Their future is at the movies: film industry training
for developmentally disabled
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
The scene at the downtown Casse-CroÃte Bakery is typical: packed with people and perfumed with the smell of freshly baked bread.
It's a Monday, the day owners Richard Denoix and Lenore Colarusso-Denoix normally close the shop. But this day is special, the first day of filming, and it's hear-a-pin-drop quiet, especially when director Hester Wagner calls for "Action!"
The bakery is just one of six Livermore locations being used for the first movie to be produced by the students of Joey Travolta's L.A.-based Inclusion Films Workshop.
Students enrolled in the 20-week Practical Film and Media Workshop, which launched in February, are the inaugural class working on their thesis film. The Northern California filmmaking school is an expansion of Travolta's innovative vocational training program for adults with developmental disabilities and a joint venture with Lafayette-based nonprofit Futures Explored.
In addition to his well-known brother, John, Travolta has a background in special education and is a respected film director/producer. He and his team of Burbank professionals have run a two-week sprint-to-the-finish summer camp with Futures Explored at Saint Mary's College in Moraga for the past five years.
Livermore's year-round calendar is luxurious by comparison: a two-semester, five-day-per-week plunge into curriculum aimed at churning out fully hireable film editors, writers and crews.
"We run this like regular studios," Travolta said, between takes. "We just don't have Hollywood's equipment and money."
What they do have are professional actors, producers, directors and caterers, some local, some from out of town, and a crew that Travolta boasts is 90 percent from the disabled community.
"Hester makes sure everyone does their job and feels important. The craft service person with the food -- supplying the energy -- is just as important as the star talent. That's what filmmaking does: You depend on each other," he said.
But these students aren't the craft service personnel. They're screenwriters, production designers, prop masters, set dressers and sound boom operators.
Wagner says local community support for this program has been "fabulous." She and her students asked to film in six Livermore locations and everyone they contacted not only agreed but they waived rental fees.
The screenplay, written by seven of the 13 students and titled "Beautiful Disaster," is about a small town suffering a drought and a mysterious visitor who prophesies a monstrous storm.
Baker Colarusso-Denoix, saying she knows nothing about the plot, instantly said, "yes" to Wagner's request.
"I heard the film school was for autistic students," she said, during a break in the action. "This community has been so good to us since we opened in 2012. Normally, it's noisy in here, so I suppose this isn't real life."
Inclusion Films workshops are a real opportunity, however. Travolta says requests for public service announcement films and jobs for workshop graduates from their Bakersfield and Burbank locations are increasing exponentially.
Adults in the autism spectrum bring special talents like intense focus and unconventional perspectives -- two skills considered highly valuable -- to filmmaking. Although the autistic population is socially challenged, the process of working on a film inevitably channels them into shared discussions, negotiations, persuasion, compromise and good old-fashioned group fun.
"We don't dance here," said prop master and writer Shannen Knudsen, 22. The San Ramon resident has attended the summer camp five times, where daily dance sessions break the tension of producing a film in two weeks.
Knudsen misses the dancing, but loves writing and games like "Expert," in which students talk about things they know nothing about. "You make things up and it helps your thinking," she says.
She says giving up her idea to have a librarian in the cast was sad, but wouldn't have fit the story. "It's hard to keep people quiet when you're filming, but it's easy getting along with people," she said.
Wagner describes the first year's class as "cohesive and without petty dramas." Because of that, she and her staff were able to "step it up," covering editing, rewriting and set design in more depth. Even so, flexibility was the biggest lesson the students learned.
"They've had their schedules change day-of, but because we built flexibility into the structure, the students are prepared," she said.
Travolta has a hard time choosing where to lay his compliments: students or Livermore. In the end, he settles for both.
"You always hope for the best and it has been the best. Local businesses are helping out and people are aware that these kids have ability. We're just bringing them out and showing their gifts."
He's interrupted by another call for "quiet on the set," and all attention goes to two students: Jeff Smith, announcing the fifth take, and sound boom operator John Tokarek, angling the microphone toward the actors. During this take, no one drops a metal creamer, no actor skips a line, no phone calls interrupt; the timing is perfect.
"I love that," Wagner said. "How was it for sound?"