Thursday, June 21, 2013
Recent UNO Alumni Debut Feature Film at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles
Recent UNO Alumni Head to L.A., Find Out Filmmaking Is a Good Idea
UNO alumni from the Class of 2009 debuted their first feature film "Steve Chong Realizes
That Suicide Is A Bad Idea" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles.
In the film, protagonist Steve Chong documents his failures on index cards posted
floor to ceiling on his wall. Subsequently, he threatens suicide in a drunken episode,
setting off a "steamroller of comedic events" as his best friends try to save him,
said screenwriter Owen "Chip" Hornstein.
Filmmakers Charlie LaVoy and Kevin Hughes (Class of 2009) honed their technical skills
in UNO's film program, which boast the largest number of undergraduates on campus.
The four filmmakers - and four main characters - spent ample time on Lake Manchac
in 2010 filming a comedic boat scene - and having fun.
The twenty-something alumni filmed "Steve Chong" at a lake house near Manchac, La.
owned by the family of Stanley Wong, director, producer, actor and UNO alumnus, Class
Alumnus Stanley Wong's family lake house provided the setting for the comedy feature
film about four friends and recent college graduates coming of age during the economic
Recent UNO alumni stood on stage this month at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles,
fielding questions about an Indie film they made one year after graduating from the
University of New Orleans.
"In L.A., we were terrified about how people would respond," said Owen "Chip" Hornstein
III, a screenwriter, producer and actor in the film. "When we test-screened the film
at the UNO Film Festival, it was all of our friends there, laughing, as we were there
in the audience and they watched us acting in the movie. In Hollywood, we didn't know
anyone. The fact that they laughed really validated it. It was a huge eye-opener.
'Praise the stars. People really like the movie.'"
The 81-minute comedy Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is a Bad Idea is about four friends who "embark on a misadventure to a remote lake house where
one of them announces that he plans to kill himself," according to a film synopsis.
The four friends who serve as main characters are recent college graduates struggling
to find their place in the world.
The dramatic midnight announcement by a drunken Chong, who says he wants to kill himself,
"sets off a comedic steamroller of events," said Hornstein, who graduated from UNO
film school in 2009.
"We wanted to have a movie that reflected where we were in time, post-college: struggling
through an economic recession, the job market and the world being a bigger place than
you think it is."
A Coming-of-Age Comedy
Produced with a $6,000 budget, Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is A Bad Idea debuted June 7 at Dances with Films 16, an independent film festival that prides
itself on celebrating the "innovation, talent, creativity and sweat equity that revolutionized
the entertainment industry" and has launched Oscar-worthy actors, directors and producers,
according to its website.
UNO alumnus Stanley Wong, now an actor in Hollywood, had that and more when he visited
the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Tex., shortly after graduation in May 2009, Hornstein
said. Inspired by the number of films made and launched on shoestring budgets, he
returned home and pulled together some of his UNO filmmaking friends to make a movie.
Together Wong, Joe Sokmen and Tyler Russell – all members of the Class of 2009 --
brainstormed ideas. They decided that the Wong family lake house – available for free
– was as good a setting as any.
They conscripted Hornstein to write a script around four guys in a lake house. Hornstein,
who struggled with notions of suicide in high school, believed the film needed a stronger
thrust or anchor to its central story.
The film couldn't just be about four guys hanging out in a lake house, Hornstein said.
There had to be a stronger force beyond the characters' control that drove them to
reevaluate their friendships and their lives and helped them, ultimately, to change.
He suggested: Suicide.
"But I thought maybe we could make that funny, because I've never seen the comedic
aspects of suicide played out," said Hornstein, who was quick to say that while suicide
is a serious topic, "some aspects can be quite funny -- if you look at them objectively."
Making It Happen
By then, the group had looped in Charlie LaVoy, another UNO alumnus. The five lived
together for one year in a double-shotgun house in New Orleans, retreating to the
Wong lake house near Chalmette on weekends.
"We lived together in one big house and that was stressful in and of itself," said
Hornstein. "It was a big creative house with no freedom and no privacy... Everyone
had their input to the story."
