Talent is not the most important ingredient—it’s putting the time in, and putting the time in now.
It is easily overlooked, the typical concrete university building on San Fernando perpendicular to Fifth Street. But the film and theater department at San Jose State is a mini-production facility—with a custom shop, scene shop, and TV green screens—that gives students the opportunity to write, build, design, direct, and act in class projects, as well as explore their own indie-style features and productions.
At the helm is Barnaby Dallas, who has helped build bridges to the commercial and professional production communities to further provide the South Bay with a growing and quality runway to the film and theater industries.
What is your actual title?
My title, I think my university title, is Director of Theater and Film Production. I coordinate all the film and theater productions, sometimes I directly produce them, but I’m responsible for anything produced in our film and theater department. We have a full theatrical season. And then through Spartan Film Studios, we produce once a year, sometimes twice a year, either a commercial high-end short or a feature film. Then we bring in all of the contacts, the industry professionals, to mentor students, to talk to students. We give the best students the ability to be the creative tops. With everything we do, it’s like 60, 65, students on a production, each with some sort of mentor, an industry professional.
How many productions in a year do you oversee?
Four full-blown theatrical productions. We just did The Great Gatsby. It was big. We also did this thing called The Circle, adapted from a Dave Eggers novel. We turned the whole building into, like, a high tech company. It was immersive theater.
And you have a San Jose State Film Festival too. What is that?
I run a student club called the Film Production Society. I’m their advisor. Because of my relationship with Cinequest, I have a relationship with Camera [Cinemas]. At the end of every semester, the Film Production Society gathers all the best San Jose State films—not just this department, animation is in there too—and we do a film festival.
The films screen at the Camera, with judges. Sometimes I’m a judge, I think Mike Rabehl has been a judge, other people from Cinequest have been judges. But the students actually produce the festival. The cool thing is, they kind of figure out how to do it because most of them intern at Cinequest. So it’s one night, it’s like two hours, and we do it at the Camera 3. Ron Wong, owner of the Cameras, loves the festival. [The theater] splits the money and they give half the box to the club, and then the club uses that money to make movies.
When is the film festival?
We do it the day after finals every semester.
Let’s talk about your relationship with Cinequest. How has that been working, San Jose State and Cinequest?
I got introduced to Cinequest, and we did our first feature film there, a thing called Pizza Wars, that was more of a faculty top-led. I helped write it with another faculty member, Babak Sarrafan [Director of Film and Television Production, SJSU] directed, we used a lot of students, and it played at Cinequest.
Through this, I got to know Halfdan [Hussey] and Kathleen [Powell]. And then the next year, they asked me to help them make a movie, and so I did—with our students—and from that point on I’ve been immersed. I help organize The Day of the Writer. I help students become interns with the festival. We produce content for them. I’ve written and consulted for their studio. I helped on the film they just made, Mr. Invincible, by giving script notes. And about 40 percent of the crew on the film graduated from San Jose State.
I would say Cinequest has helped make us a legitimate film program because the show rolls into town and our students get to meet people instantly and it gives our program credibility. And I think that we’ve made Cinequest better because of the young, enthusiastic talent. It started out as a bridge, but it’s sort of a symbiotic thing now. We have lots of faculty—Scott Sublett, Babak Sarrafan, Nick Martinez—involved.
Last summer you did a rendition of The Yellow Wallpaper, based on the 1892 short story of the same name by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which will be playing at Cinequest this year. How did that come about?
Kourosh Ahari, one of our best student directors—he did the film Malaise, which went to Cannes—came in with the idea, but he was looking for a writer, even though he’s a pretty good writer. So I hooked him up with Amy Roberts. She’s a great screenwriter, playwright, well…everything. She actually adapted The Circle, the play that we did after filming The Yellow Wallpaper.
The two of them got together and they cranked out a 36- to 37-page script, and they set it in the ’50s, like Mad Men, right before the feminist movement began. So they upped the time and it worked. It worked because it was production-values work. But it also dealt with… they were also able to add in, like, shock therapy and other things that aren’t in the original story but that are cinematically interesting and…
Which modernizes it, but still brings in a scary historical aspect, I imagine?
Exactly. As I would do with Amy, we went into script development. She did some passes and she turned it over to Kourosh. Then we used our [community and professional] relationships to recruit talent, like, literally the best theater actor in the Bay Area, James Carpenter. He’s just an amazing SAG, Equity actor. We were able to bring in people like him to play some of the key roles, which really makes this film strong because, even though he and the others may not be movie stars—most of them are SAG, some of them are our students—the acting is strong. It’s high level.
What can we expect with The Yellow Wallpaper?
The setting really makes this adaptation cool. It’s set in a different period, which has those cuckoo nest elements to it. The acting’s superb, but the design—by a student costume designer and a recent graduate production designer—is period-perfect. It’s spectacular and the film’s gorgeous, but when you get inside, when she’s peeling the paper off and seeing whatever she sees in the wall, that’s a set we built here on the stage, and it matches the Rengstorff mansion, where we shot some scenes—if you know the house, it’s gorgeous—perfectly. To me, to have a class be able to design that, to make it period-perfect, is pretty impressive. And they’re young. Usually I’d be worried about doing period things. [laughs]
Because you can have so many inconsistencies somewhere…
But then they found the right cars, they found the right trucks, they found the right… And I was surprised at how much the director was able to open it up. I was thinking it’d be a long short, but it’s feature length. And the performances are fantastic. The lead actor, Katherine Celio, she’s one of our best students.
What advice would you give young filmmakers and screenwriters?
Talent is not the most important ingredient—it’s putting the time in, and putting the time in now. Putting the time in and not worrying about it being perfect. Worrying instead about doing, doing, and doing. And doing it the right way, doing it with a positive attitude.
Because when you leave a project, somebody should say, “I’d like to work with that person again,” for your effort, your talent, the whole thing. If you’re going to go in, go all in, or don’t go in, but keep doing it. The only difference between the people, our students, who have made it, who are now working in the industry, and the ones who aren’t, is that the ones who made it are the ones who kept doing it.
Interview and Photography by Daniel Garcia
Entire article originally appeared in Issue 8.0 Explore