Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi DIY Hollywood

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  Is it possible, now that Manifest Destiny has been fulfilled, that that paragon of West Coast culture known as Hollywood is slowly creeping its way back East? Will the gold rush of Tinseltown's fortune soon spread its way across America, doling out dividends and movies stars in each small town? I doubt it. While some places are lucky enough to sport a famous celebrity's ranch home or play host to the occasional on-location movie shoot, it's probably safe to say that Hollywood will always remain firmly entrenched in Southern California terra firma. Still, today's movie industry does seem more diversified than ever before. Even Albuquerque has its share of writers, directors, producers and a homegrown film project or two. Maybe, just maybe, you don't need to be in Hollywood to be a star.

Take, for example, the story of the Southwest Institute of Film and Television. When longtime Hollywood cinematographer and director Frank Zuniga decided it was time to get out of the Hollywood rat race, he and his wife Veronique Simpson-Zuniga aimed their sights squarely on the Land of Enchantment. From 1967 to 1979, Frank Zuniga produced and/or directed many of the "Wonderful World of Disney" shows--more than 22 hours of network television. He was known as one of the best wilderness photographers in the business, but after 30 years in the movie biz, Zuniga had had enough ... or had he? In February of last year, along with videographer friend John Grace, the Zunigas began discussing plans for a new kind of film school--not in glitzy L.A., but in dusty Albuquerque.

But why here? An excited Zuniga explains, "The actuality is that New Mexico has been, for some time, a center for a diverse group of artists--from sculptors to potters to painters to any number of unique art forms. Film and television are just another art form. It's a communicative art form. The culture in New Mexico has a wealth of storytellers. What I'm trying to accomplish is to nurture the storytellers into being storytellers in film and video. That's what I think Hollywood needs. I think Hollywood has too much of Hollywood. You know what I mean? We feel very strongly that if we can nurture the unheard voices, we are not only serving New Mexico, we are serving Hollywood, we are serving the mainstream media, by providing more diverse voices."

With Zuniga as president, his wife as administrative director and Grace as vice president and chief financial officer, the Southwest Institute of Film and Television (SWIFT) was incorporated in May of this year. The Institute's first schedule of classes are set to start later this month. A series of 12-week classes cover the gamut from acting to directing to production design to marketing a screenplay.

"The approach is learning by doing," emphasizes Zuniga. "There is a study that shows people retain 90 percent of what they learn in the process of doing. So we set up our workshops in such a way that the participants in the workshop get hands-on, job-specific instruction and apply it immediately. And they're being taught by professionals who practice what they teach."

Having graduated from UCLA film school and worked in the film industry for three decades, Zuniga was able to call on numerous professional friends to stand at his Institute's lecture podium. SWIFT will be testing out their "hands-on" approach this coming weekend with a three-day seminar on "The Changing World of Independent Film." Among the participants are Alex Mendoza, head of international distribution at Morgan Creek, casting agent Bob Morones, entertainment attorney John Cones and independent filmmaker Jack Hill. Assorted symposiums and workshops run from Friday, Sept. 11 through Sunday, Sept. 13.

Zuniga is enthusiastic about passing his knowledge onto a whole new crop of filmmakers. As the late, great Walt Disney once told him, "We can all see our dreams come true, if we only have the courage to pursue them." Zuniga's job now is to encourage that kind of courage in others--and to show Hollywood what a little town like Albuquerque is capable of producing.


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