On the wall next to a sign that reads "Idaho Film and Television Institute," James Dean forever broods. Photos and cutouts of other film icons from Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe are placed throughout the building. In 1998, institute founder Dawn Wells, a member of the Idaho Film Task Force and famous for her role as Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, started an actors' boot camp, an intensive training session taught by industry pros. Today, those boot camps have evolved into the non-profit Idaho Film and Television Institute in Driggs.
On the day of my visit, students not shooting on location gather in a small studio for a taping of a discussion with two professional guests: actor and teacher Michael Bofshever and director Mark Travis. Wells tapes an introduction to the session between the articulate Bofshever and the equally knowledgeable Travis. As the temperature rises from the hot lights, Travis makes it clear: "No one in Hollywood is waiting for you to arrive. In fact, they don't want you to show up. You go into this business because you have a passion to tell a story."
"You also need a passion for acting to succeed as an actor," adds Bofshever.
And that's exactly the reason for a film and TV boot camp in the small, scenic town. The classes, available for college credit, train potential filmmakers for their eventual assault on a resistant Hollywood. There are three boot camps: a film and crew boot camp (a six-week session), a film actors' boot camp and a filmmakers' full-production boot camp (both or which are four-week sessions). Eventually, all the classes collaborate to produce original short films and after the camp ends, participants get DVDs of their work. The title "boot camp" is appropriate. The students and staff are housed at the Teton Teepee Lodge, just across the border in Wyoming, and the rules of conduct are strict.
This is the first year the institute has combined classes for filmmakers, crew technicians and actors. As a guest instructor, Travis guides the novice directors, using the screenplay of Garden State as an additional source. Bofshever, seen recently in United 93, trains the beginning actors, leading them from introductions through improvisations to scene work. Pat Fraley, a professional voice-over artist, teaches various uses of the voice for films, narration and in particular, cartoons.
As classes get under way each day, Wells is everywhere. She helps with make-up, adjusts a costume, answers the phones and then leads a round-table discussion. Directing student Ron Torres is Wells' assistant, and helps recruit students and regulate schedules. With the IFTI, Wells hopes to create professional film crews in Idaho, making it easier for film companies to shoot features in the state. She also dreams of one day nurturing a future film artist of Steven Spielberg's caliber.
During a break in all the activity, Wells and I chat outside. When I ask why Driggs instead of Boise, Wells puts down her soda and says, "Because this is such a beautiful place to work and learn. Look around." I can hear the wind in the cottonwoods and a rushing river nearby. "Ultimately, I want students to answer that question: 'Where do I fit?' We can't all be as versatile as Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep." In addition, Wells explains that IFTI's vision is to provide a fast-track film school and crew college for the future Tri-Power Studios, a professional working studio with whom IFTI will share production facilities.
Separate from the boot camps, IFTI produces the summer SpudFest Family Film Festival.
"[This] a conservative area, and we feature family films dealing with family issues. No nudity or profanity. That doesn't mean they are just for children. Last year, we had a powerful film about a lesbian couple struggling with a terrible decision regarding a sick child."
Down the road behind the old Spud Drive-in, a small student crew prepares to shoot an original commercial for the upcoming SpudFest. Under the direction of 27-year-old director Katie, a native of Sweden now living in Colorado, the crew sets up a scene involving a moving truck and time-lapse photography. After deciding to shoot from a rooftop, Katie and her crew encounter a long delay waiting for the truck and driver. As they wait, their discussion turns the IFTI's recent screening of On the Waterfront staring Marlon Brando.
"It's a great film," Katie says, her crew agreeing. "I love those old black and white films. Casablanca is another one."
I turn the conversation to her education at IFTI. Has she learned a lot in directing class?
"Yes. Mark Travis is a master psychologist," she says. "He answers my questions profoundly."
Later that night, all the students and staff sit around a dormant fireplace and debrief each other on the week's work. Travis discusses the communication difficulties in directing actors--trained and untrained--but mentions that if a director knows what he or she wants, eventually, the collaboration can occur and produce that much desired "magic."
"Never be vague," he warns. Except when it comes to that elusive magic.
Bofshever agrees, but reminds his audience about the difficulties of the "business" with a story about Hilary Swank, who earned $75 dollars a day for her work on Boys Don't Cry, for which she won an Oscar.
"When it was finished, she did not have enough money in her actor's health insurance to buy a prescription," he says. Despite these somewhat discouraging stories, it's clear that Michael Bofshever loves being an actor. "You can't just want to be an actor to attempt this business," he says, "but rather it's a need--you have to be an actor."
Occasionally, Wells asks or answers a question, and the students are encouraged to participate in the discussion. Most of the institute's pupils are young and without much experience. But Jedd Craig, an older student with some experience describes having an epiphany as an actor when suddenly it all "worked" for him. Hearing of his breakthrough provides a touching moment for all attending.
Often when potential cinematic artists attend a major film school, many have already achieved some success and, occasionally, a clash of egos will erupt between film fellows and faculty. However the recruits at IFTI's boot camp demonstrate a genuine respect for the instructors while learning the basics of a trade in which all work is on a freelance basis. At IFTI, filmmakers' boot camps provide an excellent introduction as to "how films are made," giving its students an edge if they choose to proceed in the precariousness of show business.
The Idaho Film and Television Institute's boot camps end before the SpudFest Family Film Festival, named for one of the festival's sponsors, the Idaho Potato Commission. The first festival in April presented student films from Pocatello, Rexburg and Idaho Falls. July 28 and 29, the second series of films (known as "Take Two") presents videos from boot camp, works from 17 other locations and four major films. Film features are shown at the 50-year-old Spud Drive-in owned by Dawnelle and Richard Wood of Driggs. This year's SpudFest includes a new Lassie film and MirrorMask, a film by the late Jim Henson's company.