For VCU students, a foot in the door in Hollywood

Featured photo
A production crew — including several VCU alumni — prepares to shoot a scene for "Homeland" season seven at the Compass on VCU's Monroe Park Campus.
Photos by Kevin Morley, University Marketing

Few things make independent casting director Anne Chapman prouder than watching the closing credits of a film or TV show filmed in Virginia.

“There are so many names of [Virginia Commonwealth University] cinema students all throughout the credits,” said Chapman, adjunct professor at the VCU School of the Arts Department of Cinema and workforce development liaison for the Virginia Film Office.

While TheatreVCU alumni have been in the spotlight throughout the years, you may not be as familiar with the deep pool of behind-the-scenes talent also coming from VCU. But Hollywood has taken notice, filming major productions in Richmond, including “Lincoln” in 2011 and AMC’s “Turn: Washington's Spies” in 2013.

Since then, the area has been attracting even more Hollywood productions.

“There might have been film productions pre-‘Lincoln,’ but basically, since ‘Lincoln,’ cinema students have been on set while they are undergraduates continually on every major production that has come to town,” Chapman said.

One of those students, Adriel Velazquez, is a production assistant on the latest significant project to film in Richmond: season seven of Showtime’s “Homeland.” A third-year cinema student, Velazquez has already worked on the pilot, “Home on the Strange,” created by Mike Henry of “The Cleveland Show” fame, and the aforementioned “Turn.”

“A big part of getting into the movie business is who you know,” Velazquez said. “I was actually recommended by some friends of mine for each big production I’ve worked on. Once I get to know the higher ups on set, I’m then asked back for more days, but there isn’t really a typical application and interview process.”

VCU alumni John DiJulio (2017), left, Alex Coyle (2017), Natalie Kohlhepp (2016) and David Roberts (2012) on the
VCU alumni John DiJulio (2017), left, Alex Coyle (2017), Natalie Kohlhepp (2016) and David Roberts (2012) on the "Homeland" set. Contributed photo

Richmond is small enough that if you’re active in the community you’ll find you’re only a couple degrees separated from any potential new employer, said Natalie Kohlhepp, who graduated from VCU with a photography degree in 2016.

“I jumped at the opportunity to get out of food service and into a field I was interested in,” Kohlhepp said of her experience working on the Netflix Original Movie “Juanita” this spring. “In reality, on the first show, I simply ended up staying both in food service and joining the film world and working seven days a week.”

Like Velazquez, Kohlhepp is a production assistant on “Homeland,” which recently filmed on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. She calls production assistants the “glue of a film production.”

PAs in any department work long hours — usually 12-hour days — and do a lot of running around. Kohlhepp works in the art department, so she is often sent on deliveries or pick-ups, helps coordinate portfolios of local artist work for the set decorator and does large-format printing of set plans to deliver to subsequent department heads. She also helps the graphics department with copy for signs, businesses, magazines, cigarette packs and so on, and gets lunch for the department. Recently, on the “Homeland” set, she helped scenics create believable bullet holes in a wall.

"Homeland" star Mandy Patinkin films a scene for season seven in front of the Shafer Court Dining Center.

She loves it all.

“Not every day is magical,” she said. “I am still technically an office PA, which does mean a lot of forms, emails, online ordering and sitting at a desk. But the weeks’ monotony is broken by drives to set, spending time in the warehouse, hunting down the right object or article of clothing around town, troubleshooting with new materials I’ve never worked with before. On the job, I’ve learned how to age a set and tactics used by set dressers and scenics to create a believable, lived-in space.

“I’m far better at communicating now, and I learned how to whistle with an acorn cap on set. You start to collect connections around the city and become a jack-of-all-trades.”

Speaking of connections, John DiJulio, who graduated this spring with a degree in photography, got his big break as a production assistant on “Homeland” through people he knows.

“I got a call one day from a former professor of mine and she asked if I was interested in the job,” he said. “At the time, I was working three part-time jobs, but I said yes and ended up being hired after a short interview.”

On “Homeland,” DiJulio works alongside the graphic designer in the art department, where he mostly handles paperwork and makes sure everything that appears on screen has been cleared legally.

“If you’re in school, focus on your work, but don’t let it get in the way of good experiences,” he advises prospective PAs. “A good portfolio is important, but having connections and knowing how to balance a lot of different tasks is better. Just always be looking for something you can work on.”

Sets are a high stress environment, Velazquez said, because you always have to be ready for anything. You have to learn to remain cool under the pressure, be proactive and anticipate what your superiors are going to ask of you. But it’s worth it, he said.

“I've always loved movies and they’ve been a big part of my life since I was very young,” she said. “Being able to be a part of the process of bringing something to life on screen is just so fun to me.”

Mandy Patinkin speaks with Director Michael Offerin between takes of filming an episode of
Mandy Patinkin speaks with Director Michael Offerin between takes of filming an episode of "Homeland" season seven next to a fictitious coffee cart in front of Cabell Library.

Chapman, who is the go-to casting director for producers filming in Virginia, hires undergraduates to work on her professional jobs, and they never forget the experience.

“I definitely have taught students casting, and then been the casting director for their student films,” she said. “And then years later, they’re professional directors and they hire me to do their casting.

"Virginia is an amazing location. We will always have films coming here and it is really cool that you can go to such a fine arts school, learn your craft and then put it into place professionally while still an undergraduate; sort of seamlessly move into working professionally on a major motion picture that is filming in town from what you’ve learned at VCUarts.”


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