Brown alums pay homage to alma mater on the big screen

Monday, February 28, 2005

Most university graduates express appreciation to their alma mater by offering financial gifts – and, on occasion, donating a building or scholarship. However, many Brown alums – true to the University’s style – convey their sentiments uniquely: Brunonians in the entertainment industry have endowed the University with celebrity status.

Countless Brown alums work as producers, directors, filmmakers, screenwriters, actors and the like. These alums are influential and may be the reason why so many TV shows and films today feature characters who attended the University.

“Hollywood – and the entertainment industry, in general – are full of Brown alums, more than most people can imagine,” said Scott Anderson ’86, who works as a director and visual effects supervisor for At the Ocean Entertainment. “When I first started in the industry, the joke used to be ‘The Brown Mafia,’ because there were just so many of us.”

Brown, it seems, does not attract these aspiring film and production moguls as much as it produces them. “Brown fosters creativity and encourages original problem-solving – no matter which discipline you choose. Certainly, with the upswing of the creative writing and playwriting programs, Brown is offering students courses that are readily applicable to filmmaking and entertainment,” Anderson said.

Anderson is not alone in his estimation of Brown’s ability to transform students into creative thinkers who could potentially be successful in the filmmaking industry.

“Brown is a creative place that encourages students to take risks in order to find themselves. The focus tends to be on exploring the nontraditional, trying something new – this is what filmmaking is all about,” said David Munro ’85. Munro co-founded Grottofilms and is currently screening his first full feature, “Full Grown Men.” The project is expected to premiere in the fall.

“Some of my classmates are out there now doing really adventurous filmmaking. They’re challenging the norms and doing it their own way – redefining what forms are acceptable,” Munro said, citing Doug Liman ’88, who produced “Go” and “Swingers,” as an example.

“The writers and producers of many shows and movies that reference Brown almost always have connections to the University,” Anderson said. There is a natural tendency, especially among those who are just entering the industry, to draw upon their own lives for material. Anderson produced a short film during his professional career that was based on his college experiences.

An extensive list of TV shows feature alleged alums, including “The Simpsons,” in which burnt-out bus driver Otto Mann is an alum; “Will & Grace,” in which the title characters met during their time together at Brown; and “24,” the dramatic action series featuring a character who, according to the show’s official website, allegedly received a master of arts degree – with a specialization in public policy – from Brown.

A few shows, such as the adult-oriented animated comedy “Family Guy,” in which the Griffin family is from an imaginary suburb outside of Providence, incorporate references to the University to a far greater degree.

The family’s speaking dog, Brian Griffin, is a Brown graduate, and he discusses his days at the University in several episodes. Meg, the family’s oldest child, describes Brown as her first choice when looking at colleges. In one episode, the family tours the campus and can be seen standing in front of the legendary Van Wickle Gates.

An abundance of movies include in their scripts fictitious Brown alums and potential students. In theaters now, “The Wedding Date” is a romantic comedy in which the female protagonist’s date to her sister’s wedding is a respectable male escort and freelance journalist – as well as a Brown graduate. The underdog quarterback in “Varsity Blues,” Johnny “Mox” Moxon, aspires to gain acceptance into Brown at any cost, placing that goal above all else. In the independent film “Kissing Jessica Stein,” the main character is a journalist with a degree from Brown.

Sometimes references to Brown are obscure: In “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” the main female character wears a Brown T-shirt, and “Dreamcatcher” includes a scene in which a Brown diploma – specially requested by the film’s producers – hangs on the wall of one character’s office.

License to shoot

Isabelle Hunter, Brown’s director of publications and projects, decides how the University’s name and resources are used – and by whom. “My job is to OK all outside organizations that want to use the Brown name, logo or whatever else. … I have to look at how the name is going to be used and if giving permission will be detrimental to Brown’s image,” she said.

“Even students who need to film something on campus – say, in an academic building or in Faunce (House) – as part of a thesis project usually come to me first, especially if they need access to the building during off hours,” Hunter said.

