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Michelle Gritzer won't be the only Ohio University graduate working as a Directors Guild of America intern. Alumna Paty Perez, MFA '01, has also begun an internship. This means that two of only 17 DGA interns are Ohio University alumni.

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October 01, 2003
Gritzer on the fast track to joining exclusive guild
By Joseph Hughes

Pacing the set of the Fox hit "The O.C.," Directors Guild of America intern Michelle Gritzer would like everyone to shut up.

No, she isn't angry. She's helping guide a Hollywood television production. She's helping the Assistant Director quiet the set before filming begins.

Thomas sees bright future for HTC film program

David Thomas has something to tell you.

It would be easy for the School of Film professor to shout about his highly successful Honors Tutorial College undergraduate program from the windows of his third-floor Lindley Hall office.

He'd rather let their work speak for itself.

Exemplary students like Michelle Gritzer and her counterparts are partly responsible for the HTC program recently receiving an 1804 Grant to build on what Thomas says is the "best undergraduate film program in the Midwest."

Thomas plans to use the grant to serve three purposes: To increase opportunities for off-campus learning experiences and workshops, to provide more chances for undergraduate research and creative activity and to generate more internships among his students. He also hopes to slowly expand the program from its current capacity of nine students in several years.

"Students like Michelle Gritzer motivate our graduate students," Thomas says. "HTC students are deeply respected by those in our MFA program. They want them to work on their film shoots from year one. Our HTC students go the extra mile. They're so hungry, so appreciative and they become central parts of our graduate program."

The closeness Thomas cherishes stems from the fact that there is no other undergraduate film program than the Tutorial track. In fact, HTC students often take classes with graduate students ten years older. But that just inspires the undergrads to make better films. "The competition is amazing among the HTC students," Thomas says. "The quality of work is amazing, too. One reason we were able to earn the 1804 Grant was the quality of work our incoming students have. We made a point to show that to a lot of people."

With competition between film schools also fierce, Thomas knows when a high school student chooses another school, he or she is headed to another top-of-the-line institution.

"We're in competition for students with the big guns," Thomas says. "When we lose a student, we lose them to NYU, to USC or to UCLA. We lose them to top programs."

But attending such schools can also have its disadvantages.

"At NYU, however, they would be joined by nearly a thousand other students," he says. "Here, we've always got between 50 and 60 students in our programs. Everyone knows everyone and they use each other for help, to lean on and to gain experience."

Thomas believes the 1804 Grant will allow him to capitalize on an already strong program.

"The rest is here: We've got the horsepower - the faculty, the equipment and most importantly the University," Thomas says. "There are experienced people across campus in creative writing, business, theatre and music, among many others. We use the whole campus."

For the next two years, Gritzer will endure meager pay, rigorous, ever-changing work conditions and little sleep as an assistant director trainee, a position so sought after that nearly thousands of aspiring filmmakers apply for the internship each year.

After an extensive, three-stage interview process, Gritzer - who graduated from the Honors Tutorial College through the College of Fine Arts' School of Film - is on the fast track to joining the Guild, one of the industry's most exclusive unions. At 21, she is the youngest of 17 DGA interns. Gritzer's story started last year, thanks to an internship with the Cleveland Film Commission. While researching trade magazines, she found the DGA internship's Web site and decided to apply.

"The program has great benefits," Gritzer says, "you get to work on a variety of films, get to meet a lot of people and you become a member of the DGA when you complete the program." Those who do not earn a DGA internship normally take between six to eight years to get into the Guild.

In December, officials invited Gritzer to fly to Chicago in January to take a test. Not just any test. "Imagine the SAT, ACT and a personality test rolled into one," Gritzer says, "and you don't even come close to the difficulty level of this test. They tested us on logic, vocabulary, mathematics - without a calculator - spatial reasoning, creativity and several other subjects, none of which directly pertained to film."

Each of the test's sections had a nerve-wrenchingly short deadline - two or three minutes - and featured as many as 60 questions. "When I left the test site and flew back to Cleveland," she says, "I was sure I had failed the test."

Hollywood loves a good plot twist.

In March, Gritzer received a letter asking for her resume, transcripts and a list of everywhere she had worked in the past five years. She had advanced to phase two: The group interview held in Los Angeles. She was now one of only 127 - out of 1,300 applicants taking the first test - asked to the assessment center.

Gritzer didn't know what to expect upon arrival. "If I thought that January test was bad," she says, "I certainly had no idea what I was in for when I got to Los Angeles."

