N.Y.U.’s Li’l Big-Budget Blockbusters

Over a caffé mocha—Starbucks, Astor Place—Allan Tsao, 24, admitted that he was nervous. It was the evening of Jan. 31, just 30 minutes before the screening of his short film in front of an audience of professors and friends at New York University.

Mr. Tsao completed his classes at the N.Y.U. film school in 2004, but students on the directing track don’t receive their B.F.A. until they complete their short films—and Mr. Tsao had gotten himself in way deep.

Depending on the year of study and the class, the average student film should cost between a few thousand and $10,000, according to David Irving, an associate professor of film and television at N.Y.U.

But in an era when tuition, room and board have already eclipsed $40,000 a year, the better-off N.Y.U. students sometimes spend more than double that amount on their student films. One N.Y.U. film professor referred to these elaborate student films with super-sized budgets as the school’s “dirty little secret.”

Mr. Tsao, indeed, exceeded all expectations. One of Mr. Tsao’s film-school colleagues pegged the film’s cost at $130,000; another said it cost $140,000. But Mr. Tsao said that his film cost a mere $96,000—though he also estimated that he saved as much as $70,000 with favors, especially on the set design.

While many neophyte filmmakers utilize an everyday location such as a park or a backyard, Mr. Tsao’s 24-minute film, called Ghost Soldier, is set in Falluja, Iraq, inside a prison run by the Sunni militia. Take that, Max Fischer!

For two weeks, a set designer had constructed the faux prison from wood and Styrofoam. It was moved to an N.Y.U. soundstage for 10 days, and two additional days of shooting took place in his hometown of Scarsdale, N.Y.

Mr. Tsao said that he got a $40,000 loan secured by someone else’s good credit, and the rest came from friends and family. “Since my brother is the main actor,” he said, “they looked at it as two investments.”

Was he worried that he could pull off his ambitious P.O.W. film? “Yes,” he said. Was his professor? “Looking back on it, I don’t know why he wasn’t more discouraging,” Mr. Tsao said.

Up on the seventh floor of the 721 Broadway, the main building of Tisch School of the Arts, Mr. Tsao introduced his film. “I would like some feedback with the sound,” he told the 20 people in the audience.

One professor wondered if they might make suggestions regarding the picture as well. “That’s fine, too,” Mr. Tsao said.

The rat-a-tat-tat sounds of gunfire filled the room.

“It’s not a project,” Mr. Tsao had said of Ghost Soldier. “It’s a ticket to the future, a step toward making a first feature.”

In fact, he’s already raising money for that first feature, which is set in Asia during World War II. He also has offers to direct two projects with schoolmate Karen Redstone—granddaughter of Sumner, the Viacom chairman of the board—as producer.

When the lights came up, Mr. Tsao was greeted by enthusiastic applause. But while he was hoping for notes on the sound, the professors launched into a 20-minute constructive critique of the film, each using words that could appear in large type across any feature-film review: Powerful! Beautiful! Amazing! Astonishing!

Still, Mr. Tsao was determined to trim a few minutes off the film. One professor was confused by the title and inquired if Mr. Tsao had another. Yes. He had also considered The Time Capsule.

He was advised to keep thinking.

BUT DO BIG-BUDGET SHORTS GET FILM STUDENTS the hoped-for jump to Hollywood?

“I’ve never personally signed somebody that had a very extravagant short as their calling card,” said Mike Lubin of the William Morris Agency, who represents directors Nicole Kassell and Rose Troche. “I think people want to see pure raw talent. I think if you see it done cheaply, it’s more impressive than if your parents wrote you a big check.”

“If you can tell a good story with $2, that’s going to impress me more,” said Brett Ratner, an N.Y.U. graduate who has gone on to direct big-budget action films like Rush Hour, Red Dragon and the upcoming third installment of X-Men. “Make me laugh. Make me cry. That’s going to stay with me.”

