L.A. cinematographer aids UMPI film students

Posted Dec. 12, 2008, at 6:43 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:05 a.m.

They have a small budget, little experience, and practically no professional equipment.

But the group of University of Maine-Presque Isle students making a short film as part of the school’s new film studies concentration has a few key assets — namely, Zoran Popovich, Cathie Pelletier and a lot of enthusiasm.

Popovich, a Los Angeles-based cinematographer, has spent the past week in Presque Isle helping nine members of an UMPI screenwriting class taught by Allagash native and best-selling author Pelletier, to put together the film.

Popovich said the group’s enthusiasm has carried it forward in the project despite all the seeming roadblocks.

“One thing that is very important across the board is to have passion,” he said. “The whole purpose [of the class and film] is so people can see the process and learn the process, see if they like it or not. When you have people who are interested in what they’re doing, they come up with some good ideas. I was pleasantly surprised how bright [the students] are and the suggestions they have. Some of them are excellent.”

Popovich, who moved to the U.S. from Serbia in 1996, was the cinematographer on the 2008 film “War Inc.,” which starred John Cusack, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei and Dan Aykroyd. One of his latest films, “Grace,” will premiere next month at the Sundance Film Festival. Popovich and Pelletier met several years ago and worked on a movie together, but hadn’t seen each other in five years when Pelletier called Popovich to find out whether he was interested in helping her students. He agreed, and arrived Dec. 5 for his first trip to Maine.

Josh Archer, a 24-year-old freshman who grew up in Presque Isle, said he appreciates Popovich’s willingness to take suggestions from a group of students.

“I’ve been really impressed by him,” said Archer, who works as the morning news director at WAGM-TV in Presque Isle. “I’m surprised at how well he works with people he’s never met before. He takes time before each shot to ask, what do you think, what can make this better, who has the best idea. By involving all of us, it’s really helped the piece and helped what we wrote come out better on film.”

The group is making a 10- to 15-minute movie they’ve titled “The Proposal.” It’s a short comedy about a man who wants to propose to his girlfriend, but has a night of bad luck. Comedy ensues, and that’s all Archer is willing to reveal.

“I don’t want to give away the ending,” Archer said.

The class, which is part of UMPI’s new film studies concentration, collaborated on the script with help from Pelletier, who has had two novels turned into television movies and has herself written screenplays. The students have all done a little bit of everything to help the script come to life — Archer himself held a boom mike for a few hours one evening before showing up for work at 3:30 a.m. the next day — and have made do with a shoestring budget.

The students don’t have professional lights, for example, but Popovich turned that seeming deficiency into a lesson. The cinematographer told the students about a Danish-based film movement called Dogme 95, in which filmmakers use bare-bones methods such as natural light and hand-held cameras. The 1998 movie “The Celebration,” Popovich said, is an example of these techniques.

“What I wanted to do, instead of lighting with professional equipment, I wanted to show them they could do it without it, and it will still look good,” Popovich said. “When I heard about this project I thought, this is how we can do it. Once we eliminate the other stuff, it comes down to story, which is what we’re doing now.”

Popovich won’t see the finished project immediately. Filming should be finished Sunday, the same day he’s due to leave Maine, and then Pelletier and her students will edit the footage.

The students are hoping to enter the film in a contest or festival, something Popovich is encouraging the class to do.

“I’m very curious, I really have hopes for the film,” he said. “I know if you have passion and good idea, you can do anything without anything, if you know what I mean. That’s the bottom line.”

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