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'Trivial' pursuit on Main Street

Amador grad draws on his experiences for short film

A homegrown filmmaker returned to his Pleasanton roots recently to shoot some scenes for a short film he hopes will be his stepping stone to bigger things.

Mike Callahan graduated from Amador Valley High School in 2001, then went on to UC Davis and is now in film school at USC. Callahan said it was here in Pleasanton that his dream to become a filmmaker began.

At the time, Amador was changing from having its daily bulletin read over the loudspeaker to being presented in a video bulletin.

"My senior year, I had the opportunity to take a crack at it," Callahan said, explaining that he and a friend, Mike Dobbs -- also now a filmmaker -- drew material not just from the school, but from all of the community. "We involved the shop owners -- people from all around Pleasanton would be involved in these skits."

In particular, Callahan credits Amador English teacher Clark Fuller, who, he said, "put a camera in my hand and said, 'Go off and make something.'"

Fuller said Callahan and Dobbs took a simple concept and ran with it.

"It was called the 'Top Five' and they got to choose how they presented it," Fuller said. "They decided to do the top five reasons to go to the football games, or the five worst way to ask a date to the senior ball. They just came up with these fun concepts. They went out on location, they went out on interviews. They made it a really hot part of our bulletin every week."

Despite the late nights and extracurricular hours to put the list together every week, Callahan said, "I've never worked so hard and never felt tired."

That training is coming in handy. The 20-something filmmaker just made a trip to Pleasanton to shoot two scenes for his new short film and spent an entire night shooting about two pages of script.

"We started setting up at 6 and we didn't start shooting until it was dark. We shot at Deans (Café) until about 1:30 a.m., then we moved over to the Pleasanton Plaza Shopping Center," Callahan said, adding that the crew of 22 -- 12 from Los Angeles and 10 from Pleasanton -- shot until daylight. He said a page of script usually works out to a minute of film, so about 12 hours' work will mean two minutes of film.

He said he generally gets two takes for each shot, but there's a lot of work that goes on beforehand: stringing up lights, getting actors in makeup, blocking the scenes, and rehearsing both the actors and crew.

"Filmmaking is exhausting," Callahan said. "You're pouring in hundreds of hours making a film that's five minutes long or 10 minutes long."

One of the things that Callahan said he loves about filmmaking is the collaborative process. Unlike writing, which he said is a solitary endeavor, a good cast and crew will bring in new ideas and a fresh perspective.

His crew in Pleasanton seemed to get along really well, and that atmosphere is one he hopes to bring to other works.

"Filmmaking is brutal," Callahan said. "You never have enough money. You never have enough time. The one thing you can control is the people that you work with."

Although University of Southern California alumnus George Lucas and USC honoree Steven Spielberg are Callahan's favorite directors, he realized he didn't want to make the same sort of huge movies that made both famous.

"I knew I wanted to do something personal. A USC thesis -- the faculty tell you from day one that your thesis is your calling card -- it's meant to show the industry what you can do and what your sensibilities are. I knew for a long time that I wanted to make character-driven movies," Callahan said.

"I think for me in order to survive, I just needed to make films that are personal to me," he added. "After I realized that I wanted to something personal, I started thinking about my time in Pleasanton and my friends."

That led to thinking about how old friends get caught up in their new lives and how hard it can be to maintain longstanding friendships, which was the genesis for his movie "Trivial."

"'Trivial' really is about two things. It's about the conflict and jealousy that can arise when one friend becomes much more successful than another, and it's also about the pain of losing someone that's close to you," Callahan said.

Callahan, who majored in English at UC Davis, said script writing is very different from writing stories.

"Writing a screenplay, in many ways it's very mechanical and economical," he said. "You don't have time to go off on tangents."

He said he usually does an outline, then takes some time away to let his mind wander. Then he takes the idea and removes everything that's not essential to telling the story. For "Trivial" that process took about a year and a half, although Callahan was involved in other projects at the same time.

He hopes to complete his film for less than $20,000, which is on the low side of USC thesis film budgets. While some schools fund films for their young directors, that's not the case with USC, and Callahan has learned first hand about raising money through loans, family and friends.

Callahan has already won a California Best Student Film award from the annual California Independent Film Festival in Moraga for his eight-minute film "Kiddo." If all goes well, "Trivial" will be finished by February or March, and by this time next year, he hopes to be making the rounds with "Trivial" at film festivals.

From there, with "Trivial" as his calling card, Callahan will develop a full-length script -- he describes it as if "Swingers" was a road trip -- build a resume, and get a job as an assistant director.

The next step, to director, is a big jump. Callahan is hoping that bringing in his film for under $20,000 will help.

Making it in the industry is tough. Callahan said about 50% of people in film school are in the business five years after they graduate. But he said he's been successful at everything he's tried so far, from getting a short story published while in high school to getting a job writing a video game column for a newspaper. Callahan said he's comfortable working without a net.

"I don't have a backup plan," he said. "I've always lived my life that way."


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