Saturday, October 28, 2006

Virginia Film Festival, Day 3

Another blustery day in Charlottesville, and of course -- more films. Here's the rundown on today's screenings (I'm dubbing this "celebrity day" because every screening I attended had a celebrity guest from the film).

First screening
: a 10am screening of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In attendance were Mark Johnson, the film's producer and (I think) a Virginia native, and William Moseley, the actor who played Peter Pevensie (the oldest of the four children) in the movie. I saw this in the theater with my oldest daughter when it came out, and I liked it but didn't love it at the time, so I'm not sure why I decided to go see it again (especially when it was playing up against Bergman's The Seventh Seal, a favorite of mine that I've never seen on the big screen. But I found myself enjoying Chronicles more this time than the first time. I was moved by many scenes, especially ones that focused on the siblings and their love and care for each other. I was especially taken with the scene wherein little Lucy first discovers Narnia and meets Mr. Tumnus, the faun. What a special scene. It contains all the wonder of a child discovering this new world, and at the same time shows Lucy's genuine heart and her kindness (not to mention Tumnus's kindness in spite of what he tries to do to Lucy).

Second screening: Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, with Tolkin in attendance. Tolkin has written several movies and novels and is probably best known for The Player (the novel and the screenplay for Altman's film). The Rapture is a strange film. It tells the story of Sharon, who goes from a sexually promiscuous but empty life to fulfillment through a relationship with Christ -- but who goes kind of crazy after her husband is killed by a crazed coworker, believing that God is calling her to the desert to take her home. When she and her daughter wait for weeks in the desert without a word from God, she kills her child (at the child's urging) to send her to "be with daddy in heaven" but ultimately can't kill herself as this would send her to hell.

And as she is in jail, the rapture does happen (for those of you who read my blog who don't know the rapture is -- it's basically the Christian belief that the world will end and Christ will return, and those who believe in Him will be taken up to heaven; it's more complicated than that, with lots of differing opinions on the details, but that's the essence of it). So the rapture actually occurs. With the four horseman of the apocalypse and everything. But in spite of the spirit of her daughter urging her, pleading with her, Sharon won't say she loves God, even though the truth is revealed through the fact of the rapture, because (as Tolkin explained it), she can't forgive God for all the pain that she had to experience (and put her daughter through) to get to this point. Which is an interesting take.

But ultimately the film is very uneven, with performances that don't convey the massive shifts in perspective that the characters adopt (i.e., I don't buy Mimi Rogers's switch from promiscuity to devout Christian -- it seems fake; and I really don't buy her shift from "loving Jesus" to full-on cult-like fanaticism. But Tolkin's talk afterward really clarified some things -- a member of the audience asked if he "believed," and after some hemming and hawing, he admitted that he did in fact believe something (he said he knows we live in a "created universe," for example), but that he struggles to balance that with the unfairness of our existence. While I didn't say it in the room (it wasn't the right venue), I was thinking, "But God didn't create the unfairness. That's what WE added to the picture."

The other thing that stood out to me as problematic in the film was the depiction of Sharon's church. She gets connected with these "Christians" who talk about the dream of the pearl and who listen to an eight-year old boy's prophecies and take them as gospel truth. The boy whispers to an adult, who relays the "truths" the other believers. Later, when the film cuts to "Six Years Later," the now-fourteen year old boy proclaims his truths himself, albeit awkwardly (I wasn't sure if the awkward delivery was intentional or just a result of bad acting on the kid's part).

Sharon talks about belief in Jesus, but the religion she practices is hardly "mainstream Christianity," which left me wondering what Tolkin was going for here? Was he trying to make it seem cult-like rather than looking like "true Christianity"? Is (or was) this his true understanding of Christianity? Was this a popular approach to Christianity out in L.A. in the late 80's and early 90's, when the film was made? I've never seen or heard of Christianity like this without it being called a "bizarre offshoot." In any case, because of this, the depiction of her faith didn't ring true for me at all. It was nothing like my experience of Christianity, and I have been through the Catholic church, a deep-south Protestant evangelical denomination, a "multi-denominational" church (Protestant), and now Texas (spirit-filled) Baptist. Never heard of anything like this "boy prophet" who is essentially their leader. Nor have I ever heard of the "dream of the pearl" of which all the believers speak.

