, A Full Cup, is being filmed by Florida State University students in Tallahassee and a restaurant in nearby Havana. But it's no more a typical FSU class project than Seminole football is a fraternity intramural game.

A hundred professional actors auditioned in Atlanta, Miami, Sarasota and Tallahassee to work for free in the 20-minute feature.

Why? Same reason football players with visions of pro careers line up to play for Coach Bobby Bowden.

FSU also offers the film equivalent of bowl games and shots at the NFL draft. FSU movies have won more than 200 prizes at national and international film festivals in the five years since the thesis films of the School of Motion Picture, Television and Recording Arts' first graduating class hit the circuits.

A Full Cup and this year's 10 other FSU thesis films are a great bet for 1997 film festival lineups around the world.

"Pulp Fiction started out as this kind of project," said Tony Pacheo, a Miami actor who won the role of the major drug dealer in A Full Cup.

He wanted roles in all six summer films. "I've been in two." Even if they don't make him a star, he said, they've hooked him up with people who have good shots at becoming movie and TV big shots.

Skeptics proven wrong

When the school cranked up in 1989, skeptics snorted at the idea of a motion picture conservatory not only 2,300 miles from Los Angeles and 1,100 miles from New York, but in a city of fewer than 200,000 people surrounded by an ocean of ruralness. Until then, the country had eight major motion picture conservatories: five clustered around Los Angeles, two in New York state, one in Philadelphia.

But North Florida is suddenly one of the hot sources of talented new filmmakers. The Los Angeles Times last year compared FSU student films to the student works of legendary director-producers George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

All FSU thesis films are screened at the Producers Guild of America. Hollywood's reigning talent agency sends a scout to every commencement. Videos of up to four FSU film-school shorts soon will be in commercial release.

Its biggest coup so far is Curdled. Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino saw the short feature at a European film festival in 1992, bought it and developed it into a full-length version starring Stephen Baldwin. It was filmed in Miami and will be released next year.

"There's never been a film school to make so spectacular a start," said Dean Ray Fielding, a 40-year veteran of the movie industry and film education.

Investment pays off

The state has poured $25-million into the school since 1989, Fielding said. It's not just that legislators like movies.

For decades, state leaders spun visions of a major movie industry for Florida. But climate and scenery alone weren't making it happen.

The state's millions have created a labyrinth of elaborate studios, production facilities, classrooms and offices in the gargantuan building FSU is constructing around its football stadium.

Development coincided with a revolution in movie technology, Fielding said. FSU is the only film conservatory that had the money to completely equip itself with digital computer-filming technology. FSU picked up the biggest recording sound stage of any U.S. film school after an attempt to develop a big-time commercial recording studio 9 miles away failed.

Fielding said the investment is paying off.

Florida has begun marketing itself aggressively to Los Angeles' big studios and to independent producers. In 1981, movie-TV-recording work accounted for a meager $28-million in Florida's economy, said John Reitzammer, executive director of the Florida Entertainment Commission. Last year, the figure was nearly $600-million.

Besides beautiful settings and lots of cooperation, Reitzammer can offer talented, well-trained moviemakers from the FSU film school and support services like lighting and sound from companies often staffed by FSU grads.

The school takes 30 undergrads and 24 graduate students a year. Only one in 10 applicants is accepted.

Already, nearly a third of the school's graduates stay in Florida, Fielding said.

Blessed by geography

Isolated Tallahassee has proved to be a huge asset, Fielding said: "We're away from the cauldron of L.A." Kids in conservatories there "grow up with a cynicism that's acid."

Southern hospitality and college-town pride give FSU film students plenty of the milk of human kindness that seldom flows in Los Angeles, said Skip Montgomery. The son of actor Robert Montgomery and brother of actress Elizabeth Montgomery retired to Tallahassee and is the school's volunteer community relations coordinator.

Local hotels and motels put up visiting actors for free. Tallahassee families open their homes to them when all the motel rooms are booked for football games or the legislative session.

Folks are just as generous in helping students make movies.

The owner of Twin Willow Cafe in Havana turned her restaurant over to the Full Cup crew for three days. An apartment complex owner handed over the key to a vacant apartment.

Used Cars, a comedy now in production, includes a freebie wreck scene that would have cost a commercial studio thousands. The Georgia & Alabama railroad gave students a two-diesel, 40-car train and crew for two days. Other benefactors provided whole and wrecked cars and body shop services.

A real grind

Students go to school year-round, spending days in class and working on projects late into the night.

Actual film production is tougher. Days start promptly at 6 a.m. From that point on, said Luke Crowe, a sophomore from Plant City working on A Full Cup, "It's trial by fire 12 hours a day."