Monday, November 7, 2016

'NCIS: New Orleans' Empowers UNO Film Students in Sought-After Nims Center Internship

Cameron Dupuy graduated with a film degree on a Friday in May. Within 10 days, he’d packed his car, moved to Los Angeles and started a new job—in the writers' room of a major network television series.

By any measure, the job was a pretty big get. But for the 22-year-old aspiring screenwriter, it was more than that. It was evidence that his childhood dream of one day telling stories on screen were not unattainable.

That empowering reality was made possible thanks to an ongoing internship program offered by the University of New Orleans Department of Film and Theatre and the locally-filmed hit TV show, “NCIS: New Orleans” on CBS.

“The way I look at it is that internship gave me my career,” says Dupuy in a phone call from Los Angeles.

But let’s back up. Because before there was a Cameron Dupuy, before there was an “NCIS: New Orleans,” there was a 20-something-year-old guy named Joseph Zolfo who also wanted to be a filmmaker. Like Dupuy, Zolfo knew from an early age what he wanted to do. But after Zolfo graduated from State University of New York Purchase College, his foot was not only not “in” the door, it was, it appears, nowhere near the door.         

Zolfo waited tables at TGI Fridays, stocked shelves at Toys “R” Us and sprayed insecticide as a pest control technician in dwellings around New York City, all while trying to find work in the industry he desired.

In 1991, a break finally came. Zolfo was hired to work on Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives.” Raised in New York, Zolfo had memorized Allen’s work. He marveled over the big name actors who arrived each day to perform before the legend’s cameras. But the reality was that Zolfo’s own job had little to do with any of that. His job was to block off parking with orange cones and deal with angry New Yorkers who found themselves without a place to park.

Zolfo says he worked hard to do that job right. But he also made a vow: “I promised myself back then that if I ever got into a position where I could help young people break into the industry, learn about it and give them a head start, I would.”

Ok. Now move forward again, 22 years.

Zolfo walked into the University of New Orleans Nims Center Studios in 2013 as an established producer with a long list of film credits to his name and determined this was just the place to extend the hand.

The Nims Center, 100,000-square foot film production facility located in Jefferson Parish’s Elmwood area, features four large stages, 35 production offices, a host of post-production suites and high definition screening rooms. It is a division of the University of New Orleans Foundation and is operated in cooperation with UNO.

Zolfo says that when he learned about the studio’s relationship with the UNO film program while working on a separate production, he reached out to the University about the prospect of making the for-credit, paid internship program became a reality. The two entities officially launched the program in 2014, when Nims became home base for, “NCIS: New Orleans.”

“This was a perfect opportunity to take something that was very important to me and combine it with the resources that were right in front of me,” Zolfo says.

Five to six UNO students have been working on the internship program every semester since, clocking roughly 20 hours a week and earning $10 per hour. The internship is competitive, requiring students to apply and interview. Those who are chosen are assigned to various departments, according to their interests, personalities and strengths.

In the fall 2016 semester, senior Mei Ellis, 20, of Atlanta, is working in the art department. Senior Sarah Monosso, 25, of Ann Arbor, Mich., is in her second semester working in locations. Langston Williams, 27, an MFA student from Gulfport, Miss., is interning in the productions department. Senior Christian Breaux, 21, of Hahnville, La., is learning his way around the facilities department. And senior Sydney Viard, 23, of Houston, said she was thrilled to be invited back to the camera department for her second semester.

Viard says that after years of deliberating about her future career path, the NCIS experience has cemented her aspirations as a filmmaker. While her work on the set involves a lot of fetching—fetching markers, pens, tape, Velcro, labels, and such—she has learned from watching the experts and, she says, has been a willing recipient of more than a little career advice.

“It’s just so nice to learn things it took them years to learn,” she says, “and they’re telling me straight out of the gate.”

Jared Lynch, production coordinator for the show who started his own career through an internship on “As the World Turns,” says students who have the most successful internships are those who show initiative and are able to balance that drive with hard work.

Williams, who works most closely with Lynch, didn’t get the internship the first time he applied. But he sent a neatly penned hand-written postcard thanking the Lynch and others on the show for the opportunity to apply. Zolfo’s assistant stuck the post card in the top drawer and when the internship opened up again, Williams got a call and an offer.

“It was a yes, almost immediately,” says Williams, who wants to write and direct.

Kolby Heid, 23, a 2015 UNO graduate from Maryland, showed he had what it takes. He was hired in the show’s camera department following his successful internship. Zolfo says it take a special temperament to gel in the tightly run camera department and Heid quickly proved himself.

“Kolby always does his job,” Zolfo says. “Picture’s always up when it needs to be. He understands the gear as well.”

When Dupuy landed the full-time job in Los Angeles, he held the spot Williams now fills in production. The duties of the production intern are about as far away from writing as you can imagine.

They involve copying and distributing scripts, filing purchase orders, making coffee, prepping the cooler with cold drinks, packing baskets of snacks and fruit for locations scouting trips and basically anything else that comes up that needs to happen to keep the production moving smoothly.

And while Dupuy eagerly filled the role required for him, he worked up the confidence to share his long-term goals with co-producer Robert Ortiz, presenting him with a treatment he’d written for the show. Ortiz recommended Dupuy talk to Zolfo and seek a position in the writer’s room.

Zolfo, who isn’t afraid to mince words when it comes to explaining how grueling this industry is, nevertheless arranged for him to meet with the Los Angeles-based writers when they were in New Orleans. When one of the executive producers, Christopher Silber, casually suggested Dupuy drop by the writer’s room next time he visited in Los Angeles, Dupuy bought an airline ticket using $400 he didn’t have and flew to California. By the time the show was working on its finale, Silber offered him a job as the writers’ production assistant and Dupuy did not hesitate. Now, he spends his days getting the writers their lunch, dinner, breakfast. He hands out scripts, deals with vendors and, in his spare time, writes.

“It’s the only way in this industry to become a writer,” Zolfo says. “Cameron Dupuy is on the path to achieving his dream.”

The opportunity isn’t lost on Dupuy. He says he feels gratitude toward UNO and Zolfo for opening this door. And if he ever finds himself in a position where he can open the door for others, he says, he knows he’ll be on the lookout to do the same for others.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in Silver & Blue, Fall 2016 edition, the University of New Orleans' magazine for alumni, students and friends of UNO. 

Read More

NCIS: New Orleans
University of New Orleans Department of Film and Theatre
University of New Orleans Nims Center Studios
Silver & Blue Magazine, Fall 2016
University of New Orleans Magazine