Set in a Valley auto dealership on a single hectic day, Car Dogs is a speedy, motor-mouthed comedy about the psychological gamesmanship of selling. Sort of a Glengarry Glen Ross lite, it’s slickly made, with supple camerawork and a few name players and familiar character actors — George Lopez, Nia Vardalos, Octavia Spencer, Chris Mulkey — among the cast. It looks like a professional production, not a student film, and that’s because it is a professional production, not a student film.
But in a way, it’s also a student film.
“We managed to do something that no other film school has done,” says director Adam Collis. He’s referring to the 85 students from Arizona State University that worked as interns on Car Dogs, which is slated to open here in the Valley on Friday, March 24. But he’s also referring to ASU Film Spark, the program out of which these internships grew.
Collis developed Film Spark while wearing his other hat, that of professor in ASU’s film department. “The fastest growing department, in the most innovative school in the country two years in a row, according to U.S. News and World Report,” Collis proudly enthuses. “There’s not another school I would rather be teaching at.”
Collis has known a few schools in his time. The Lexington, Kentucky, native majored in religious studies at Duke before pursuing an MFA from USC’s film school. He made his feature directorial debut for 20th-Century Fox in 2000, with Sunset Strip, a showbiz story set in the LA music scene and starring Jared Leto, Simon Baker, Anna Friel, and Nick Stahl. After his difficult experience during the post-production of that film, Collis decided to go back to school.
“I thought, I know how to direct a film, I know what to tell an actor,” Collis recalls. “But I don’t know anything about the business of my business. So I went down the street to UCLA Anderson and got my MBA.”
Somewhere in there, he became a visiting professor at ASU. And it was there that, almost by accident, he came up with Film Spark.
“I inadvertently got on this mission to connect my students with working Hollywood professionals,” says Collis. He began to set up informal video conference calls with moviemakers he knew, and groups of his students. It was a hit.
Within a few years, notes Collis, “We had connected our students, with no formal program, with four Oscar winners, five nominees, the president of the Academy, the president of the Director’s Guild. Even our key grip had won a technical Oscar.”
All this was good enough for ASU to take Film Spark from informal to formal. In 2015, the program became an official part of the department, based in Santa Monica — Collis lives in LA, and commutes to Tempe for classes — and dedicated to getting students and pros together.
Somewhere in the same period, Collis also decided it was time to try his hand at a second feature effort. His choice was Car Dogs, a script by Scottsdale screenwriter Mark Edward King, who had a family connection to the “Culiver Team” that used to loom large among Valley car dealerships.
“I started in the car business when I was about 11,” says King, “picking up cigarette butts and cleaning toilets and cleaning cars.”
Asked if the character of the ruthless boss played by Chris Mulkey in Car Dogs is based on one of his family members, King firmly answers, “Not. At. All.” Still, he knew the territory well enough to make the setting convincing.
“I’ve held pretty much every position in car sales,” he admits.
The script appealed to Collis. “Buying a car at a dealership is a fundamental American rite of passage,” he says. “Baseball, apple pie, and buying a car.”
Despite the local connection, however, there was nothing about the project that was essentially Arizonan.
“Car Dogs is a movie that could have been made anywhere,” says Collis. “It could have been made in Georgia, and gotten a tax credit.”
Instead, the movie was set up here in production-unfriendly Arizona, and became the first experiment in the ASU Film Spark Feature Film Accelerator.
Collis is quick to point out that Car Dogs is a professionally financed independent film, that ASU has not actually gone into the movie production business.
“There were [ASU] resources used,” he says, “but not financial resources.”
These included some of the film department’s equipment. But the biggest resource, no doubt, came in the form of the more than 80 students, as well as a number of recent grads, who worked on the film as interns, right alongside such seasoned professionals as cinematographer David Stump, winner of a technical Oscar, and production staff who have worked on everything from Gangs of New York to Mad Men to Men in Black.
“The biggest takeaway was that the film professionals were willing not only to work with us, but to teach us,” says Lisa Vargas, who worked as an aide to the Second Assistant Director, and also as an assistant to George Lopez. “That’s not common in film. Most people just want a straight result.”
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An M.A. candidate in global Affairs and management who had been a student of Collis as an undergrad, Vargas hopes eventually to work on “the business side of film.” Car Dogs was her first time on a professional film set.
“We wanted to be acutely sensitive that it would always be of value to the students, and to ASU,” says Collis. “[Film Spark is] innovative in three new models,” he says. “A new way to finance independent film, a new production model, and a new model for launching an independent film, through Arizona’s own Harkins Theatres. I’m telling you, no school has done this, man.”
For the interns, the benefit is more simple: “It’s where they can get their toughest job — the first.”
For showtimes and tickets to Car Dogs, playing at various Valley Harkins locations starting Friday, March 24, see the Harkins Theatres website.