You probably haven't seen the words "car dogs" together since your first grade spelling test. You certainly wouldn't expect a film to have such a simplistic title.
However, for ASU Film Spark and the students who worked on the production of “Car Dogs,” the image that comes to mind isn’t of the perfect car pooch, but of a more tenacious, hard working and sophisticated breed altogether. Now, it’s set to pounce on Arizona audiences soon.
“Car Dogs” is a feature film directed and produced by Adam Collis, executive director of ASU Film Spark and film professor and is set to premiere in Phoenix-based Harkins Theaters this March. ASU Film Spark is a Santa Monica-based program with a mission is to help students and alumni in their entertainment careers.
The story follows Mark Chamberlain, a manager at his father’s car dealership who needs to sell a record number of 35 cars by the end of the day. If he does so, he will be free of his overbearing father’s shadow and finally have a dealership of his own. In the end, Mark must decide if he is willing to risk his family, friends and valued customers to get everything he’s worked so hard for — or if there’s more to life than the dog-eat-dog work of car selling.
Collis pitched the idea to create a movie to Jake Pinholster, Associate Dean for Policy and Initiatives at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts when he had come to Collis asking if he had any internship opportunities for students.
“We had so many students who needed a production credit in order to graduate,” Collis says. “And I jokingly said, ‘If you want to make a feature film, we’ll just give everybody internships and take care of it in one fell swoop.’ And I was half joking – mostly joking – but he took me seriously, looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you have a script you could do inexpensively?’”
Collis had happened to have a script in mind, which came from his former student, ASU alum and Scottsdale native, Mark King.
The script had bounced around Hollywood for a while with some big names attached to it, Collis says. So when the opportunity presented itself for Collis to direct a movie and give ASU students and alum the chance to work on a Hollywood set, he made the move to secure King’s script for the project.
“He had written this awesome script kind of drawn on his experiences working at a car dealership,” Collis says. “So I went to Mark and asked him if he had done anything with the movie — and he hadn’t.”
After securing the rights to the script, Collis says they then went on to the various other stages of putting the movie together. This brought in several other ASU alumni to help with the movie including casting director John Jackson, sound editor/designer Hamilton Sterling and co-producer David Breschel.
In total, the production included an Oscar-winning cast and crew, 85 undergraduate students and 15 alumni.
Jackson, whose job it was to find the cast for the film including Patrick J. Adams as Mark Chamberlain, George Lopez as Christian, Nia Vardalos as Sharon and Octavia Spencer as Mrs. Barrett, says that it was very rewarding to come back and work with the students.
“It was so wonderful to come back there and to be able to teach,” Jackson says. “Adam was able to work out a deal with the college so that I was able to actually teach a course for about six maybe 10 weeks — I don’t remember now — to teach not only the students who were my interns, but also to work a classroom situation. It was really wonderful. I had a great time with the students.”
Since his graduation from ASU, Jackson has been nominated for his casting work in, “The Descendants,” and won for casting in “Sideways,” and “About Schmidt.” He was able to take his experience from working on films such as these and help students learn exactly what a casting director does and how to do it.
“Some of the students were actors, some of them were directors, some of them were writers, some of them were in the producers program,” Jackson says. “It was all different facets of film production ... and that was pretty tremendous.”
Sterling, who was sound editor/designer for the film, did most of his work for the film in Los Angeles, but has been back to ASU several times to teach seminars in sound design.
He says that Collis had asked him about working on the film after reaching out to see if he would be willing to teach some seminars. Having some free time, Sterling agreed.
“It was interesting in that creating a structure in which students could work on a professional film was a pretty great thing for the students,” Sterling says. “You know, most students anywhere would really appreciate that kind of interaction with the professionals.”
For Ashley Peatross, ASU and "Car Dogs" alumna, former Film Spark Fellow and current executive assistant to producer Sherryl Clark, the experience of working on a real film set gave her opportunities learning from a classroom could not.
"That was my first time actually working with real (Screen Actors Guild) actors and real crew that was coming from Hollywood," Peatross says. "I had never experienced that and that was really cool that they brought that there."
Peatross says that while she had worked on student sets before, there was something different that occurred when working on a real film set that class couldn't prepare her for.