Mr. Ratner’s own late-80’s student film, What Happened to Mason Reese? (starring the eponymic child television-commercial star), cost about $12,000 and won the school’s First Run Festival.

Mr. Ratner recalled a case of an extravagant student film even in the late 80’s. “There was a kid a year older who did an expensive film—I’m not going to tell you who it was. He made a 50-minute film. It was five times as long, so it cost at least five times as much as mine. O.K., it was Peter Shore; his mom was Mitzi Shore. Do you know who she is? She discovered Letterman and Leno. He had the guy from Sixteen Candles—Ken what’s-his-name—and a lot of comedians. The production values were insane. I thought the film was brilliant. It was kind of like The Player with comedians.”

So where is Mr. Shore—brother of Pauly, no less—today? “I have no idea,” Mr. Ratner said. According to IMDb.com, Mr. Shore has four credits spread over two decades as a director, all on TV, including Hard Copy and A Current Affair.

James Cox, a late-90’s N.Y.U. graduate who won First Run’s top prize in 1999 with his $30,000 feature Atomic Tabasco, does think that big-budget student films could pay off. “A good short, if you pull it off—all the production and good performances—you go right into making your first movie for five or six million. It’s a no-brainer.” Mr. Cox, at least, can back that up: He directed 2002’s Highway, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jared Leto, and Wonderland in 2003, starring Val Kilmer and Lisa Kudrow.

“Nowadays, there is a syndrome where students sometimes see other students spending money, and they want to keep up with the Joneses,” said Mr. Irving of N.Y.U. There are also, he added, students who make 25-minute films on video for $400.

N.Y.U. hasn’t yet considered capping the budgets of student films. “It hasn’t come up, but maybe it should,” said Mr. Irving.

On the west coast, N.Y.U.’s rival, the University of Southern California, does exactly that. “We have tried to take the competition out of the process on the undergraduate level,” said Michael Taylor, the chair of the Division of Film and Television Production. There, in the most advanced undergraduate class, 12 students put in $300 each toward a communal budget for a total of $3,600 per film, although the director has the option of spending an additional thousand—but no more. “We don’t allow it in these classes,” said Mr. Taylor. “We try to level the playing field—but it’s very, very difficult to have a completely level playing field.”

“The whole point of making a movie is, it makes you a better filmmaker,” said Otto Cedeño, 20-year-old N.Y.U. senior. He made his short, Gradual Suicide, about a band searching for their name (guess what they choose?) for $5,400. “If you have the money, it almost makes it too easy. You can buy a movie by hiring people who know stuff—and you’re not learning.”

“It’s outrageous!” said Arden Wohl, a 22-year-old N.Y.U. senior. “It’s a substitute for lack of story, and it makes people look bad.” Ms. Wohl spent $5,500 on her junior-year film; it was financed entirely by her parents. “My dad said, ‘As long as it’s good and you’re learning,’” she recalled.

Had she wanted, Ms. Wohl could have driven a Brinks truck to the bank. The Park Avenue–bred (yet relatively thrifty) Ms. Wohl spends New Year’s in St. Bart’s with her parents, who are regulars on the charity circuit. But she still thinks she overspent. “It’s shitty, and got me nowhere. I wish I would have done it for free.”

ANOTHER SUBJECT OF FILM-SCHOOL GOSSIP is Swiss-born Krisztian Maj-dik. He completed classes at N.Y.U. in December.

Mr. Majdik isn’t the typical pasty Tisch student: Two years ago, he was the 2004 NCAA triple-jump champion, and he was also All-American in the long jump. “As a boy, I never liked movies—I discovered it late,” he said.

Mr. Majdik’s 12-minute film, Night Falls, is a based on the Ambrose Bierce short story “Chickamauga,” about the horrors of war—civil—as seen though a child’s eyes. “My professor liked the script, but he said, ‘The fire in the end—why don’t you do it differently?’” The fire stayed.

Mr. Majdik disputed that the film cost more than $100,000. He put the current cost close to $70,000, which was collected from family and friends. But he still needs about $7,000 to finish it.