Third screening: Liev Schreiber was here to present his writing/directing debut, Everything is Illuminated. I hadn't been all that interested in this film, which I think is ultimately the fault of the marketing behind it, because the film is really a gem. It tells the story of Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to Ukraine to understand who his grandfather, a Ukrainian Jew who escaped the Holocaust, really was. He hires a company that does "Jewish heritage" tours, which is a small operation run by an Odessa family. And the son who acts as translator (Alex) provides much of the comedy in the film. I'm not describing the film very well, which goes to show you why the Warner Independent Pictures marketing people had such a hard time, but it really touched me and had me on the verge of tears several times (and had a lot of laughs, too). Liev Schreiber was articulate and heartfelt in his post-film discussion about making the film. He's funny and well-spoken. Sounded to me like the kind of guy you'd love to sit down to dinner with.

Fourth screening: I came back to my hotel room and skipped the screening of Bruce Almighty (with director Tom Shadyac in attendance). But I'm sorely tempted to run back over there to catch the post-film discussion as well as the sneak preview clips of Evan Almighty (the sequel to Bruce Almighty). I'll update later if I go. (Update: I didn't go. Just laziness. It's a bit of walk from my hotel room; it's cold; I stayed in.)

Tomorrow, I head back to Texas. They're sending a limousine service to take me back to the Richmond airport -- an hour-long drive. Let me tell you, the Virginia Film Festival is a class act. I've been impressed by pretty much every aspect, and I hope to be back with future films. In fact, when I got back to my hotel this evening, there was a package waiting for me at the front desk: a pewter cup engraved with the film festival's name and dates.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Virginia Film Festival, Day 2

Day Two at the Virginia Film Festival was a rainy, cold day. But with my screening over, I felt no pressure whatsoever. (Of course, I was actually a little disappointed that it was over -- nothing to look forward to now!). I grabbed a bagel at the hotel's continental breakfast and got into a conversation with some folks who were at my screening the night before. Terrific people who enjoyed the film and are film enthusiasts in general. They graciously gave a ride to the theater -- I was planning on walking, even though it's roughly 2.5 miles, but the rain foiled my plans.

My first screening today
was Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet. It's one of those classics that I've never gotten around to seeing, for some reason. During the introduction (by a Swedish scholar), the audience learned that the correct pronunciation of the title is actually "or" (without the "det"). The film reminded me of Bergman's The Virgin Spring, partly, I admit, because of the slow Scandinavian pacing and the rather unusual acting style. But the notion of a tragic death in the family and the aftermath -- and the religious nature of the two films -- made me link them in my mind. Bergman's film is obviously more of a repudiation of faith, a film about revenge and death (which nevertheless concludes with a miracle of sorts, when a spring appears from nowhere from the body of the murdered daughter). Dreyer's film is about faith lost and regained, and the improbable possibility of the miraculous in modern times. It's complicated film, with the Borgen family arguing with another family over whose version of Christian faith is right or "good enough, and with one of the Borgen sons having gone mad and believing he is Jesus Christ. I enjoyed it, though that enjoyment was tempered by an unfortunately fragile 35 mm print that snapped at last six times during the screening (and actually burned/melted once, too), often at critical scenes. When they respliced it and got it going, we would always miss the entire scene during which the snap occurred. Frustrating, but it was a very old print. It briefly made me think that the people who are dead-set against digital projection haven't sat through a screening with a truly aged print.

Second screening was Bruce Beresford and Horton Foote's Tender Mercies, introduced by Robert Duvall. I had never loved this film, but I gained a new admiration for it today. It simply works better on the big screen than on a DVD on your television. Robert Duvall's performance is understated in such a special way -- his laconic delivery really defines the character of Mac Sledge. The film is so unusual in the way it unfolds. It doesn't follow any of the rules. Scenes don't build on each other in traditional "cause and effect" ways. And the scenes themselves are often brief and seem pointless. They're not pointless, of course, but they seem like little slices of life and not to be adding up to anything. In the end, however, they do add up in surprising ways, creating a look at a particular period of time in washed-up country singer Mac Sledge's life as he stops drinking and tries to put his life back together.

