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Opening Credits: From editing to set design, Film Institute's production company gives students key roles bringing 'Elvis and Anabelle' to the big screen

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When writing the script for “Elvis and Anabelle,” a dark romantic tale in which a beauty queen and a young mortician fall in love, Will Geiger couldn’t get Texas out of his head. The wide open spaces, the fascination with pageants and the unique tenor of its small towns all made Geiger feel the film could only happen in the Lone Star State.

“It always felt like a Texas story,” Geiger says. “I’ve spent time in Dallas and Houston, and Texas is a state with its own culture and a feeling that was right for this film.”

Max Minghella and Blake Lively, as Elvis and Anabelle, sit on ladders against an unpainted house
Max Minghella and Blake Lively play the title roles in “Elvis and Anabelle,” a tale of unexpected love between a young mortician and a beauty queen.

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Visit “Elvis and Anabelle” online for more clips, posters and storyboards.

It was perfect for Geiger, then, when “Elvis and Anabelle” became the fourth film produced by Burnt Orange Productions, the commercial partner of The University of Texas Film Institute (UTFI). The film was shot over 25 days in spring 2006 with Geiger directing. Goldcrest Films International, the London-based company behind such films as “Chariots of Fire” and “A Room with a View,” co-produced.

“Elvis and Anabelle” opens in a mortuary where Elvis, played by Max Minghella, preps a body for embalming. It’s an unusual beginning for a love story, but that quirkiness is what drew actors like Joe Mantegna, Keith Carradine and Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen to Austin for the shoot. Blake Lively co-stars as Anabelle.

When the film premieres March 10 at the South by Southwest Film Festival, audience members may marvel at the familiar faces, great cinematography and cameos by Texas locales from Padre Island to El Paso. They’ll be less aware that behind the scenes in “Elvis and Anabelle” is the work of more than 40 students from The University of Texas at Austin, who did everything from turning the rambling Murchison House in Pflugerville into a spooky funeral home to assisting in the editing room.

That’s how filmmaking at Burnt Orange works. Established in 2003, the partnership between Burnt Orange and UTFI represents a new model of film education. It produces independent feature films while giving students the opportunity to work in staff positions alongside seasoned professionals in the industry.

“No other school is within shouting distance of this,” says Dr. Thomas Schatz, executive director of UTFI and executive producer of “Elvis and Anabelle.” “We’ve created the opportunity for students to work on actual commercial features either as part-time interns or as full-time interns or apprentices.”

Students worked in every stage of the production of 'Elvis and Anabelle'
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Check out 13 photos of students involved in every stage of the film’s production by using the slide show links above. Open photo key in a new window.

Here, DVD Intern Molly Green, then a second-year student in Radio-Television-Film, shoots video footage during a beauty pageant scene. Beside her Conrad W. Hall, director of photography, shoots the film in 35 mm. Photo: Lisa Crider.

It’s a program that acknowledges that breaking into the film industry is tough and often begins with a few years of schlepping coffee on the set. UTFI dares to imagine that students can finish film school and enter into meaningful positions in the industry. On “Elvis and Anabelle” undergraduate and graduate students worked on the film in every stage of production from filming and editing to set props and costumes, from casting and publicity to accounting and office management.

“This really gets students ready for the professional world in ways that are routine in the medical field and routine in some of the sciences,” Schatz says. “Even the sports world has these kinds of training opportunities, but they haven’t really been tried in the arts and humanities. So this is pretty radical.”

Carolyn Pfeiffer, president and CEO of Burnt Orange, took the helm after 35 years in the film industry and a number of years working in film education with the American Film Institute. She says the support of the local film community, local unions, the Texas Film Commission and others has been critical to Burnt Orange’s first years. And Burnt Orange has been able to select projects where the key players appreciated the academic mission of the company.

“You have to be open to it,” Pfeiffer says. “We’ve been very fortunate that the students that have been involved in this process, almost to a man and woman, have been successful. They’ve been hard working, focused and dedicated, and a high percentage have gone on to work in the industry.”

Sometimes the industry opportunities have come right on the heels of filming. Yvonne Boudreaux, then a second-year set design graduate student in the Department of Theater and Dance, worked as an intern on “Elvis and Anabelle” as a graphic design assistant. Her responsibilities included designing 1960s movie posters to hang in Elvis’s room and drafting floor plans of the house for Geiger.

Mary Steenburgen and Keith Carradine, playing Anabelle's mother and stepfather, with Blake Lively as Anabelle
Mary Steenburgen and Keith Carradine play Anabelle’s mother and stepfather. Steenburgen’s Geneva, a former beauty queen, is bent on seeing her daughter succeed.

Like many students who worked on the film, Boudreaux came to “Elvis and Anabelle” from outside of the Department of Radio-Television-Film. The experience gave her the opportunity to prove herself in a demanding environment.

“I learned many useful ways to handle and administrate a huge project from the perspective of the art department,” Boudreaux says. “I’ve carried those observations into leadership roles in films I have worked on since then.”

Though she’s still finishing her third and final year of graduate school, Boudreaux has been busy making films since finishing “Elvis and Anabelle.” She held a paid position on the feature film “Kabluey” immediately after finishing her work with Burnt Orange, and she’s worked as a prop master on another feature and done art direction for short films shot in Austin.

“My experience with UTFI has provided me with the real film expertise that I need to get a job,” she says, “and I have grown tremendously as an artist from working on their projects.”

