by Nina M. Riccio MA’09
Two-time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman regaled a full house at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts one night in February, telling tales of his failures in school and struggles as an actor until he was plucked from obscurity by director Mike Nichols to play the lead in the 1967 movie The Graduate.
The evening was all the more special because of the circumstances surrounding it. Hoffman and director Francois Girard (The Red Violin, 1999) were on campus for three days to film their new movie, Boychoir, the story of an orphaned, vocally gifted boy from Texas who is sent to a venerable old East Coast choir school.
Hoffman plays the choirmaster, with whom the boy butts heads. As part of the arrangement to use Bellarmine Hall in the middle of a busy semester, Hoffman and Girard were asked if they would speak to the University’s Film, Television and Media Arts students.
“They agreed, and then the event mushroomed,” explained Assistant Vice President Martha Milcarek. Why not see if they would speak to a larger audience at the Quick?
“We opened it up to the entire University community, then gave over 100 tickets to people in town through a lottery system. It was our way of giving back and celebrating the town’s 375th anniversary,” said Milcarek. The entire evening was pulled together in a matter of days.
Despite the best efforts of moderator Dr. Philip Eliasoph, professor of art history, to steer the conversation, Hoffman had no interest in following a script that night as he jumped from one story to another, thoughtfully answering questions from students in the audience. “Don’t go into acting and not expect it to drive you crazy,” he told one, adding that taking risks, and being willing to fail, were both part of the process of becoming a better actor.
By far, the most poignant moment of the two-hour conversation was when Hoffman responded to a question about the very recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (no relation) from a drug overdose. “Addiction is an illness,” he said, and then added in a voice that clearly betrayed his emotions, “my guess is that deep down he felt that he didn’t deserve his talent.”
“It was very cool to be there that evening,” said Rachel Lawlor ’17, who attended with several other film and new media students. “Both Hoffman and Francois Girard have so much knowledge about the business, but they were so humble and laid back and obviously happy to share their stories. It was pretty clear they were having a good time!”
If the conversation at the Quick was laid back, the actual filming was anything but. Bellarmine Hall, with its stone arches, carved oak paneling and leaded glass windows, fit the image of a stately old prep school beautifully.
For three days the first two floors were taken over by the cast and crew, crowding the halls and every inch of open space. Each of the boys in the film had to be accompanied by an adult guardian, and when they weren’t on camera they were in the hallways, or called into an empty office to study with the on-site tutor. There was even a Frisbee-loving pup wandering the corridors.
The University’s media relations staff on the second floor got used to seeing Hoffman sitting on a credenza to have his makeup touched up. Meredith Guinness, assistant director of Media Relations, vacated her office a couple of times so veteran actress Kathy Bates (Academy Award for Misery, 1990) could use it as a dressing room. At one point, electrical supervisor John Tedesco ended up holding Bates’ coat.
Fairfield University is registered with Connecticut’s Office of Film, Television & Digital Media, the office that serves as liaison between film companies and property owners. The idea is to encourage production in the state in order to create jobs, and influence tourism. They contacted Milcarek last fall asking if the University would be willing to have Boychoir on campus. “If it’s the right project, it can really show off the University in a positive light,” said Milcarek.
“We were intrigued by the plot and decided it was something we would be proud to be associated with,” added Kevin Lawlor ’79, executive vice president. Lawlor’s first-floor office — which boasts an ornate fireplace and huge windows overlooking the courtyard — was transformed into the choirmaster’s office.
An equally beautiful office on the second floor served as the office of the school’s headmistress, played by Bates. The Great Hall in the center of Bellarmine was used as a staging area, and even the President’s suite was taken over, with a group of boys practicing their singing on the porch and scenes shot in the hall. (The President’s office staff had to mute their phones and remain at their desks while the cameras rolled.)
Though the scenes shot in Bellarmine took just a few days, production crews descended the week before, taping thick cardboard over the floors and walls to prevent damage from equipment and transforming each of the offices, down to every item on every desk.
“So much goes into a few minutes of what you see on film,” noted Sabrina Scharfenberg ’17, one of a dozen or so film students who were invited to spend a couple hours on the set, where they were given headsets and allowed to watch as scenes were being shot. “All the crew was very generous with their time and knowledge.”
Indeed, several members of the crew mentioned that the University was very accommodating and “one of the easiest locations” to film. Hoffman proclaimed the Quick Center a “beautiful facility” and wanted to know about the types of events held there throughout the year. Girard and University President Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., discussed the history of Bellarmine Hall and some of its furnishings. All that, said Milcarek, is the point.
“I want the campus to be known as a place that’s friendly and accommodating,” she said, “and having it associated with this project is going to raise the University’s visibility.”