Third screening: Hitchcock's I Confess (1953), starring Montgomery Clift as a priest who has heard the confession of a murderer and who is then himself accused of the very same crime. He obviously can't break the priest-penitent privelege of the confessional, and there's the little matter of the woman who may be his lover and the fact that she was being blackmailed by... you guessed it: the murder victim. Im a Hitchcock fan, but there's a reason this is considered a "lesser" Hitchcock film. It simply didn't work. Casting Clift as a priest in Quebec is a horrible mistake (especially when he's surrounded by French-speaking and French-accented people), and Anne Baxter as his former (and maybe current) lover is also miscast. Karl Malden as the detective on the case -- well, Karl seems to be in a different movie altogether (and not a particularly good one). The score overwhelms the movie with its unsubtle attempts to tell you exactly how to feel (even when the movie isn't doing that nearly as well), and the script feels half-done. There were a few nice images, as you would expect in a Hitchcock film, but not nearly enough to make it qualify as a good film. On the bright side, the moderator for the post-film discussion was one of my former film school professors, Andrew Quicke. I ran into him on the downtown mall in the early afternoon, sat down for a coffee with him as we reminisced and got caught up, and joined him for the screening.

Had dinner with Andrew and another film school mentor, Terry Lindvall (check out his bio "cartoon"; anyone who has been fired by Pat Robertson is a friend of mine by default, but Terry also has the benefit of ebing a genuinely nice and hilarious person). Then Terry and I went to see Flock of Dodos, a new and very tongue-in-cheek documentary about the intelligent design vs. evolution controversy. The filmmaker, Randy Olson, is resolutely in the evolution camp, but he seems to be trying to understand why it is that intelligent design advocates "connect" with people so much better than evolutionists. You know, the film made some pointed jabs at both sides of the debate, but it ultimately comes off as quite insulting to anyone who thinks evolution has too many flaws to make perfect sense. Without even commenting on the actual debate itself, I thought the evolutionists came off as total jerks (this was, I admit, part of Olson's point -- that evolutionists are so haughty and arrogant that they hurt their cause). The movie's tone and style reminded me of Super Size Me. It had that same "personalized" feel of Morgan Spurlock's dynamic look at fast food, and Olson is pretty sure-handed with material that's a challenge to make interesting. In the end, though, I'm not sure what the film is saying, other than that intelligent design advocates have no basis in science, and evolutionists are "right" but are not good communicators.

I skipped the late movie -- and I know I'm going to regret this, because it was a new indie film with Morgan Freeman, 10 Items or Less. The reason I might regret it? Morgan Freeman is in attendance. As is director Brad Silberling. So, you know, the reality is that it's not like I was going to sit down for a private conversation with them. And the movie sounds good, but not like something I'm dying to see. So I hoofed it back to the hotel. Unfortunately, no one I knew was around to bum a ride, so I figured a 2.5 mile walk wouldn't be a bad thing. Except for the rain. Two-and-a-half miles seems a LOT longer when you're drenched. Trust me on this.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Blogging the Virginia Film Festival

Since I have nothing to do when I get back to my hotel room, I might as well blog the experiences here in Charlottesville at the Virginia Film Festival.

First of all, this is a terrific festival -- well organized, and they really treat filmmakers well. My screening was tonight, and I was a little worried that it wouldn't be well attended. It hasn't been advertised in any major way (compared to other films in the festival), and it was up against the "official" opening night film, about which the festival has made something of a big deal.

About 15 minutes before the show, I started counting people. 22. Okay, I was thinking, maybe three dozen will show, a decent audience (if you have low expectations from previous festival experiences. But people kept coming. And coming. And coming.

Pretty soon, they were out of room. Yes, the theater was packed. Can't tell you how gratifying it is to see your film with a packed theater.

The screening went off without a hitch -- projection was good. Sound was a little low, so on the quiet scenes, it was actually a little hard to hear some dialogue.

Afterwards, the moderator, Johanna Drucker (professor of media studies at University of Virginia) led the Q & A with several questions before opening it up to the crowd. And they had great questions, too. Laudatory, but also challenging and inquisitive. The Q & A went on for 45 minutes until the theater had to clear us out for the next screening.

Just a wonderful experience. Afterwards, several people came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed it, how funny it was, etc. Really gratifying.

