Hooray for Mister Touchdown is a Penn State couple’s way of bringing professional filmmaking to State College
By Jill Gleeson
Top photo by Steve Tressler/Mtn. View Studios
Other photos by Randy Litinger
Hip, hip! Hooray for Mister Touchdown, a feature film shot entirely in the Centre Region, is ready for its premiere. On Oct. 20 Happy Valley residents will descend on the Palmer Museum for the first peek at an opus that was years in the making. Written and directed by Rod Bingaman, and produced by Maura Shea, both lecturers in the College of Communications film department, who just also happen to be married, Mister Touchdown is a testament to what good old-fashioned faith, mixed with equal parts talent, elbow grease and collaborative spirit, can accomplish. The film, a period piece shot on the relatively miniscule budget of about $100,000 (mostly financed with the couple’s own money), required the teamwork of not just Bingaman and Shea, and the cast and crew, but also Penn State University and the residents and businesses of State College.
It can be traced back to a moment of caprice. Bingaman and Shea, both graduates of Boston University’s film school, were still living in Beantown, working in various technical capacities on a wide range of television and film projects. “I worked on Spenser for Hire, Mermaids, Mystic Pizza and The Witches of Eastwick,” notes Bingaman. “I also did location sound for National Geographic segments.” (He also did a minor amount of sound work for Troublesome Creek, which was nominated for an Academy Award.) “Maura has edited segments for Sesame Street, and she was a sound editor on the PBS documentary Malcolm X: Make it Plain, which won the Peabody Award.”
Then, one day, on what she terms a “whim,” Shea decided to apply to Penn State. “I got hired here to fill in for a professor on leave in ’96, and a one-year appointment just kept becoming another, and another and another.” Bingaman joined his wife, bringing some editing work along with him. Not long after his arrival, while walking town streets and campus sidewalks, an idea began to percolate. “I was inspired by the Depression-era buildings we have here,” says Bingaman. “In particular, Memorial Field and Rec Hall caught my eye.” (Rec Hall was dedicated in March 1929, seven months before the stock-market crash; the first football game at Memorial Field was played in October 1937.) “I’ve always been fascinated by that era,” he continues. “I think it has some correlations to today — social upheaval, and it just kind of being a dangerous world. The 1930s and early ’40s comedies are some of my favorite, too.”
A year after first encountering those inspiring buildings, Bingaman began to craft a script out of a brief line he had jotted down in his notebook: “sports book for boys.” He wrote and rewrote the screenplay a few times, then after a four-year break, picked it up again, reworking it over and over until satisfied. The turning point came, he remembers, “When I watched, all in the same week, Going My Way, Horse Feathers, Knute Rockne, All-American and Pigskin Parade, which is Judy Garland’s first film. That’s when it came together for me, when I realized I could combine all of these concepts and make the story work.”
What eventually emerged was a fast-paced screwball comedy set in 1932 and filled with wisecracking reporters, gun-toting mobsters, a physics-worshipping football star, his lovelorn girlfriend and a singing priest. Yes, a singing priest. Hooray for Mister Touchdown is the snappy-patter-strewn tale of Deke Chambers, star fullback for City College’s Fighting Woodchucks, who, with Professor Strumpf, invents an electrolyte solution that causes Deke to de-materialize whenever he becomes aroused. When the gangsters, who are out to fix the big game, realize that Deke can disappear, they kidnap him. It’s up to Deke’s girlfriend, Betty Williams, Professor Strumpf and Father Barnigan, the dulcet-toned clergyman, to rescue him. And like any 1930s film, there’s no profanity, sex or violence — it’s all implied.
Despite the initial promise of the script, after some soul searching, Bingaman and Shea decided it wasn’t feasible to make Mister Touchdown. “It was too ambitious,” he explains. Instead, they put away their feature-film aspirations — if just for a few years. Rod also began teaching at Penn State, and the couple concentrated on instructing their classes and raising their two daughters, Elise, now 7, and Claire, 5. They also founded the Penn State Institute for High School Filmmakers, two annual one-week summer camps they run on the University Park campus (held this year July 18-22 and 25-29).
But the itch to make a feature film together persisted, so in 1999 Bingaman directed A Holiday Affair from a screenplay he also wrote, with Shea producing. The urban comedy, filmed in State College with a cast of six principal actors, played in fests up and down the East Coast, winning the Audience Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival 2000. It also gave the pair the shot in the arm they needed to go back and tackle Mister Touchdown. “It was a good experience,” muses Bingaman. “And that’s when we said, ‘We can do this.’ ”
Because Hooray for Mister Touchdown is a period film, Bingaman and Shea spent a year in pre-production, learning everything they could about the era. “A lot of it was just going and copying pages out of college yearbooks,” says Shea. “I’d try to find pictures of what college students in the ’30s would wear, what their rooms would be like.” The couple eventually also amassed their own 1930s sound-effects library, with everything from a ringing telephone to revving car engines. Adds Bingaman, “It becomes a fun research project, but at some point you have to cut yourself off and say, ‘We have 600 or 700 pages of research — we have to make the film now.’
A “bungee cam” was rigged to capture video from the ball’s viewpoint.
“There’s always this point in time when I ask Maura if I can run an ad in Backstage, which means we’re going to make the film,” he continues with a smile. Sure enough, in August 2001 the notice in the theatre trade paper went out, and until May 2002 he auditioned actors at New York’s Shetler Studios as well as at Penn State. From the beginning, he had envisioned New York actress Amy Brienes, who had starred in A Holiday Affair, as Betty, and, with Brienes’ help, Bingaman filled in the rest of the cast. For the principal roles he selected mostly professional, New York-based actors, sprinkling the smaller parts with State College residents.
