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MPTV Instructor Helps Students Get to Hollywood

Doug Campbell invites students to visit film sets and learn from the pros

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Students visiting set in L.A.: (L–R) Directing student Keah Moffett, MPTV instructor Doug Campbell and directing student Yana Das on the set of The Cheating Pact.

Since the fall of 2010, Academy of Art University School of Motion Pictures and Television instructor Doug Campbell has been teaching directing and acting for film on Thursdays and Fridays. When he’s not teaching at the Academy, Campbell writes and directs feature films in Los Angeles for Shadowland Films. He has directed 18 features since 2009, and on each film, Campbell invites Academy students to visit the set and observe. 

In a recent Q&A, Campbell shared how he got his start with Shadowland Films, what a typical day for him is like while he’s filming and how students can apply for a set visit. 

What kinds of films are you making for Shadowland Films?

They’re low budget, mother-daughter melodramas. They’re a blast to make. We shoot them fast, in 15 days, sometimes less. Most of the time these films are broadcast by the Lifetime Channel. In December and January, we had two films premiere and 11 of our films airing in total. I’ve been really lucky.

How did this all come about?

When Shadowland hired me back in 2009, I asked Diane Baker, who is the current executive director of the acting school, if any Academy film students would be interested in visiting film sets in Los Angeles. I thought it would be a great chance for students to watch the process from the writer-director’s perspective. Diane agreed, and I started arranging for students to travel south. Ever since, I’ve been continuing this tradition. We’ve probably had more than 150 students visit over the years. 

Describe a typical day on set with you.

Most of the time the students stay next to me at the monitor, or they stand in for actors as we light the scene, and they’re able to see the process up close. They get to watch as I’m dealing with the actors, rehearsing, figuring out the camera positions, solving problems, falling behind schedule, panicking, freaking out, laughing about it, then figuring out how to make it work somehow. 

We shoot anywhere from seven to 10 script pages per shoot day so it’s like fast-paced television. I’m under a wee bit of pressure to get all this material in the can in less than 12 hours, so... if students have never been on a professional film set before, they can learn a lot. 

How many of these films do you make a year?

It depends. One year we did five, other years, two. Last year we did four. It’s up and down, depending on the whims of the film business. Regardless, I’m always trying to bring students down to visit.

Do only directing students visit?

Oh no. We’ve had camera students, production design people, writers, actors, graduates, undergrads, alumni—you name it. Basically I tell my students, both past and present, that I’m offering this opportunity, and if they’re interested, they can contact my assistant and she arranges the visit. Usually we have so many students interested in visiting that we have to turn people away. 

On one film, production design student Amy Wilk came down. She said hi and then asked me where our art department people were. Bang—she was gone. She ended up interning with the art department folks all day. I barely saw her!

How about actors—do you ever have acting students audition?

Absolutely. Whenever I have roles that are appropriate for our students to play, I try to have students audition. On this last film I directed, “Behind the Mask,” I gave eight students the chance to audition for speaking roles. Three Academy actresses had the chance to audition for the lead role. I ended up casting Manuel C. Cruz to play a small role opposite Eric Roberts. (And if you don’t know who Eric Roberts is, you should!) Manny came down to L.A. and did a great job. Last spring, directing student Paula Saslow played a small role in “Stalked By My Doctor.” And a couple years ago I cast acting student Maria Mustelier to play a small part. I can’t always guarantee they’ll get the role, but I’m trying.

Where do you usually shoot at?

Well, if you’re asking if we rent stages at Paramount or Fox, we don’t have the budget for that. We sometimes rent standing sets—much like the sets you’ll see at Townsend. However, most of the time we’re shooting at peoples’ homes or at high schools or office buildings—private property.

Do students who visit your sets ever get jobs working for Shadowland?

Yes, they do—sometimes. But visiting set doesn’t guarantee the chance for a job. It is, however, a way to meet people and make contacts for the future. Lately, I’ve hired alumni who are working in L.A., and then they start referring other Academy grads, and we hire those people as well. For example, on the set of “Sugar Daddies,” I walked down the hallway and bumped into a former student of mine, Brianna Del Giorno. With a real confused expression on her face, she asked me, “What are you doing here?” 

I said, “I’m the director. What are YOU doing here?” I asked. 

She goes, “I’m the second assistant camera!” Now, while I’d like to take the credit for bringing her onto the show, I didn’t. She was referred to us by another Academy grad. The Academy network is starting to grow in Los Angeles, I’m happy to say.

How do students working on your set compare to graduates from other film schools?

I’m partial, of course, but in all honesty, they work harder than graduates from other schools in L.A. Because our students are coming from the Bay Area, they appreciate the opportunity more. Without exception, every Academy student who has worked for Shadowland has done an incredible job. I hope this continues. 

For students living in San Francisco without a car, logistically how does this work, travel-wise?

Southwest Airlines, Megabus or car pool. I hire a driver, and if students need a ride once they get to L.A., I have my driver pick them up at Burbank Airport or Downtown Burbank Metrolink Station. Or they take a cab, or Uber or Lyft. A lot of students drive down. 

How are you able to arrange all this while you’re directing a film?

It’s a lot of coordination, tons of emails and phone calls, and my assistant handles everything. It’s her deal—she’s the boss. 

Why do you do this?

When I graduated film school, I hadn’t spent much time on professional sets. The first time I was on a feature film set, I didn’t know what the assistant director did, I didn’t know how to use a walkie-talkie, how to read a call sheet. I was clueless. So I’m trying to help Academy students avoid that mistake. I think it’s important for film school grads to feel comfortable on set before they get there. And as far as paying work goes, let’s face it, it’s a competitive business, so finding work is always a challenge. Like so many of my fellow teachers at Townsend, I’m just trying to help.

When is the next chance for Academy students to visit one of your film sets?

Shadowland is threatening to hire me to direct three films this coming year—maybe more. Right now I’m writing one of them. Hopefully we’ll have something to shoot in the spring. 

How can Academy students contact you?

They can email my assistant at onsetwithdoug@hotmail.com, introduce themselves, tell her you’re interested in visiting film sets in L.A., and we’ll go from there.