During the week of October 13, television and film arts program (TFA) director and associate professor Jeffrey Hirschberg traded his lectern for a bullhorn. With a small film crew in Rochester, he directed Unfiltered, a TV pilot he finished writing over his spring sabbatical.
Hirschberg described Unfiltered as a half-hour dark comedy/drama, or “dramedy,” about a dysfunctional family that owns a tobacco company. He started writing the story 14 years ago and spent his sabbatical doing multiple rewrites.
"I wanted to write a story about a rich family and a poor family constructed around the mythology of a fictitious tobacco company," he said. "No one talked about this idea of income inequality 14 years ago the way we do today. It’s a very contemporary, in-vogue topic."
Hirschberg hired five current and former TFA students as crew members, including John Szablewski, '13, as line producer. Prior to this project, he had freelanced on a few productions as a script supervisor and production assistant.
"This job was different because I had a position with actual power and responsibility," Szablewski said. "This entire experience was wonderful. It was like taking a masters class on film production."
Prior to filming, Hirschberg also hired a New York-based casting director and a Buffalo production team and then auditioned approximately 200 actors in New York City and Rochester for 18 speaking roles. The filming took place across 12 different locations, including the Kodak Center for the Performing Arts.
Shooting in so many locations in just seven days was challenging, Hirschberg said. The shoot also provided real-world, professional lessons for TFA students, both on the set and in the classroom where he has relayed much of the filming experience.
"There are lots of parts to filming a TV show or movie that students don't think about — How do you deal with insurance and payroll? How do you negotiate with agents and the screen actors guild (SAG)?
"This kind of real-world experience is invaluable, more than anything I could teach them out of a book," Hirschberg said. "They are all extremely beneficial concepts that aren't taught in most film programs. When students understand these concepts, they are more marketable and competitive for internships and full-time employment."
In his role, Szablewski said he had to apply for permits, meet with the city of Rochester, work closely with SAG-AFTRA, the Writers Guild of America, East, and New York State with their new tax incentive.
"I had the responsibility of making sure all these organizations were on the same page as we were," he said. "Jeff put his faith in me to make sure we didn’t fail. It was pretty much a sink or swim scenario. Luckily, I took swimming lessons."
Hirschberg plans to initially market the pilot and a synopsis of the first season of Unfiltered to new media companies such as Netflix.
"My goal is to sell it as a series," Hirschberg said. "Now that Netflix, Hulu, and Yahoo are doing original programming, there is a thirst for new material."
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