And then Johanna walked me over to the opening night gala. As we walked in, trying to get our bearings in the dark room with loud music, I turned to see Robert Duvall standing five feet away from me, in conversation with two other people. I made eye contact (quite by accident) and nodded and smiled. I was SO tempted to shake his hand and tell him how much I admire his work, but I didn't want to be just another fan, so I didn't. I should have. Later, he was gone - he probably left as the crowd picked up -- and I wished I'd spoken to him. But nevertheless, it was cool. He is still strikingly handsome. And quite tall.

Now, the pressure is off. My film has screened, and I can be just another film enthusiast attending terrific films at a great film festival. And it IS a great film festival. I feel so honored to have been selected to be a part of it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Quick Reviews: What I'm Watching

Just catching up on a few movies this weekend, and here are some brief reviews:

Art School Confidential: I'd heard both good and bad about this film from Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb) and collaborator Daniel Clowes (the writer of the comic upon which Ghost World was based. In fact, this movie is a pseudo-adaptation of Clowes's long-running comic strip of the same name. I call it a pseudo-adaptation because the strip has no story to speak of; in the strip, Clowes basically rips on art school students and professors, and their general pomposity and lack of talent, etc.

So obviously Art School Confidental contains many of those moments. Unfortunately, they don't sparkle as much as they could or ahould. They were funny but a little predictable. The class and professor embrace the "lousy art" from a guy who turns out not to have been a real artist in the first place? Sounds like something we've seen before. The filmmaker wants to be another Tarantino? Seen it (often in my classes, I suppose). The naive, idealistic kid who wants to be a great artist and has to face the reality of the art world being more about sucking up to people than actual talent?

This is hardly original stuff, and I guess I started getting bored because I could see so many jokes coming, and because the guilty party in the murder-mystery plot was fairly obvious. I also thought that the main character's puppy-love crush on a the artist's model who poses for the classes never seemed realistic to me. The girl is this experienced woman-of-the-world who falls for a freshman who idolizes her. Okay, I'm not saying that couldn't happen. But he's nor charming at all. He's sort of pathetic. So I just couldn't buy her attraction for him. He painted really nice paintings of her? Like no one has done that before?

Ripley's Game: I didn't intentionally double-dip on Malkovich this weekend. This just happened to be sitting on my DVR since I recorded it off IFC several weeks ago. I'd heard it was good and had inexplicably been relegated to a direct-to-video release. And it was a good flick. Excellent performance by Malkovich as Ripley, the man without a conscience. Good but occasionally overwrought performance by Dougray Scott as they innocent man he draws into his web, turning him into a hired assassin just to prove that he can manipulate anyone he wants to manipulate. My theory as to why it didn't get released: if you don't already know something about Ripley from the novels by Patricia Highsmith, you might just not get this film. It really doesn't take any time to establish any backstory for Ripley, and given that he's the key character driving the action, if you don't get him and his motivations, the film just won't work for you.

Jericho: I've had the first five episodes of this sitting on my DVR, just waiting for me to decide if this was going to a show I'd actually watch. So I finally got some time to binge on it this weekend, and I'm hooked. It's a great concept, mostly well-executed, and I'm fascinated as I watch because I'm thinking about what I would do in the same situation. I mean, if a foreign power (or whomever) attacked the U.S. in this manner, it's one thing to have fun watching Jack Bauer saving the world on 24. It really brings it home to watch so-called "average Americans" dealing with the crisis as their power is out and they have little-to-no information. I think the show is struggling with finding the right tone. It obviously doesn't want to be too dark, so every episode seems to end with the town coming together to accomplish something, with uplifting music playing. But this is dark & scary territory, and I think the show shoudl embrace that. The fear is why we keep watching. I'm curious to see where they go with the Hawkins character, who obviously has some sort of agenda and has been planted in the town for some reason with his family.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Planning for Virginia

Next week, I head to Charlottesville, Virginia to screen my film at the 19th Annual Virginia Film Festival. This is the biggest venue at which we've screened, and I'm both excited and a little anxious. Excited, because there promise to be some legitimate film people at the festival (guests include Tom Shadyac, director of Bruce Almighty; Morgan Freeman; Liev Schreiber; and Robert Duvall) and literate film audiences from the area. Anxious, because the other films selected for the fest are great films, and much higher budgeted stuff. It's not a "competition" thing for me; I'm just hoping my film plays well to the audiences there.