Russell Frank, who teaches journalism at Penn State, played Dan, a reporter in the film. “I think what struck me is that most of the movies we see are these Hollywood extravaganzas that cost millions of dollars to make, and here’s somebody demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be that way,” remembers Frank. “What he does is hire professional actors to play the leads, and amateurs to do just about everything else, and it winds up costing just a tiny fraction of what a Hollywood film would cost. If you’ve got experienced people in the key roles and key technical positions, you can make a pretty good movie, and you don’t have to spend $50 million to do it. That’s an important lesson.”
In addition to casting some amateur performers, to help film Mister Touchdown the couple used students and former students, including Mandy Brown, who acted as Rod’s personal assistant during the June 2002 shoot. “I had just finished taking ‘Senior Film’ with Rod,” she notes. “He has made two feature films with almost all student crews. I think he’s taking a huge gamble making a full-length film on film — which is very expensive — with a lot of students. He has to have a lot of faith in us to give us so much responsibility. It normally takes a long time to get that kind of responsibility on a film set, so it really helps us get our foot in the door.”
With the help of Penn State, Bingaman and Shea found other ways to cut costs. Though the couple shopped on eBay for props and costumes, and their costume designer, Katie Schmidt Feder, helped construct attire for the cast, the Penn State theatre department costume shop also stepped in and lent period clothing for a nominal fee. Says Bingman, “The College of Communications also graciously supported us with film equipment, a fleet van, a room for costumes, and morale — not to mention the excellent staff! We couldn’t have done this without the media support staff here.” The university worked as well to make available locations such as Rec Hall, Ilhseng House, West Halls and the Armsby Calorimeter Museum.
Happy Valley businesses, organizations and residents did their part, too, to aid the production. The State College Area School District permitted Bingaman to film crucial football scenes at Memorial Field (the last action to take place on its then-grass field), and the Centre County Historical Society gave them access to film at Centre Furnace Mansion. Shea also notes that the management “basically let us have Chumley’s, which we used for our speakeasy, for free.” Alert area viewers of Mister Touchdown will also spot Bellefonte’s Garman theater, St. John’s United Church of Christ and Sheila’s Salon, as well as Tyrone’s Maine’s Engineering, which allowed their warehouse to double as the gangsters’ hideout.
Out-of-area performers were housed in the Hotel State College, a perfect arrangement not just for the inn’s proximity to the shoot’s locations, but also because the historic space helped, as Shea says, “the actors get their heads into the era. The style of the rooms was just perfect. They were so great at the hotel, because we had people coming and going, so it was this constant juggling act, trying to accommodate their regular guests and our actors. And they gave us a great rate.”
Another major hurdle was not just finding housing, but also feeding the 40-some actors and roughly 30 crewmembers over the 26-day shoot. Loni Agostinelli, who designed the hair and makeup for the film, recommended that Shea give her family’s business a call, and McLanahan’s saved the day. “McLanahan’s was so great,” exclaims Shea. “We’d walk in with 20 different individual sub orders, and they’d just calmly start making them.”
Although Mother Nature smiled upon the shoot — there was only one rain delay — it was a challenge for all involved. Jeff Preston, the movie’s cinematographer who is also a former student of the couple’s, describes one big difficulty as “of course keeping contemporary things out of shots. It kind of destroys the illusion that this is taking place in the early ’30s if you see a minivan driving by in the background!” Because Bingaman wanted Mister Touchdown to actually look like it was made in the ’30s, he and Preston set out to light it like a black-and-white film, since cinematographers of that era would have mostly worked in that medium. They then colored the lights to achieve the pastel, slightly fuzzy glow of an early color movie.
As the filming progressed, it became clear to Bingaman that “the deeper we got into this, the more it became a test of faith — in our students, the people around us and ourselves. That was really cool, because a lot of times when you start a project, you’re not really sure what’s driving you. But that’s when it came into focus for me,” he says. “I couldn’t believe all the disparate things that were coming together to make this project work. It seems so out of control, and then once you get people vested in it, it’s amazing what you can do collectively. That’s the big victory here.”
Preston points to that collaborative spirit as one of the couple’s strengths as filmmakers. “When you have a large group of people that you work with day in and day out, oftentimes under very stressful circumstances, it’s important to make sure the cast and crew remain passionate about their work,” he explains. “Nothing makes a project run more smoothly than when people feel they are a valued part of the process. Rod and Maura had a clear vision for the film, but they were also very open to ideas and opinions from the cast and crew. They’re confident enough of their own abilities to allow others to make a real contribution, and that’s what makes Rod and Maura so good at what they do.”
Brienes agrees wholeheartedly with Preston’s assessment. “Rod asked me to be in Mister Touchdown about a year before shooting,” she says. “We spent that year discussing the story, characters, even costumes, sets and props. He was very open to any ideas I had. He also encourages actors to bring props or costume pieces they feel are right for their characters.”
Spouses Rod Bingaman (center) and Maura Shea (right) collaborated on Mister Touchdown, which will be screened Oct. 20 on campus.
After the shoot wrapped, the couple set out to edit Mister Touchdown, trying to balance the demands of it with that of family and classroom, finding sometimes that their movie had to take a back seat to both. Over the course of the next two years, Shea edited the sound at Penn State, while Bingaman cut the film utilizing special programs on their home computer. With post-production finally complete, the filmmakers hope to screen Mister Touchdown at fall festivals across the country.
But no matter how Hooray for Mister Touchdown does at festivals, no matter how it is received by critics — or audiences — its creators will be pleased. “I think mounting this production is the real accomplishment,” declares Bingaman. “If you like it, that’s great, that’s wonderful — I hope everybody does! But just that we were able to mount this production on such a low budget is incredible. And we couldn’t have done it without the help of the community.”
Copyright 2004 by Town&Gown magazine and The Barash Group. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.