Boudreaux plans to work in the Austin film industry, where Burnt Orange has been able to take advantage of the rich talent available. Local filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez have created a strong cache of experienced crew for Texas-based films. “Elvis and Anabelle” drew from that talent, recruiting, among others, cinematographer Conrad W. Hall and editor Sandra Adair.

Adair, whose credits include “Fast Food Nation,” “School of Rock” and “Dazed and Confused,” embraced the experience of working with students. She ran a summer editing workshop that allowed students to observe the editing room process, cut some footage and then receive feedback from Geiger and herself.

Matthew James, who was finishing the final semester of his bachelor’s degree in Radio-Television-Film with a second major in philosophy last spring, worked with Adair. An intern in editing, it was his first work on a film.

Camera Intern Kirk Johnson and Camera Apprentice Lisa Kaselak manage and inventory film
Camera Intern Kirk Johnson and Camera Apprentice Lisa Kaselak manage and inventory film. Kaselak, who completed her MFA in film production in 2006, says she was thrilled to work in such a professional capacity on the shoot. “It was trial by fire,” she says, “which in my opinion is the best way to learn.” Photo: Felicia Graham.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of work involved and the amount of responsibility I was given,” James says. “ I hadn’t expected to work as closely with the editor and director as I did. I was able to meet a lot of really talented people who have a wealth of experience in the film industry.”

Today James is making videos for an Internet startup, a job he discovered through connections he made while working on “Elvis and Anabelle.” He says he’s excited to be on the ground floor of something and he plans to build his career in film editing.

With all of these students running around the set, it might seem like this was more of a student production than a real shoot. Not so, says Mantegna, who plays Elvis’s father Charlie.

Mantegna, the Hollywood veteran who’s been seen on the big screen in films such as “Bugsy” and Woody Allen’s “Celebrity” and heard on television in his recurring role as Fat Tony on “The Simpsons,” said the “Elvis and Anabelle” set was a great place to be.

“The only indication that anything’s different is that there’s some degree of teaching going on,” Mantegna says. “But this has to happen. Where are you going to get the upcoming professionals in this business if you don’t have that?”

The unique set-up was an interesting element of working on the film for Mantegna, as was filming in Austin. He hadn’t been to the city before and he relished the good barbecue. But what really brought him to Texas was Geiger’s script.

Joe Mantegna, playing Elvis' father Charlie, with Max Minghella as Elvis
Joe Mantegna plays Elvis’ father Charlie, a mortician more interested in his mini golf course than in the bodies being embalmed in his funeral home.

“It always comes down to the script and whether I find something interesting and fascinating,” Mantegna says. “The material really appealed to me, and I really liked the character a lot.”

After meeting Geiger and looking at who was doing the film, including his “Joan of Arcadia” costar Steenburgen, Mantegna signed on.

Pfeiffer wasn’t surprised to see the “Elvis and Anabelle” film draw this level of talent. From the time it first crossed the desk at Burnt Orange, people have fallen in love with it, she says.

“There’s just something enchanting about it,” Pfeiffer says. “It’s quirky, a little unusual and full of charm.”

Pfeiffer says having read thousands of scripts in her lifetime, it’s exciting to find one where you don’t know what’s coming next. She says “Elvis and Anabelle” made it to her desk through the regular process, as one of the nearly 1,000 scripts that have been submitted to Burnt Orange since 2003.

“It just came in through the regular door,” she says. “We have a whole reading department that involves students. We all read it and we all loved the script. I’m so pleased with the film.”

That “Elvis and Anabelle” was set in Texas was a convenient coincidence, though that isn’t a necessary component of a script produced by Burnt Orange. “Homo Erectus,” the film produced just prior to “Elvis and Anabelle,” is the story of a caveman named Ishbo and is set in prehistoric times.

During the shoot, Geiger discovered that shooting in Texas can bring some surprises. The whopping big storms that blew through last spring left a lasting impression on Geiger and the out-of-town cast.

The crew of 'Elvis and Anabelle' on location at the Murchison House in Pflugerville, Texas
The crew of “Elvis and Anabelle” on location at the Murchison House in Pflugerville, Texas. Felicia Graham, who shot this photo, worked as Apprentice Still Photographer on set, recording the scenes of the movie. She is currently a graduate student in the School of Journalism.

“We got a lot of weather when I was there,” Mantegna says. “One night a giant storm blew through, the power went off and there were hailstones as big as golf balls. The trailer started rocking and a Teamster came and knocked on the door and said, ‘Joe, I think we should get you out of here.’”

Geiger watched the storm from the second-story balcony of the Murchison House, where he says he saw the type of storm that, if written into a script, people wouldn’t have believed. The howling wind and green explosions in the sky really stuck with him.

As did one other thing. Geiger says working with the students made the set more exciting and alive than he’d expected.

“There were times when I’d see an army of students working on taking a house that had a brand new paint job and making it look almost haunted,” Geiger says. “They were young and passionate and they brought such a good vibe to the set.”

In an industry where productions are notorious for turning grueling and unpleasant, the “Elvis and Anabelle” shoot became a place where actors stuck around after filming just to hang out. Geiger attributes that to the great energy students contributed.

“Someone asked me recently if I could shoot the movie again and not change a thing, would I do it,” Geiger says. “I said yes. I would do it all over again just to have the experience of it.”

BY Vivé Griffith

STILLS/MOVIE from “Elvis and Anabelle” courtesy Goldcrest Films

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  Updated 12 March 2007
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