I'm really hoping that one or more of the celebs in attendance at the festival will make it to my screening. I know that's a long shot, since the film isn't a big premiere of a film with celebrities, etc., and also because it's screening on the opening night against another film that the festival has hyped in its press releases. And Morgan Freeman, for one, isn't even supposed to arrive at the festival til the next day.

I'd also like to have a good-sized audience, for a change. It's possible that there were decent audiences for festivals I didn't attend, but I have yet to see the film with a large audience in a theater/at a festival. Virginia is a pretty well established festival, so I'm guessing they normally have good audiences.

Most of all, I'm just hoping things go well in general: that I arrive in time for the screening, that the film plays, that I sound articulate when I talk to other people there. You know, the typical stuff.

Oh, and if anybody out there has any festival tips, please post a comment in response. I'm planning on bringing my business cards and some extra copies of the film, but I don't know what else (if anything) I should bring with me.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

We hit Tennessee

The film makes its "Tennessee debut" this weekend, with a screening on Friday in Oak Ridge (at the Secret City Film Festival) and Saturday in Memphis (at Indie Memphis). Disappointed I can't be there, of course, but things haven't slowed down here at all!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Missing out on L.A.

Well, ...AMERICAN MESSIAH screened in L.A. today, at the FAIF Film Festival, and I missed it. Yeah, I really couldn't spare another trip right now -- couldn't miss more of my classes at the university, couldn't leave my family again, etc. I'm really okay with it. In fact, I'm exhausted from my schedule lately, with traveling (and staying up til all hours during my Atlanta trip) and getting caught up with grading and class prep.

But part of me wishes I'd been there for my first screening at Mann's Chinese Theater.

Here's hoping that there will be more of them...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Art Within

Well, I spent that last weekend (Wed - Sunday, actually) at Art Within's 4th Annual Symposium and Showcase, an invitation-only screenwriting conference for writers of faith.

Mornings consisted of "think tank" sessions, wherein we engaged each other over issues of faith representation in our work (and in films as a whole), our greatest fears, and other issues. I can't overstate how valuable these sessions are. Though I end up keeping my mouth shut most of the time for fear of sounding like a moron around all these writers I respect so much, I thrive on the interaction with like-minded people. Not only that, but it's the sheer joy of getting to spend several days thinking and talking about art.

In the afternoons and evenings, we attended readings of several screenplays commissioned by Art Within over the past year. Several people who I met last year had scripts read, and they were really interesting takes on traditional genres. After each readings, there are "talkback" sessions, wherein the assembled writers pause to praise the work before pointing out any and all weaknesses and problems. I'm not being sarcastic here; while I would probably implode under the pressure of one of these talkbacks, they provide invaluable feedback.

Late evenings (as in, after 11pm) consisted of screenings of films made by participants, including mine (unfortunately, the disc was corrupt and crashed about 2/3rd of the way through the film). I also saw a terrific as-yet-unreleased film starring Christian Slater, He Was a Quiet Man. Excellent and original film.

A great weekend. I rekindled some friendships with folks I haven't seen in a year (and one person with whom I went to grad school and who I haven't seen in over 10 years!). And I met some new friends. And I met several producers/executives of some stature. It surprised and impressed me how down-to-earth these people were. We were swapping stories about our kids, pulling out our wallets to share pictures, and talking about the state of modern film. I was trying mightily to sound articulate, erudite, and intelligent -- quite a struggle. I was sure I sounded like a total idiot as I tried to describe my writing (I don't fit into easily defined categories, so I end up rambling when I describe my work).

The nice part was that I got to put copies of my award-winning feature film into their hands. Maybe it'll amount to something, maybe not.

All in all -- this is a great experience that I feel lucky to have. I hope to be invited back next year.

The Next Project

So, I'm planning for my next project. I wondered, after making a feature, how long it would take me to want to do another film. I liken it to what a woman must experience after giving birth -- it can be horrific and painful, but the positive aspects must make you forget, because you're willing to go back and do it again.

