While many Whittier College students may have spent their summer watching movies, others were actually working on a movie with industry professionals. From the last few weeks in July to the beginning of August, Carlos Through the Tall Grass, an independent film where almost 80 percent of the production staff was made up of current Poets and recent alumni, was shot in and around Whittier.
Helmed by producer and Whittier College Assistant Professor of Film Studies, Patti McCarthy, and directed by the film’s screenwriter, Rick Dominguez, Carlos Through the Tall Grass tells the story of a brilliant young man who has doubts about going off to college when he realizes how much all the needy, felonious, desperate and deranged people in his dysfunctional world depend on him. Talented newcomer, Miguel Angel Garcia, stars as Carlos in this Latinx-themed comedy-drama.The script for the film appeared three years ago on the prestigious Black List, Hollywood’s annual compendium of the best unproduced screenplays a roster which produced such indie hits as Juno, Adventureland, and Whiplash.
“As soon as I read the script, I knew I wanted to get my film students involved in production and produce it,” said McCarthy. “It’s a great story about a Latino high school kid who is having a hard time making a decision about whether he should go away to college or stay home and help the family and friends who depend upon him.”
Whittier College Professor of Theatre & Communication Arts Jennifer Holmes, associate producer and casting director of the film, was also impressed by the script. “I was drawn to this film for three reasons: the story, the wonderful hands-on film-making experience for our students, and the fact that Whittier, California is the featured location in the film,” said Holmes. “The struggle that Carlos experiences is an important issue that is not often discussed. High schools prepare students for college, yet it is difficult to actually prepare students for the emotional experience of leaving home.”
“This story really resonates,” McCarthy added. “So many first-generation kids entering college today, including many of my own students, can relate to Carlos’s dilemma. Many parents and relatives have sacrificed a lot to send their children to college to help make the dreams of their kids come true, but often with that sacrifice comes a feeling of obligation. So, there’s a catch: Does Carlos stay to help the people he loves, or go because when he leaves, he fulfills his own dreams, but also the dreams of the people who love him? Ultimately, Carlos Through The Tall Grass is a story about culture, growing up, and the enduring love of family and friends.”
Ten Whittier College students and recent graduates worked on the film in various capacities. Fourth-year Stephee Bonifacio said her coursework at Whittier prepared her for her job working as head makeup supervisor and makeup artist on the film. “I just took a costume and makeup design course with Monica French on campus, so I had a bunch of books and sketchpads with designs that really helped me with this process,” said Bonifacio. However, when she was trying to find a wig for Carlos’ grandmother, she had to ask a bunch of different hair salons if they would be willing to donate. “When I went to pick up the wig, they were like, ‘This is going to be $300,’ so I scavenged through the costume shop at school, found some wigs, and tried to style them. But we didn’t end up using a wig, we just used curlers and that ended up working out so much better.”
Poet alumna Sydney Summers, costume designer for Carlos Through the Tall Grass, also credits Monica French with preparing her for this role. “Working for the costume department prepared me the most, but Monica French’s costume design course only added to working under in the shop,” she said. “Professor McCarthy had seen some of my work at Whittier and reached out in need of a costume designer.”
Summers added, “The most surprising thing I’ve learned is how long everything takes. It truly feels like a never-ending rehearsal. There’s so much that’s constantly being adjusted that we all have to wait for, and it was hard to figure out where to jump in and help and where to stand back and let the professionals handle it.”
Incoming second-year and Production Assistant Jakob Rippe became involved with this film through Video Production Studios, a club on campus offering budding filmmakers and movie-lovers a chance to gain an appreciation of film and obtain hands-on experience with industry-standard gear. Rippe said, “The most surprising thing about this production is just the amount of equipment that it takes for even a simple shot to make it look professional.” The weirdest thing that happened to Rippe on set was when he was asked to step into an orange prison jump suit and play an extra. “I walked over and it was way too big for me, so they had to pin it all up so that I could walk. Then the guy who works there as a prison guard just handcuffs me.” Rippe walked down the hallway of the old prison underneath Whittier City Hall, while the cameras rolled and the crew watched.
“I think every day I learned something useful,” said Whittier College alumna, Tristen Macklin, who worked as Property Master and Set Decorator. “Just being on a set and having everything I’ve heard actualized really helped me to understand the exact needs of the set. I’m really grateful for the experience and for working with such passionate and talented people.”
Bonifacio agreed, adding that it’s interesting how the filmmakers do day-for-night in which they black out all the windows to make it look like it’s night. “I think the most surprising thing on set is how many moving parts there are all simultaneously. All these people create one scene and then break it down for another all day everyday. It’s impressive and makes me have a lot of respect for everyone for their individual contributions.”
Poets involved in the project put in 8-to-12 hour days during the 16-day shoot. It was a lot of work, but judging from the script and the commitment from the producers and director, the results should be worth it. No release date yet has been set for the film.