LOS ANGELES — If you're interested in the future of films, the George Lucas Instructional Building at the University of Southern California (USC) is a good place to start.
It is no exaggeration to say that Hollywood has been shaped by nearly seven decades of graduates from the USC School of Cinema-Television, the oldest film school in the country. Some of the top names in Hollywood have made the grade here first, including "Star Wars" creator George Lucas (class of '66), James Ivory of the legendary Merchant-Ivory team ("Howards End," "Remains of the Day") and recent graduate John Singleton, director of the critically acclaimed "Boyz N the Hood."
While students here acknowledge the long shadows of Hollywood giants preceding them, their main preoccupation is how to cast their own. Each of the following four members of the '95-'96 graduating class has his or her own take on the best way to do it.
"Changes need to be made," asserts Kylie Jackson. Although, as an African-American woman, she feels strongly that Hollywood needs more women and people of color in the industry, she says the problem is not simply a "black or women's issue." Instead, she would like to see better representation of everyone, calling it "a universal human issue."
Ms. Jackson's 19-minute graduate film, "Leaving Danny," reflects these concerns as it deals with the problems confronted by a young African-American cellist faced with leaving a handicapped brother for whom she has been the primary caretaker.
Although Texan Kurt Voelker supports Jackson's concerns, he confesses to admiring light-comedy directors such as John Hughes and Ivan Reitman. "I find there are certain things I'm just not drawn to, such as serial killers, government conspiracies, and professional hit men," he says, adding that he tends to go in the opposite direction of the current "bleak chic" trend in Hollywood.
Mr. Voelker calls his 35-minute graduate film, "Decade of Love," a romantic disco comedy: "Out of the maelstrom of disco, emerges a love for the ages." He adds that the film recently helped land him an agent at International Creative Management, a top Hollywood agency.
African-American documentary filmmaker Debbi Reynolds's work has brought her a respectable nod from the industry in the form of a Director's Guild of America award for her 26-minute autobiographical graduate documentary entitled, "Black Like Who?"
"I think that filmmakers have a responsibility to find out what's in them," Ms. Reynolds explains. She feels strongly that what she calls the "internal racism" that has permeated Hollywood movies over the years would be exposed if filmmakers would look more honestly at themselves.
What attracts Scott Derrickson are films with "great humanity but also great appeal." He cites the work of directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Australian Peter Weir, and adds that he's hopeful about being able to do this kind of film in Hollywood.
"We're seeing the emergence of films with high entertainment value but that also raise real, fundamental questions," Mr. Derrickson says, citing Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."
In his own 35-minute graduate film, a drama called "Love in the Ruins," Derrickson explores unexplained events surrounding a shooting at a gas station.
Given that more than half the movies Hollywood produces each year are in the action-thriller genre, each student wrestled with what a few called the "highly politicized and distorted" issue of violence in Hollywood movies.
Derrickson says, "Filmmakers have a responsibility in the way they use violence. It shouldn't be in a film unless there is a reason."
While musing over the issue of violent content, all four expressed optimism laced with practicality about the possibilities of doing work they respect. Says Jackson, "If somebody offered me 'Money Train' (a violent film about the hijacking of a New York subway train), I'd do it. I'd just try to do it my way."
While Reynolds resists the idea of doing any but the most personal of films, Voelker sees filmmaking as a job. "Hollywood is where art meets commerce," he says and dismisses as "selfish" those who only want to express their own ideas with no concern for the audience.
Derrickson says, "The audience is the most powerful person in Hollywood," adding that a film is useless if an audience doesn't want to see it.