“My girlfriend’s family wants to give me the money to finish the film, but I’m too embarrassed to take it,” he said.

And then there’s Anthony Green, N.Y.U.’s Canadian Cecil B. DeMille, who completed classes last year. His short, Pigeon, was produced for a junior-year class—Color-Sync Workshop—that requires a project no longer than eight minutes, for which students are meant to collaborate in crews of four.

A 10-minute short, Pigeon takes place on a late-19th-century steam train in France during World War II. It is shot in 35-millimeter and stars Academy Award–nominated actor Michael Lerner and Wendy Crewson, a celebrated Canadian actress. Mr. Green insisted that his budget was quite reasonable.

When Mr. Green is “in town on business” from Toronto, he stays in the Palace Hotel at 50th and Madison, where the rooms start at $400 a night. Over a cranberry juice in the lobby on a Tuesday in mid-January, Mr. Green, who resembles a lanky version of Jim Morrison, pegged the cost of his period film at $25,000.

But that’s only true on a technicality—or three.

Mr. Green, the son of the co-founder of the popular Canadian sportswear and leather brand Roots, first said that he paid the film’s $25,000 budget entirely on his own, “from my bar mitzvah money and day trading.” When pressed, and following a bout of seat shifting, Mr. Green admitted that his father split the cost by distributing Roots gift certificates to the 60-member crew in lieu of cash payment. “They were in denominations of $150,” he said.

And how did he score the Oscar nominee? “I’m friends with a guy who runs a studio, and he’s good friends with Michael Lerner,” said Mr. Green. Mr. Lerner responded to the script, he said. (That “guy” with the art studio is actually the brother of his father’s business partner.)

But Mr. Lerner signing on meant trouble: Canada has strict requirements regarding the nationalities of cast and crew. With the American Mr. Lerner in the cast, the film wasn’t eligible for discounts off union rates—and the budget rose from $15,000 to $25,000. Mr. Green turned to Professor Irving for help.

According to Mr. Green, the professor’s response was: “You’re being ambitious. This is your problem.”

(“I would have done anything to help Anthony,” said Mr. Irving, “but it seems that it was outside the spirit, and therefore the curriculum, of Color-Sync. Otherwise I’m happy to help in any way.”)

Enter Karen Wookey, the veteran Canadian producer of such syndicated television shows as Mutant X and Andromeda—and a longtime friend of Mr. Green’s parents.

Ms. Wookey, in her new capacity as Pigeon’s producer, casually mentioned Mr. Green’s budget issues over breakfast with her former boss, Jay Firestone, the Canadian entertainment mogul who founded Fireworks Entertainment. Mr. Firestone threw in the $10,000 needed for completion from personal funds.

Ms. Wookey also got the script into the hands of Ms. Crewson, who Americans may know as Anne Packard from the third season of 24. But the masterstroke was getting most of her crew from Mutant X, which was on break at the time, to work on the film. The professional crew largely worked for free, and the post-production was on the house.

As for Pigeon’s real-world cost, Ms. Wookey said, “You could probably say it was between $200,000 and half a million, depending on your measuring posts.” Ms. Wookey is very proud of the finished product. “We were alone watching the final mix and I was crying, and I looked at him and said, ‘I didn’t think I ever gave you a really good bar mitzvah present.’”

Her real bar mitzvah present had been a deluxe version of the Leatherman multi-tool unit.

Mr. Green chalked it up to luck—“a lot of being in the right place at the right time,” he said. And members of school’s faculty are pleased with Mr. Green’s result. “It’s a very good film,” Mr. Irving said.

“I admired the script,” said Kenneth Dancyger, a professor in the film school and a mentor to Mr. Green. “The fact that it’s as good as the film is stunning.” Mr. Dancyger is so fond of Pigeon that a production still is featured on the cover of the third edition of his book, Writing the Short Film.

And Mr. Dancyger also shows Pigeon to his students. Does he fear inciting budget wars in class? Ah, too late: “That happened 10 years ago,” he said.

