Former student filmmakers reel in success

By Kassie Hoffmeister | Photos by Paul Jones & Nick Lazo

James Madison University has produced a wide array of individuals who have worked on films such as “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Never Back Down,” “Legally Blonde” and “Going the Distance.” But how has their time on campus influenced their career?

Nicholas Lazo, a 2008 JMU graduate, feels that his time at JMU helped advance his career.
Nicholas Lazo, a 2008 JMU graduate, feels that his time at JMU helped advance his career.

Nicholas Lazo, who graduated in 2008, started with simplistic videos that progressively became more complex. At the beginning of his senior year at JMU he participated in the Adrenaline Film Project through the Virginia Film Festival. At this 72-hour event, he won a top prize for the short film “Buck Winchester: The Frontiersman.”

While there he met the creator of the event, Jeff Wadlow. After graduation he kept in contact with him, and as a result, was granted his first job on the movie “Never Back Down.” Lazo then moved to Los Angeles after shooting the film to work with Wadlow on editing.
He feels JMU and the School of Media Arts and Design definitely influenced how he’s gone about his career.

“I was able to form a clear idea of what I wanted my career to be and how to get where I wanted to go while taking [Professor Rustin] Greene’s SMAD 405 [directing and video cinema] and 407 [business and management of digital media] classes,” Lazo said. “Some of the advice he gave us, like, ‘If you’re not getting paid, it’s just a hobby,’ has guided nearly every decision since graduation.”

Geoff LaTulippe, alumnus of 2002, was given his first job by Luke Ryan, who he met on a Yahoo! message board. Ryan, the executive producer of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” had him move out to Los Angeles to read scripts, which he did for four and a half years until he sold his script “Going the Distance.”

He was able to pinpoint two specific ways that JMU has influenced his work. LaTulippe said that the screenwriting and playwriting classes he took while on campus, provided “a lot of added value in having your work critiqued and having your words read aloud. Both taught me to look for mistakes in my writing as, and even sometimes before, I make them.” He added, “I made a lot of friends and acquaintances at JMU, and I love to pull from experiences with those people just as I do from other facets of my real life. The actions and personalities of many of the people I was close to, or just observed closely, in college show up in my work in various ways all the time.”

LaTulippe noted a few teachers who really helped form the way he thought about writing. “Tom O’Connor, my screenwriting professor, and Roger Hall, my scriptwriting professor, both prompted not only to understand what kind of stories I wanted to tell and why, but gave those of us in the class to workshop our scripts and really get a handle on what works practically rather than just be satisfied with what looks OK on the page.”

LaTulippe thought a lot about the things he learned in Turner’s class while recently working on the adaptation of S.G. Browne’s novel called, “Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament.”
“We talked a lot in that class about how literature and film are two wildly different mediums, and what works in one won’t necessarily — and sometimes absolutely can’t — work in the other … I’d like to think it helped me tell that story in the best way possible.”

Geoff LaTulippe, an alumnus of 2002, wrote the script for 2010’s “Going the Distance.”
Geoff LaTulippe, an alumnus of 2002, wrote the script for 2010’s “Going the Distance.”

Zephan Blaxberg, who graduated December 2010, worked on two films while on campus. “A Common Wealth of Music” is a documentary he worked on for his SMAD 402 [HD compositing and special effects] class. He also produced and directed the feature film “Six Things I Know About You.” Blaxberg feels Professor John Woody and his SMAD 303 Post Production class have influenced him the most while at JMU. “[Woody] always pushed his students to work as hard as they possibly could and then some. He really knew how to motivate and his critiques, while sometimes scary, were only to make sure we never made the same mistakes.”

Karen McCullah Lutz, alumnus of 1984, is best known for her movie “Legally Blonde,” which starred Reese Witherspoon and Luke Wilson. However, she also wrote the screenplays for “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Ella Enchanted,” “She’s the Man,” “The House Bunny” and “The Ugly Truth.” Lutz had a business degree and a stockholder’s license before she finally decided to follow her dream as a Hollywood screenwriter. She wrote to many production companies in Los Angeles trying to pitch her ideas when she came across Kirsten Smith. They had initially connected when Smith read a spec script submitted by Lutz. The two met up for drinks and have been a writing team ever since. The duo has recently worked on the screenplay for the upcoming film, “One for the Money.”

These people once roamed the campus of JMU, just as we do now. They had to wake up for 8 a.m. classes, stay up in all hours of the night during finals week and had at least one purple shirt in their closet. And the experiences that we may be going through right now have helped inspire their work in the film industry. Who knows what it will do for us?