The people behind the cameras might not have the same star power as the faces on screen, but they are often magicians, creating art and culture. Meet a handful of alumni who’ve branched out from their URI roots to create cinematic history.
— By Bethany Vaccaro ’06
Cherry Arnold ’87
Cherry Arnold credits her undergraduate classes at URI with impressing on her the power of story in everyday life. Today, she uses that awareness as a media producer and filmmaker at the helm of her own production company, Big Orange Films.
Born and raised on Providence’s East Side, Arnold spent the years after graduation working as a marketing director for big names like Barnes & Noble. When she returned to her home state in 2002, she wanted to make a film about Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the controversial former mayor of Providence. The documentary that resulted, BUDDY, The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Notorious Mayor, opened to critical acclaim and garnered a New England Emmy for Best Documentary.
Currently, Arnold is in post-production with the forthcoming documentary One in 88, focusing on the growing phenomenon of autism. A project that touches her personally, she calls the information she learned while making the film “the key she never had” to understanding a close family member. She says, “The heart of this film is to help all of us better understand and support a friend, family member, or co-worker living with autism.” One in 88 was due to begin screening during the summer. •onein88.bigorangefilms.com
Alex Caserta ’74
What better way to arrest the passage of time than by recording it? Alex Caserta is able to do this with the films he produces. “The documentaries I have worked on during the past 19 years all have to do with bringing a story to the public on objects and people working in areas that are of historical significance and a way of life that could be in danger of becoming extinct.”
In May 2013, a preview of Caserta’s latest project, the documentary Vanishing Orchards: Apple Growing in Rhode Island, was screened at the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport. The film focuses on the fragile yet tenacious life of the state’s apple growers. The film follows the growers during a ten-year-period as they learn to balance their traditional techniques with the concessions they must make to the changing economic and technological climate. The full version was set to premiere as this issue went to press.
In addition to producing films, Caserta was an art instructor for 33 years and frequently exhibits his paintings and photographs, some of which have been added to the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. • vanishingorchards.com
Matthew Jacobs ’77
Production Designer/Art Director
It was just a typical day at work for Matthew Jacobs when 17 shipping containers and 40 dump trucks full of dirt came together to simulate “Fort Reno, Afghanistan” on a football field-sized set for the hit show Army Wives. As the production designer and/or art director for the show, Jacobs was in charge of everything revealed on screen except the people themselves.
See more Screen Gems online:
Jason Allard ’12, filmmaker
Scott Beer ’08, filmmaker
Evangelos Giovanis ’02, filmmaker
Michael Shawver ’06, film writer, editor, and director.
“A production designer is the visual storyteller of a feature film or television show,” he explains. It’s a big job and one for which the Michigan native gained considerable experience while earning a theater degree at his alma mater. “URI gave me some very good training designing sets and interpreting plays and scripts.”
In the fall following his graduation, Jacobs went to work for Eugene Lee, the Tony award-winning set designer and production designer of Saturday Night Live, who also has a studio in Rhode Island, where he serves as the resident set designer at Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence. For Jacobs, designing movies, plays, and operas soon gave way to working on music videos, and then to production designing for General Hospital.
Currently, Jacobs is art directing the drama Under the Dome for DreamWorks/CBS. • mcjart.com
Kyle King ’12
Not many people would be motivated to film a documentary between 12-hour shifts in the hot sun of Afghanistan. But that’s exactly what recent film studies graduate Kyle King ’12 did while he was stationed there for the third time as a member of the U.S. Air Force. The result, the documentary Fatigued, provides a rare glimpse for civilians of what it is like to be deployed at the biggest airbase in Afghanistan. “The film shows a realistic and lighter side of the war for the troops deployed serving in non-combat roles,” says King.
Fatigued premiered at the Columbus Theatre in Providence in May 2013. A month later, King left for Ecuador on a two-year commitment to the Peace Corps. He is posted in the city of Atacames, on the northwest coast an hour and a half from the border of Colombia. And no surprise, he is already filming his next documentary.
“The greatest films leave viewers feeling that they have gone through new experiences,” King remarks. “My intention is to achieve the same with my audiences. Film may be the closest we can come to living more than once.” • kylekingfilms.com
Dan Riordan ’03
Dan Riordan, owner of Gnarly Bay Productions in Westerly, Rhode Island, loves the variety that being a “video gnerd” brings. “We do a lot of branded content for social media, as well as traditional broadcast TV and other forms of promotional video,” he explains. This means that for a recent job creating a commercial for a luxury cruise yacht line in the Galapagos, he was able to spend 10 days on site working, as well as enjoying all of the amazing things the islands have to offer. “The beauty of our career,” he says, “is that we are paid to chase the coolest, most fleeting moments.”
Although he came to URI with the intention of being pre-med, Riordan was quickly beguiled by his film classes and realized that video was a direction worth pursuing so he and his then-roommate/childhood friend, Dana Saint, decided to start a video company. A pivotal moment came when he was allowed to assist with a professor’s documentary shoot. “It made me realize that by pursuing film as a career, you could gather the skills necessary to tell any story that you felt passionate about.”
Riordan and his crew recently filmed Mumford & Sons and Elvis Costello performing together as part of a social-activism campaign surrounding the G8 Summit. • gnarlybay.com
Rachel Smith ’06
Rachel Smith’s hard work has been paying off, rewarding the dedication it takes to rise early and write five mornings a week before heading off to a day job.
After graduating with an English/film studies degree, Smith began working on her first screenplay. My Own Private Myocardial Infarction tells the story of a man who wrote his heart off as broken after his mother’s death. It was well received at several film festivals, winning the local prize at the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) in 2008. “I am drawn to stories about people who feel disconnected from life and those around them, people in need of love and care,” Smith notes.
Smith moved to London and earned a master’s degree in screenwriting in 2011 at the London Film School. There, she developed her second screenplay, Fix You Up, the story of a workaholic transplant surgeon whose life is transformed after suffering her own physical injury. Fix You Up was named winner of RIIFF’s 2013 “Spotlight on RI” contest, which welcomes scripts set in Rhode Island. Fix You Up was selected from 77 entries from all over the world, a fitting victory for the Hope, Rhode Island native.
Currently, Smith is looking for a female director to bring Fix You Up to the screen. And she’s hard at work on her next feature-length screenplay, tentatively titled The Godmother.
Pete Vandall, ’03
As the creator and co-executive producer of the History Channel show Chasing Tail, Pete Vandall didn’t have to look far for his material, which focuses on his own extended family members, working-class cousins who hunt deer in the wealthy suburbs of Connecticut, where deer abound and the hunting season extends for five months.
While staying with his grandparents, Vandall came home one evening to find seven dead deer hanging from an apple tree near the house. His bow-hunting cousins had descended and when he realized that their hobby was not only intriguing but hilarious, it seemed made for TV.
Vandall spent seven days a week for six months tagging along with the hunters to get the footage he needed for Chasing Tail, which was originally developed as a thesis film for his graduate work at the School for Visual Arts. They were up at 4 a.m., climbing trees, waiting for deer, and looking for new locations, which on occasion required his cousins in full camouflage to knock on the door of an ornate mansion to ask permission to hunt on private land. “They are just blue-collar guys, doing what they love in a white-collar world,” says Vandall. • petevandall.com