Hunter typically grants requests, regardless of their source. An organization seeking permission from the University to use its name or resources in a way that might tarnish its reputation usually realizes that its request will be denied, and therefore refrains from asking, she added.

“A few years back, I received a request from a filmmaker who wanted to shoot a movie on our campus, and the main character was supposed to work as a gigolo. Obviously, when I found this out I turned the idea down. It wasn’t going to be positive in terms of Brown’s image,” Hunter said.

Before making each decision, Hunter researches how the University’s resources will be used and frequently asks to see a script.

Requests to shoot a movie or television scene on campus are not as common as requests to use Brown apparel or the University’s name – but when they are made, they require serious thought before any decision is made. Primarily, Hunter must ensure the filming will not disrupt the academic life at the University.

“If a shoot is going to interfere with students’ progress on their way to class, then it just cannot happen,” Hunter said. A commercial enterprise is almost invariably prohibited from using the University’s Main Green as a setting. Front Campus, near the Van Wickle Gates, is a more feasible option.

The most frequent requests for use of Brown’s campus involve photo shoots. “The campus is a natural choice because of the beautiful quads and the general Ivy League feel of the environment,” Hunter said.

A few years back, an Acura commercial was shot in early fall in front of the John Hay Library. According to the George Street Journal, the architecture provided an ideal backdrop for the commercial.

The Acura commercial was not an enterprise approved by Hunter – she was never approached with a request to use the area, and was not even aware the commercial existed until recently.

“There are probably plenty of instances where people don’t come to me for permission. Brown’s administration doesn’t really care that much unless the final product is damaging to school’s reputation, so these are the only instances where there might be ramifications,” Hunter said.

Hunter allowed a character in the TV show “Joan of Arcardia” to wear a Brown T-shirt in an episode, and she permitted one of the figures in “Christmas with the Kranks” to wear a Brown sweatshirt. She also arranged for an altered Brown diploma to be sent to the set of “Angels in America.”

“I have to be really careful if I send out a diploma, because the character can have the same name as an actual Brown alum. With ‘Angels in America,’ there was a problem with names. The diploma they got was changed slightly to differentiate it – but it looked close enough,” Hunter said.

Worth 1,000 words

Some of the requests come to Hunter directly through alums, while others come straight from the studio. Regardless, many of the projects seeking to be tied to Brown through some prop or character involve the help of an alum.

But the network of alums in the entertainment industry is not the sole reason for Brown’s prominence on the Hollywood scene.

Regardless of the number of alums in the industry, Brown would not have gained such popularity among filmmakers and TV producers were it not fitting for the context.

“The University is an original place, and the New Curriculum reinforces this image. Essentially, saying somebody is from Brown is shorthand for saying they’re a creative thinker, an artistic person who thinks outside the box and has something unique to offer,” said Lowry Marshall, professor of theatre, speech and dance. This impression is what leads producers to use Brown as a means of defining a character.

“In filmmaking, if you can say in two words what you could otherwise say in 100 words, it’s better to keep it short. The connotations and associations linked to Brown’s image let producers use a simple phrase to express precisely who a character really is,” Marshall said.

Frequently, producers want a character to come across as an Ivy League type. Their choices, then, are numerous. What is it about Brown that makes the University more appealing than the alternatives?

“I think Harvard, Yale and even Princeton have different connotations than Brown does. You get a knee-jerk reaction from the audience when you use one of those. Brown, however, is less narrowly stereotyped because it’s such a diverse, liberal place. Right now, Brown is such a hot school. It’s viewed as the place to be. This quality can signify something about the student body – the type of person that goes to Brown – as well,” Anderson said.

All of this publicity seems to be serving the University well. It is, as Anderson says, one of the trendiest universities in the nation and acceptance letters are in high demand. The countless references to the University increase public recognition and Brown’s overall prestige.

Furthermore, it does not seem Hollywood’s fascination with Brown is going to change anytime soon, as the aspects of Brown that cultivate creative thinkers – those prone to success in the entertainment industry – are becoming more deeply embedded in the school’s self-conception and identity.

After all, this is what a liberal education is all about.