Hollywood Behind the Scenes
Taking a Dive
In a recent episode of the NBC television program “Heroes,” actor Bill Fagerbakke tackles actress Missi Pyle to the sidewalk.
Or, so it seems. It’s actually two stunt doubles, including veteran Elle (Itkoff) Alexander, a CSULB radio/TV/film major who grew up loving both performing and sports.
It was the second time that Alexander doubled for Pyle. In the 2003 movie “Bringing Down the House”—starring another CSULB alumnus, Steve Martin—Alexander portrayed Pyle in a comedy fight sequence with actress Queen Latifah.
Not one to be starstruck, Alexander nonetheless was excited to meet
Martin at the conclusion of shooting the scenes, particularly when he told her, “Your physical comedy was so funny. I really enjoyed that.’ And I thought, ‘I can die now,’” she recalled.
“Then I realized that we had just shot the scene at the end where she dunks my head into the toilet, so my mascara is running down and my hair is wet. I wasn’t even thinking of that. Then I went into the bathroom and thought, ‘I just met one of my comedy idols and I just had my head in the toilet.’ It was so funny, but was still a great moment.”
It was just another day on the set for Alexander, a Lakewood, Calif., native who began college in Hawaii on a basketball scholarship, then decided to change her major to film in 1986. “That was my first love, so I decided to transfer back to the film department at Long Beach State, which I thought was a great program because they had radio, television and film combined, which I think is a great all-around package for people—and also to run track here, too.”
Her acting and athletic abilities earned her a role in the Wild West Show at Universal Studios, Hollywood. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened. This will change my whole life.’ It was just a silly little live show, but in turn, it actually did change my life.
“A lot of times I get cast as an actress that can do my own stunts, but probably three-quarters of what I do is stunt doubling for other actresses, which is great and I love it,” said Alexander, a current member and former vice president of the Stunt Women’s Association of Motion Pictures. Training is essential and ongoing. “Before I went out into the TV and film world saying I’m a stuntwoman, I wanted to learn everything I could about stunts. You really have to have a good background and as much experience as you can in every part of that field. So, I met people and learned burns, more high falls and fights, martial arts, and just everything I could that would make me a better performer.
“A lot of people think that if you’re a stunt person, you’re a daredevil, and that’s so false,” she remarked. “There is a skill to it. When you jump off a building, whether it’s six feet or 60 feet, it’s your body control in the air. As an athlete, you like the adrenaline of that, but you have to be composed at all times and you have to have a really good air sense.”
She also coordinates stunts for other productions, including Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and continues to perform in community theaters. Her husband, CSULB alumnus Robert Hamilton, is a rescue boat pilot for the Long Beach Fire Department, and they recently had their first child. “I love Long Beach State,” Alexander said. “I had a great experience there.”
More of Alexander’s work can be seen at www.ellealexander.com.
It’s through the eyes of illustrator Robin Richesson that movie directors and costume designers see their ideas on paper before committing them to film. Moreover, she shares her expertise with students as an assistant professor of art and head of CSULB’s illustration program.
Richesson’s specialties are storyboards, which are black and white drawings depicting film scenes, and costume illustrations. “The storyboard is used for a lot of different things,” she explained. “It can be used to sell the concept and it’s used to get distribution and funding. Then, it’s used to help create the budget for the film and it’s used to let the crew know exactly what you’re going to be shooting so they have some master plan in mind. Sometimes a director will board a sequence out that they’re thinking of cutting out to try and prove that it’s important to the movie. So, it’s definitely a tool used by the director to get people on board with his ideas.”
It can take several months to prepare the drawings, which are increasingly done on a computer. Some directors have begun using a three-dimensional technique called “pre-visualization,” or pre-vis, which is somewhat different. “Storyboarding is a pre-visualization of the film, too, but it’s often a hand-drawn one that has a little more story telling and narrative and more of an emotional quality to it, whereas pre-vis tends to be more technical and more about visual effects and planning for those.”
She also works with costume designers “to sketch out their ideas and then they use those illustrations to present their ideas to the director and to show the workroom what they’re building. They’re functional and they’re also inspirational. They usually don’t have you sketch the costumes until they know who the cast is because they aren’t really going to be able to decide what the person is wearing until they know who it is. In storyboards, you’re often boarding with no idea who the lead is, so you often have to draw generic macho hero guy or generic nerdy science guy or family man, depending on the type of film it is.”
She worked on such films as “American Beauty,” “The Polar Express,” “Cast Away,” “One Hour Photo,” and the forthcoming “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” “Iron Man” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”
After earning her B.F.A. degree from CSULB in 1982, she was illustrating children’s instructional materials when a fellow CSULB art alumnus encouraged her to go into storyboarding. She worked on storyboards for TV commercials for 12 years and eventually returned to the university to complete her M.F.A., then joined the CSULB faculty in 1990, receiving an assistant professor position in 2002.
Film “is an interesting industry to be in,” Richesson said. “I think the thing that makes it the most fun for me is the aspect of storytelling and narrative and drawing the human figure, which has always been at the heart of my illustration ever since I began studying illustration. That part has never changed for me. That part is probably the reason I ended up in this industry. It never really was my goal. I thought I wanted to illustrate children’s books, but they all have that same narrative base. I think that’s what’s made it a good home for me.”
Keep ’Em Laughing
One of Bob Read’s favorite jobs as a segment producer for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” is to call up-and-coming comedians to tell them that he wants to book them for the show.
Read and his business partner, Ross Mark, have been the “Tonight Show’s” comedy talent executives for five years. They also appeared on three seasons of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” as they traveled the country looking for prospective comedy talent to compete for a chance at a network development deal.
Read transferred from Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif. to attend CSULB’s radio/TV/film program, where he earned his B.A. in 1988—and to have the opportunity to go to the beach.
His first class in the major was with now-emeritus Professor Robert G. Finney. “The first thing that he said in this huge auditorium with all these people was, ‘If you want to get into the entertainment business, I’ll tell you how to do it right now. That is, work for free and do anything that you can to work on movies or TV shows or whatever, or get internships. Start now and don’t wait,’” Read said. “What Professor Finney said in that first class really paid off.
“He also told me to look outside of radio/television/film and to look at the business side. That’s why I minored in marketing,” after Finney remarked that “‘entertainment is show business and you know how to do the show, now learn how to do the business.’ It was the smartest thing. I loved the business department and I learned a lot about entertainment through my marketing classes. There was one professor who taught ‘New Products and New Services.’ When you talk about new products and services, back then it was satellite, and now it’s the Internet and digital and cell phones. That’s entertainment of the future.”
Read recalled telling comedian Roseanne Barr about how she helped influence his path into comedy by seeing her on the “Tonight Show” while staying up late doing his university homework. “I thought, ‘That would be so much fun to be one of those people who work with you. And, here I am, working with you. It’s like a dream come true.’”
He took Finney’s advice to heart, even driving from home in Mission Viejo to the Los Angeles Farmer’s
Market each week to buy trade publications that carried help-wanted ads. Through a variety of non-paid and paid “P.A.”—personal assistant—assignments, he developed contacts that led to a job at HBO Workspace. Read eventually became the business partner of Annie Albrecht, wife of HBO CEO Chris Albrecht, and produced documentaries and comedy specials for the network.
That experience resulted in the business partnership with Ross Mark, stepson of comedy club impresario Budd Friedman, and their jobs with Jay Leno’s Big Dog Productions.
“I had a great experience at Long Beach and I owe it all to that first class. I’ve applied everything that they taught me and it paid off.”