On a stretch of sand near the Oceanside Pier, the student director called “Action” on a recent Friday afternoon, setting the cast in motion while filming a comedy short called “Collect the Chicks.”
The plot involving a guy trying to catch the eye of a young woman was silly and subtle. But the cinematographers were completely serious, as they hurriedly tried to get a good shot with the right lighting.
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Hollywood came to San Diego County by way of a tiny, virtually unknown Catholic school whose 253 students could fit into a large lecture hall — if it had one. What is wrong.
Approaching his 20th birthday, John Paul the Great Catholic University of Escondido has emerged as a busy vocational school for the film and television industry, sending graduates to entertainment powerhouses including Netflix, Paramount and Marvel Studios.
Theology is part of the core curriculum. So is philosophy. And everyone gets a very deep foundation in the business. But the emphasis is on the transformation of students in everything: from actors and directors to screenwriters, cinematographers and sound engineers.
“We’re unconventional in every way,” says Derry Connolly, the school’s founder. “Students immediately pick up the equipment. They take pictures all the time. [Sometimes] they film at my house and I could see them really getting into it. You have to be hot to be good.”
Over the past year, students have worked more than 150 productions ranging from instant hits like Chicks and music videos to documentaries and a new feature film called Oh Scandalous Love!, which uses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as its source material. It was written by student Bella Lake and directed by alumna Maggie Mart, a respected Hollywood director.
Known as JP Catholic for short, the university plans to produce one major film a year. And the school will soon have more space to work. He’s about to spend as much as $5 million to renovate the sleek brick building in downtown Escondido to house a feature film production, recording studio, acting black box studio, art studio and virtual production lab.
The expansion will also help enhance the school’s animation, illustration and graphic design programs, as well as more than double the academic and production space.
There are plans to more than double the student body to 600, and to convert part of the university-owned former Center City High School in Escondido into a chapel.
“We will attract more students who are looking for a place where they can incorporate their faith and passion for storytelling in film and television,” said Nate Scoggins, a Hollywood writer and director who also teaches at JP Catholic.
The school’s hands-on, efficient and energetic approach reflects Connolly’s personality, education and professional experience.
He is an Irish immigrant who received his doctorate in applied mechanics from Caltech in 1982 and has worked as a senior engineer at Eastman Kodak’s imaging center in San Diego and as a consultant to IBM.
Connolly, 67, also served as associate dean at UC San Diego, where he helped develop digital media and web technologies.
“It was pretty clear in the early 2000s that the Internet was going to be huge,” Connolly says in the YouTube video which resembles the growth of the school.
“It was also extremely clear that the media is an evil force in our culture. Increasingly, Satan used the mass media to win souls away from the Lord.”
Connolly’s determination to push back is reflected in the school’s motto: a culture of exposure to Christ.
While some students go on to work in traditional evangelical media, the university has its sights set on careers in the mass market.
The school’s faculty say they strive to produce skilled storytellers who create content that has broad appeal and explores humanity in clear, honest ways, especially when it comes to faith and family.
“I think of films like A Quiet Place, which is about a family in a post-apocalyptic setting where you can be destroyed. [by aliens] when you make a sound,” said George Simon, who teaches film production at JP Catholic.
“At the opening of the film, the youngest child is killed. Two years later, the mother is pregnant and the family prepares to give birth to another child, despite the danger it poses to their survival,” he explained. “It says that life is worth fighting for, it’s worth cherishing. This is not a Christian film. But the Gospel is present.”
Reaching the masses is also a priority for Connolly, whose view on the matter is a little more rigid than Simon’s.
“Christian movies look good, but they never seem to grapple with what I would call the horror of sin,” he said. “From a Catholic point of view, we are much better at dealing with debauchery. We’re not sugarcoating it.”
Students are allowed to study any subject they want, including abortion. But there is concern over the political wars that have divided the country.
“I was looking on Twitter [comments about] this horrible shooting in Highland Park,” Connolly said. “They said, ‘Can we identify this.’ [shooter] left or right?”
“I thought, oh my god, six people have died. 50 people were shot there, and you are looking for a political agenda? So we’ve found with the student body that it’s much better to stay away from divisive political things.”
JP Catholic enrolled its first students in 2006 when it was located in an industrial park in San Diego’s Scripps Ranch community. The plan was to start small and gradually grow even further the school has moved in Escondido in 2013. There was no desire to reach the size and cache enjoyed by the film programs at UCLA and NYU.
Connolly runs an economical job. The school does very little advertising, relying instead on word of mouth and social media to gain attention. And JP Catholic mostly hires industry professionals as teachers, rather than creating a traditional and potentially expensive full-time faculty.
Tenure “is a disservice to everybody,” said Connolly, whose words are sacrilege in mainstream higher education. “We are a performance-based culture. If we have teachers who do well, they stay with us forever. If you don’t perform, you go.”
His collaborators include Scoggins, who enlisted the help of 20 students and alumni last year when he filmed the Texas murder mystery “What Remains,” and Simon, who recently gave students an inside look at how he prepared to shoot “Don’t Get Eaten,” a zombie comedy set in Michigan.
It can be a challenge for students to keep up with it all. JP Catholic is a all year round school, which is divided into three quarters, each costing $9,000. The goal is for students to graduate from college in three years instead of four.
Almost all students receive financial aid. The school, which had a budget of $8 million last year, is also supported by relatively small private donations. The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego was not one of the school’s financial supporters. But JP Catholic operates with the consent of the diocese.
Students often have to figure things out for themselves. That’s where Faustina Ortiz found herself recently when she showed up in Oceanside to direct Pick Up the Chicks. The beach was packed with people on a balmy afternoon, which meant she had to be careful with how she framed her shots.
“This little project prepares us for the real experience,” Ortiz told the San Diego Union-Tribune between takes. “I work with the actors, I find out what they need to give their best performance.
“It’s all very helpful, very helpful.”
Classmate Bryson Armstrong was standing by, ready to help and enjoying it.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work on feature films, independent films, shorts and documentaries,” he said.
“And I’ve only been here for nine months.”