October 6, 2003

Students gather to discuss Proof, film industry

The filmmakers of the Miramax motion picture Proof invited the University community to a conference in the Social Sciences building yesterday to review the plot of the movie and answer questions about the cinematic process. The meeting drew a small but diverse crowd that included aficionados from campus film organizations and people just curious about filmmaking.

The event lasted a little more than an hour, running from 7 to 8:15 in the evening. The conference started with a short introduction from Steve McFarland, the University communications, followed by introductions from the panel members, who each described their respective jobs and histories in the film world.

The members of the production team who attended were Don Julian, assistant director; Jeff Sharp, producer; Alison Cohen, producer; and Brady Breen, location manager.

Cohen, the first panel member to speak, described the premise of the film. A brilliant mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) dies, leaving behind a mathematical proof of immense theoretically importance. The professor's daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) claims to have written the proof, and controversy arises.

The film centers on issues of genius and insanity, and on father-daughter relationships, Cohen explained. It is based on a play of the same name by Chicago alumnus David Auburn (A.B. '91). The play had a two-year run on Broadway, eventually collecting several Tony Awards.

Students' questions focused mainly on the filmmaking process, the movie industry, and the filmmakers' experiences. Cohen and Sharp discussed the responsibilities of producing and the importance of director-producer relations.

The production crew was entirely positive when asked about their experience on campus.

"It's been a dream. Everyone's been really cooperative," Breen said. "I don't think we've been told ‘no' once."

The University's gothic architecture was a major part of the production, and a significant aspect of director John Madden's aesthetic goals for the picture. Breen said the most important advantage of filming here was the University's vast amount of space, which eased the process of finding room for the crew, dollies, and trailers, while maintaining the authenticity of the campus in the picture.

"This is a very famous university. People know what it looks like, and know what to expect," Breen said.

Miramax had considered filming in England, as well as other Chicago suburbs, including Oak Park, but kept returning to Hyde Park.

"It was the only neighborhood that felt like Hyde Park," Breen said. "The muted tones and the general atmosphere, which really matched the vision of [Madden], met well with the ease of directing here."

The production crew added that they found some time to enjoy Chicago's finer pleasures. They spent many nights eating at steakhouses or drinking at bars, and they even found time to catch a movie.

One student asked if the unique intellectual identity of the student body was well represented in the film. Sharp said he thought the academic focus here was emphasized in the movie, but said that he really did not see the University as different from any other American university.

Cohen however, who is British, noted that the U of C had a distinctive student body.

"When I came here, I was expecting a typical American university full of big jocks. I was surprised to see how similar it was to Oxford and Cambridge. The students here are more academically focused and give off the same kind of vibe as do those at British universities," Cohen said.

The math department is expected to be well represented in the picture, as professor Paul Sally helped recruit 50 or so department members and graduate students to be in the film.

"These people are artists, they treat math that way. They're expressive in all aspects, from the way they dress to their eccentric mannerisms," Sharp said.

Panel members were also full of advice for students interested in the film industry. Julian emphasized the need to "knock on doors," even at seemingly menial jobs, because it can only lead to more opportunities and exposure to people with whom connections would be priceless.

The conference ended with encouraging words for those who want to be on the big screen. Breen said in the winter, more crew members would be needed, trailing off with, "So if you're not busy..."