In truth, I've been ready to start the next film for a while. It's just that little matter of funding. I've got a new feature script that just needs some tweaking, in my opinion, but I don't have the funding together for a feature (and it's not my turn in the department's "rotation" to use the HD equipment and have my film offered as a class, and these are essentials to getting it done).

I made the last feature for about $20,000 in cash, plus the free equipment. So I'm hoping to raise a little more, around $50,000 to do a project that's a little larger in scope. In the meantime, I don't want to sit around doing nothing. So, I'm working on a comedic documentary short about an obsession with cleanliness. The topic might sound just "okay," but I think my approach is interesting and somewhat deconstructive, in that I'm really interested in examining how "truthful" documentary really is by recreating scenes and then later making the viewer aware of the fact that I'm recreating those scenes, which will hopefully call the truth of the whole endeavor into question.

I'm flying by the seat of my pants in this project, compared to my last film. That was a mock documentary that was nonetheless completely scripted and planned (with some improvisation by the terrific actors). But with this, I don't want to over-script it. I really want to capture legitimate documentary footage and perhaps craft my "recreated" scenes from that footage, with a few actors cast in roles otherwise filled by the "real" people.

I'm hoping to get a "summer sabbatical" to concentrate on this project during the summer (though I'll start in earnest in the spring, and in fact I've already shot two interviews for it). And I'm also hoping to get some grant-funding through a Baylor internal grsnt program, a few thousand dollars to pay for student workers to assist me on the project and work on post-production graphic design work.

But if anyone wants to fund my feature, feel free to let me know. ;-)

Screening in L.A.

If any of my readers out there (readers? what readers?) are in L.A. and want to see my film, The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah, it's playing on Wednesday, October 11th, at 2:15pm at Mann's Chinese Theaters, on screen three.

I wanted to go and had been planning to make the trip, but I had several trips I really had to make in October, and I just couldn't afford the time away for this one.

It's wierd, I admit, to have TOO MANY events to go to. A few years ago, I sat in my office every day wishing I had something better to do. Now that I'm teaching at Baylor and have made a film, I've been on the go a lot more, and with a wife and three kids (and the attendant soccer games, dance practices, and more), I just don't have the time to do it all.

This week alone, the film is screening in L.A. at FAIF, in Memphis (Indie Memphis), and in Oak Ridge TN (at the Secret City Film Festival). It's a rare occurrence, but it's pretty cool to have all these screenings at one time.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Yankees are out....

The newspapers are saying that "Steinbrenner has harsh words for the Yankees."

In other news, the sun rose today.

Monday, October 02, 2006


You know, it may seem like a silly thing, but seeing my name (and my picture) on IFC tonight was pretty cool. It feels like I achieved something. I realize it was just a trailer and ultimately no big deal, but it sure felt pretty cool.

My oldest daughter was dancing around, sure that all her friends would be asking if she was related to me.

I has to explain that little kids aren't usually allowed to watch IFC.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Virginia Film Festival schedule posted

I already announced on my blog that The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah was selected for screening at the prestigious Virginia Film Festival, in Charlottesville. And now the festival has posted its schedule (minor quibble: they left out the word "The" in the title -- but, really, it hardly matters, I suppose).

It's nice to see it posted and real, especially because there are so many interesting films playing at the festival, and some cool celebs. You'll notice, from a quick glance at the schedule, that Liev Schreiber, Robert Duvall, Brad Silberling (Lemony Snicket, Moonlight Mile), and Michael Tolkin (who wrote the novel The Player are scheduled to attend.

Weekend Update

I just returned from a speaking engagement at my undergrad alma mater, Lee University. It was a small, Christian, liberal arts school when I was there, and, well, it's still that. But it's grown quite a bit, and obviously they're much more progressive now, thanks to new blood on faculty and in the administration, as well as changing attitudes of students.

I was there as part of their "Celebration 2006," a celebration of Dr. Paul Conn's 20th year as president of the university. He really has done a lot for the university, including moving it into the first tier of universities in their region and category, as well as doubling enrollment while keeping tuition remarkably low.

Here's a link to my bio and presentation info on their site.

It was good to see lots of old friends, several of whom are now faculty members there, not to mention my old professors, who have moved into high-level administration roles now (nice to have friends in high places).