"Being on a professional set is so different compared to a student set," she says. "Everything is on a bigger scale. I really believe that you have to have that pressure, that sink or swim moment. That's what the set gives you, and like I said, you can't learn all that stuff just in class. There's things that are going to happen good and bad that they don't teach you in class. You just have to be put in an environment."
She says that along with networking and real world experience, being a student on set taught her the value of hard work and that is what future students can look forward to in the Film Spark program.
"You are not going to get anywhere without hard work, persistence and dedication," Peatross says during the phone interview as she travels between destinations for work. "I know I sound cliche but it is the truth. I made so many sacrifices. You have to take these chances and opportunities because you are going to come out a different person and you can learn in everything you do. No matter what success you may have, you can just learn."
Wendy Crawford, who makes her appearance in "Car Dogs" as the self-titled, sassy receptionist, says the students who worked on the film all worked hard and provided excellent service acting as real professionals on set.
"I've worked on sets — I've been an actress for a while — seen crews, and I could not tell you which were students and which were actual crew brought from L.A.," Crawford says. "It was that seamless."
She says the students on set were helpful and provided "first class service" to the cast and rest of the crew working on the film.
"I was so impressed with the education they were getting on set and I was so impressed with the opportunities they had to work with other professionals from film," Crawford says. "The students were amazing. I mean absolutely amazing. They were on point all the time. All the actors were impressed. ... I never once heard one of the actors complain."
Since her time working on "Car Dogs," Crawford has continued to work with the ASU film program and Film Spark and is becoming the Stan Lee of ASU productions as she will be making appearances in two other productions titled, "Postmarked," and "Justice Served."
"I've had the opportunity to work on two of the other Spark programs," she says. "ASU kind of turned me into the Hitchcock. They stick me in all the pictures now because it's like our inside joke. So they go, 'Where's Waldo?' and now it's, 'Where's Wendy?'"
"I could not tell you which were students and which were actual crew brought from L.A.," - Wendy Crawford
Becoming ASU's Waldo has allowed her to witness more from Film Spark and how it is pairing students with writers and directors.
"The Spark program will hopefully continue on," Crawford says. "It's an amazing program. It just needs to build from here."
To Collis, who founded ASU Film Spark after gaining support from ASU President Michael Crow, who recognized his efforts to create “Car Dogs” and establish relationships with students and working Hollywood professionals, the film and the program represent a culmination of ASU’s ideals and motivations.
“Without any question the creation of Film Spark came from the culture of innovation that is ASU, created by Michael Crow,” Collis says. “When I first arrived at ASU, truth be told the only thing I really knew about ASU was that Rolling Stone said that it was the number one party school in the country. But I quickly came to discover that this was a really special place and partying wasn’t the only thing that ASU had to brag about.”
Steven Tepper, dean at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, arrived at the school as dean after the film had been shot and the idea of a film-internship program had been tossed around. He says his goal after that was to figure out how to use this momentum from "Car Dogs" to create a new film program.
"I initially got involved by trying to figure out how do we sustain this model, how do we build around it, and how can we use this to launch Film Spark?" Tepper says. "So one of my first efforts was to sit down with President Crow and really talk through what I thought was possible with the film program and how we could launch a Santa Monica office and build on our connections with Hollywood.
He says the support of his ideas from President Crow are what really helped to propel the program forward.
"The President was supportive," Tepper says. "That conversation and his support was really the birth of the Film Spark program."
According to a statement from Michael Crow, the Film Spark program and "Car Dogs" are all a part of its goal to create as many opportunities for success for its students.
"I am excited by the success and potential of ASU’s Film Spark, which is exemplified by the upcoming film, "Car Dogs," Crow says.
"This program has provided dozens of students with real-world experience working with some of the top names in the film industry, an opportunity that will undoubtedly prove invaluable to their career preparedness and advancement in areas ranging from writing and acting to cinematography and editing. These are the types of innovative experiences we work to encourage at all levels at ASU. We want to create an environment that provides students with a diverse set of opportunities and learning pathways that will be of most benefit to them in the future.”
To see the efforts that Collis, ASU alumni, students and all of the cast and crew of “Car Dogs” have to brag about, be on look out for its premiere and opening day release, March 24.
Reach the reporter at Owen.Baldner@asu.edu or follow @baldnerwin on Twitter.