He laughed, adding that he wrote all day, sent scripts out via email, then walked
into the kitchen for dinner to be greeted by criticism, arguments or, sometimes, whispering.
Together, the group wrote and produced a script centered around a young Asian man
who finds himself failing at nearly everything he tries to do. Steve Chong, played
by Stanley Wong, documents his failures – from the most minute and mundane to the
obvious – on index cards that he tapes on his wall floor to ceiling.
As he wrote, Hornstein lightened up his dramatic material with scenes that involved
Chong's friends suicide-proofing a house, inviting girls from a nearby lake house
to visit Chong, in hopes of distraction; and walking on eggshells as they tried to
determine whether Chong's threats were real.
"By trying not to say the wrong thing, you end up saying the wrong thing, and that's
funny. Humor along those lines," said Hornstein, who said "there are so many ways
to look at" suicide."
Filming took place over a five-month period in 2010, primarily at the Wongs' lake
house, which sits on stilts above Lake Pontchartrain near Manchac, La. Other scenes
were filmed in two restaurants owned by the Wongs.
Early on, the group agreed that they would each "spend $1,000 for the budget and that
was it," said Hornstein. None had feature film experience. They drew on the screenwriting,
directing, producing and acting skills they had gleaned making short films for classes
"It was a very different process from film school because in film school you're in
this circle of creativity," said Hornstein. "Everybody's making movies and talking
Drawing On Their UNO Education
All five of the film's original creators were working day jobs and struggling to make
it in "the real world," as they lived together and wrote the script, he said. Ultimately,
one dozen recent UNO alumni helped to create the feature film.
Stanley Wong served as actor, producer, editor -- and Hornstein as screenwriter, producer
and actor. Tyler Russell and Joe Sokmen both served as actors and producers. Charles
LaVoy served as director and producer.
Kevin Hughes starred as director of photography, Josie Parden as production designer
and Patrick Simmons as art director. Michael Damare and Joshua Lilly served as grips
and camera assistants. Michael Gilbert provided stunt help, served as associate producer
and "made everything happen," said Hornstein, who described his friend as an "all-around
"The teachers of UNO have well equipped us for the miserable world of filmmaking.
The way movies are going right now you have to go out there and do it yourself," said
Hornstein, who said that getting started in film requires "a do-it-yourself attitude
and UNO does a good job of helping you get used to doing that. They teach you that
you can make a movie on a low-budget and they teach you how to expand on your knowledge."
Professors and students at UNO also provided the necessary criticism critical to identifying
a good idea, writing and honing an effective script, producing a worthy film and making
a good work great, said Hornstein, who enjoyed film school so much he forgot to register
"They're very real about how it is," he said. "The professors and student body help
put you in a world that prepares you for making film independently. It teaches you
a lot of technical skills that...'You can't get away with it if you fail at this'...If
you have a movie that looks bad or sounds bad, then they're not going to watch it.
With screenplays and stories, they had professors there that taught you how to make
scripts get better, get to the point faster, really make you look deeper into stories."
A Grand Finale, But Not The End
The filmmakers screened Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is A Bad Idea at the UNO Film Fest in 2011, then finished the film and won a $20,000 grant from
the Louisiana Independent Filmmakers Program that they used for editing, post-production
audio and polishing – and hiring a publicist.
They sent the film out and received "rejection after rejection after rejection," said
Hornstein. Then the film was accepted to the Asian American Film Festival in New York,
which takes place this August. The win made them rethink their messaging and early
Soon the filmmakers got word that Steve Chong would be aired at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles -- possibly the world's
most famous movie theatre -- for the Dances with Film 16 film festival. The airing
would be a world premiere of the feature film that by now had consumed five years
of their young lives.
Two weeks ago, the group hit L.A., a place that they had all dreamed and talked about
but where only Wong (who is now a resident) had lived.
"We're in talks with a distribution company," said Hornstein, who won't say more because
he doesn't want to "jinx" anything. "...And we're hoping for a positive outcome."