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Action! ‘American Animals’ Film Offers a Star Turn for Campus

Film crew in front of Chambers
For two weeks in March, movie magic was made around Chambers Building and in the E.H. Little Library’s Davidsoniana room.

By the time full-scale film production of the crime drama American Animals arrived on the Davidson campus, Sacha Franks '20 was ready.

As an intern for the film's second key assistant director, Franks had already dedicated hours of time on-set at Charlotte location shoots, reading call sheets, cuing extras and keeping up with all the action via walkie-talkie.

She particularly enjoyed listening in as the actors improvised their way through scenes.

"I never realized how much leeway the actors have," Franks said. "Bart [Layton] gives them artistic freedom."

Bart Layton (The Imposter) wrote and directed the heist film, based on the true story of a rare-book heist at Transylvania University's campus library in Kentucky in 2004. Blake Jenner (Glee) and Evan Peters (American Horror Story) star.

Franks was one of more than 50 Davidson students who interned or shadowed professional creative and technical crew members on campus sets. Other students served as extras and background walk-ons.

Learning the Business

Because of the potential disruptions that large productions can bring to academic and campus life, the college had never before entered a filming agreement of this scale.

The quiet of spring break presented a great opportunity for the production in early March, but the educational components offered by Layton and his crew were the lynchpin of the relationship.

In addition to providing students professional opportunities on set, Layton and the creative professionals of his UK-based Raw Productions worked into their pre-production time on campus a series of special interest sessions, classroom guest lectures, film screenings and talk-backs open to the campus.

They delved into all angles of the film business, from cinematography and directing to deal-making, business networking and set design.

"I was impressed with how bright and engaged Davidson students are," said Layton. "They ask the right questions."

During campus filming, Sam Lastres '17 worked several 10-hour shifts as a production assistant, and continued to work more hours later at the movie's warehouse sets in North Charlotte.

"Davidson has lots of opportunities to study film, but being able to actually work on a big production, I've learned so much every time about the details of how it all comes together," Lastres said.

One of her main duties was "locking up" campus sets when cameras started to roll, redirecting campus pedestrians and other potential extraneous background action.

Director Bart Layton
‘American Animals’ director Bart Layton and his crew gave students a rare glimpse into a professional film production in action. Layton’s credits include The Imposter, a 2012 documentary.

Being close to the action was instructive in different ways, and no two days were alike–one day, Lastres learned exactly how moving-car scenes are shot in cars that are not moving, another day she networked professionally over lunch in the production's cafeteria.

"The crew was just very friendly and eager to teach whatever you wanted to know," she said.

Davidson Look, Davidson People

As soon as students started clearing out on March 3 for spring break, contract crew members streamed into town from all corners of the North Carolina film industry. American Animals equipment trucks took up residence on Concord Road and makeup trailers lined the lot of Baker Sports Complex.

Set designers transformed the college's Davidsoniana Room into an even more hallowed-looking rare book room with wood paneling and dramatic lighting. Some librarians even joked they wanted to keep the new look.

Bundles of heavy power cables snaked through the shrubbery. Glass panels in Chambers doors were painted opaque beige, for visual contrast at a distance. On campus and in Davidson town streets, orange cones sprouted at a moment's notice for getaway scenes in traffic and other location shots.

Davidson's "look" was a primary reason Layton and his creative colleagues were eager to film here.

But it was Davidson's people who sealed the deal.

"Everywhere you point the camera, there's something attractive you want to film," Layton said. "And the people we've dealt with have been a real pleasure to work with."

The feeling was mutual on the college side from beginning to end.

"The co-curricular element was pivotal for us from the get-go," said Auxiliary Services Director Richard Terry, the college's production point man throughout.

"The entire production company and crew demonstrated tremendous respect for the things that are nearest and dearest to us, from the buildings and campus itself to our academic process. They listened to us. Those two things combined made it a really good experience. It was exhausting and time consuming and totally worth it."

World of Opportunity

Franks, who is a film and media studies minor, couldn't agree more.

Working alongside professionals on American Animals was the perfect segue from her first Davidson semester studying and writing with former Visiting McGee Professor Tom Gilroy, whose screenwriting credits include the 2000 film Spring Forward.

"I love the arts in general," she said. "I've done some writing, parts of novels.... screenwriting is a really different format. It's really hard. You have to continually remind yourself of stage directions and dialogue details."

She is already casting ahead for possibilities to study abroad in filmmaking hotspots like Prague, Copenhagen or New Zealand.

Of the 100-plus-member crew on campus at the height of filming, many were in town from the Wilmington nexus of the North Carolina film industry. American Animals is part of the resurgence that industry began to see in 2016.

After crews left Davidson, they have continued shooting on location in the Charlotte region and on constructed interior sets in North Charlotte. When they wrap in North Carolina, production will move briefly to New York City and then Amsterdam, before going into the post-production phase. That process will lead to later 2017 film festival showings, notably Sundance, which will then largely determine ultimate distribution deals.

Davidson will figure prominently in the movie, and will remain a star in the memories of Layton and his colleagues.

"My only hope is that the college feels like they've gotten as much out of it as we have," he said.

John Syme
josyme@davidson.edu
704-894-2523