For his encore, Mr. Green is working on another student film, this one a thriller starring the well-known Canadian actress Martha Burns. It was shot inside the new terminal at the Toronto International Airport and on its tarmac—a pretty neat trick in the post-9/11 security era. “It was pretty cool,” Mr. Green said of his airport access, which was also procured through a friend of the family.

—Andrew Stengel

Pols and Pros

Tom Wolfe was giving a speech, but a bookish fellow in the corner was still chatting away.

“Could you please keep it down?” a man asked the talker.

“I don’t think I’m speaking so loud,” the publishing sort answered.

“I will take you outside and knock every fucking tooth out of your head,” the man explained.

“Got it,” said the chatterer. “I will stop talking.”

So the McManus Democratic Club last week was nothing if not a crowded intersection. All the city’s different walks of life came to sip zinfandel and root beer, eat cheese and crackers, and show support for Eddie Hayes’ new book Mouthpiece: A Life In—and Sometimes Just Outside—the Law.

“There were people from a wide variety of life,” Mr. Hayes said last Friday, describing the party. “Whether from the legitimate side of life or the not-so-legitimate side. The not-so-legitimate guys, let’s just say they are working guys, hard-working union men, with hobbies. There were a number of women there whose primary means of employment … well, these were women who profit greatly from love—women in very high heels. It was a very nice event.”

Mr. Hayes said that due to such notable guests as his good, if unlikely, friend Governor George Pataki, author Thomas Kelly and Deputy Police Commissioner Charles De Rienzo (Ray Kelly had another benefit, he explained), the lawyer-cum-writer found himself playing referee.

“A couple of times I had to run over and say, ‘Hey, you can’t have your picture taken with him. Get out of that picture.’”

Jim McManus, who runs the historic club, helped guard the Governor from some of Mr. Hayes’ former defendants. It was then that he noticed some pain on Mr. Pataki’s face.

“I noticed that he was holding his side,” said Mr. McManus, who realized only the day after that Mr. Pataki was walking around with the ruptured appendix that forced an emergency surgery last Thursday. “He stayed a half hour and then he left, and I was surprised, because he was such a good friend of Eddie.”

“Only at Eddie Hayes’ party could you have Pataki and some of the West Side legends, like people with my last name,” said Robert Spillane, the son of Mickey Spillane, a boss in the infamous Westies gang who was murdered in the 1970’s.

Mr. Spillane, who is now writing a play about a cross-dressing mobster called All Dolled Up, said the club became so hot and packed that associates of Sean Combs, a former client of Mr. Hayes, offered some of their neighboring studio’s space to absorb the spillover.

“It was chaos!” said Mr. McManus. “The place was jammed.”

But Mr. Hayes said that he couldn’t imagine having the party anywhere else.

“The theater district was the heart of Manhattan in many ways,” Mr. Hayes said. “It was the heart of entertainment, or criminal activity or depraved-sex activity. It was the heart of the Democratic machine. It meant a lot to me.

“I didn’t lead the type of life you’ve been hearing about lately. These clerking and law-review guys—I wasn’t one of them. But I could tell you a lot about after-hours clubs. I was up in the Bronx. When it was bad. And if you were poor, then your life was a fucking misery. The city smelled bad. There was blood all over the place. But you got a feel for that. And the buildings, where there was some guy chopped into nine pieces in the hall—you got a feel for that, too.”

The city sure has changed a lot. Hell’s Kitchen, once terrorized by the Irish Westies, is now softened by doe-eyed college students, though a purse-snatcher or two still lurks the streets.

“One of the young women from the publishing house said to me, ‘You have some security if you need it,’” said Mr. Hayes. “I pointed at one of the guys at the party and said, ‘Well, his uncle was known as “the Butcher”—I think it is unlikely anything is going to happen around here.’”

—Jason Horowitz N.Y.U.’s Li’l Big-Budget Blockbusters