After watching a short film about the trainee program - and under strict rules not to talk with anyone - applicants split into groups of six and given a series of tasks. Each group was carefully observed. In one exercise, Gritzer's group was told they were running a language convention. Upon arrival at work, they were to prioritize 12 messages.

One message stated that a friend was having chest pains with an aching left arm. Thinking it was nerves, the friend was hanging out in her hotel room. Another was a call from an angry caterer, upset the guests had requested strange food that he couldn't get in time for the night's meal.

A third message informed the group that the keynote speaker couldn't make the convention, while another was from a friend who was afraid that he wouldn't be able to understand any of the speakers.

After 20 minutes, Gritzer's group was given another exercise: You are marooned on a desert island. You have 20 minutes to rank tasks. Following the exercises, testers called Gritzer in for a short interview, asking her how she did.

"Then we had to go and take another standardized test," she says, "which consisted of only seven questions revolving around the worst logic problem I have ever faced. I hate logic. I was sure that I hadn't made it past that."

Later that night, Gritzer received a phone call. She was one of approximately 30 to make it to the final interview at the DGA offices two days later. Walking into a room with 15 people sitting around a massive table, she was told they were the Board of Trustees.

For the next 30 minutes, members of the Board asked Gritzer about everything she sent them - essays, transcripts, classes - also including questions based on her performance in the group assessment.

Why would you make a good assistant director?

Why do you get such good grades? Do you think you're smarter than everyone else, or do you just work harder?

There isn't much film business in Cleveland, so what kind of experience do you really have?

"It was a complete shock," Gritzer says. "They definitely tried to intimidate me and see how I'd react to pressure. When all was said and done, I made it out of the building to my car before I broke down and cried. I had to buy myself some ice cream and a book just to cheer up. I've never bombed an interview so badly."

But she was surprised again. Gritzer received a call in late July telling her she made it. She had three weeks to move to Los Angeles.

But that didn't suppress her desire to make the most out of her two years in the program. "I just hope to gain some contacts in the industry, knowledge about the production process and, of course, gain some new friends and have a great time," she says.

For the next two years - and at a relatively low wage - Gritzer faces a fast-paced, grueling introduction to the film industry. As a trainee, she will be under the supervision of a film or television unit production manager and an assistant director. Gritzer's duties are to provide support to the actors, crew and production personnel.

Working long hours in any condition on a variety of sets, Gritzer will immerse herself in each production. Assistant directors can be responsible for bit players and extras, also known as "atmosphere." Their voices can be heard shouting "Roll" or "Quiet on the set."

They also make the shooting schedule, leaving the director to pursue the creative aspects of each project. Keeping roll, the assistant director is charged with maintaining order and discipline on the set.

"You just have to go there to learn," she says. "There's nothing that can prepare you for the experience."

Anne Cofell is the assistant to the executive producer for the Fox hit "24." After meeting Gritzer in Los Angeles a few months ago, Cofell - who earned a master of fine arts degree in theater from Ohio University in 2000, also studying film and television scriptwriting - thinks her fellow alumna is ready.

Movie poster

"My hat is off to her," Cofell says. "I'm thrilled to see someone from Ohio University blow the competition away. This will launch her career here. It can take people over six years to get into the DGA, slaving away on different shows. DGA internships put people on the fast track. And, let me tell you, thousands of people in L.A. apply, and it's incredibly selective. I know highly qualified, even over-qualified people who didn't make it."

Unsure of what film or television show she would first be working on, Gritzer dreams about joining a hit NBC series. "The first day on the set of 'The West Wing,' I'd be speechless," she says. Since her arrival in Los Angeles, Gritzer has spent time on the sets of television shows "Still Standing," "Judging Amy" and "CSI: Miami." She started work on "The O.C." - which will air on Fox Thursday nights at 9 p.m. following baseball season - in late September.

After the internship? "You can't predict the future, but I'd love to stay in Los Angeles, working in the industry, whether it be through film or television."

David Thomas, director of studies for the Honors Tutorial College program in the School of Film, says Gritzer's background has prepared her for any endeavor.

"Michelle is unstoppable," Thomas says. "Michelle has it all. She's intelligent, talented, savvy, has people skills and is very organized. She also knows herself, and that's important. She's extremely determined and possesses a can-do attitude, which is very important in the motion picture professions.

"She's truly a model student and has the deep respect of our faculty and her fellow students."

Joseph Hughes is a writer for University Communications and Marketing


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