UNT alumni bring major motion pictures, television shows to the screen
Scott Murphy (’87, ’94 M.S.) got his first rejection letter in elementary school. After seeing Star Wars, Murphy heard talk about a sequel. So he hand-wrote a 20-page script for Star Wars II, typed it with the help of his dad and mailed it to LucasFilm. About a month later, the letter arrived. “Sorry,” it said, “but we’re not taking submissions.”
About 30 years later, LucasFilm had a different answer for him. That rejection letter, turning brown around the edges, sat framed on his desk at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch while he wrote for Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated film and TV series in 2008 and 2009.
Murphy had landed a dream job. Like so many others aspiring to make it in Hollywood, he took a roller coaster ride to Los Angeles — starting with making Super 8 movies in his childhood backyard and later perfecting his craft at UNT.
Spider-Man 3 star Thomas Haden Church, My Blueberry Nights star Norah Jones, Robocop Peter Weller (’70) and The Blue Veil star Joan Blondell all are former UNT students and household names, but viewers may not realize UNT has numerous alumni working behind the scenes as the creative forces driving top movie and television productions.
Not for the weak of heart
Sharon Nash (’82) — now a prolific TV producer — always knew she’d be in the entertainment business. She wrote, directed and starred in a modern adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood in fifth grade.
At North Texas, a radio, television and film professor told Nash’s class, “Most of you will never make it into commercial television. You might want to go into corporate.”
But Nash thought to herself, “He’s not talking about me.”
After graduating from North Texas, she worked as a local TV news reporter in Ardmore, Okla., Shreveport, La., and Raleigh, N.C., before becoming the host of Beyond 2000, a science and technology program in Australia. She returned to the U.S. to work as an entertainment reporter, interviewing celebrities and covering the Oscar and Emmy awards ceremonies.
She then became a producer, working on Extra, The Ananda Lewis Show and The Roseanne Show and competing on America’s Next Producer. She cast episodes of the popular America’s Got Talent and Ellen’s Really Big Show and now has a coaching and consulting business to teach people about the entertainment business.
“It’s not for the weak of heart,” she says. “You have to be tenacious.”
She credits Don Staples’ film criticism class at UNT with teaching her how to think critically and use images to portray a story.
“People see TV and they think it’s quick and easy because they have their own video camera,” says Nash, a Pasadena resident. “They don’t realize how long it takes per hour of television — how many people are involved, how much money and how many people are staying up at night doing this.”
Michelene Mundo (’91) agrees the hours are rough.
While at UNT, Mundo helped costume extras for Born on the Fourth of July scenes filmed in Dallas. Between her radio, television and film studies and the job, she was up about 24 hours a day, she says.
“If you want to stay on top and stay in the game, there is no rest,” Mundo says. “It is still fulfilling, it is still fun and I love what I do. I just hate the hours.”
Hollywood came to Denton during Mundo’s time at UNT, when filmmakers used the campus as the site of a fictional university for the comedic football flick Necessary Roughness. As an extras casting coordinator, she wrangled students for scenes.
After she graduated, Necessary Roughness production coordinator Debbie Schwab called and said friends in the music industry were searching for an assistant. Mundo packed two suitcases and moved to California, where she quickly shifted from music to film work.
She two-stepped with Robert Duvall while working as a set production assistant on Geronimo and smoked a cigar given to her by Oliver Stone while working as an additional second assistant director on Any Given Sunday. She worked on other films such as Selena, Jerry McGuire and Dr. Dolittle 2 before serving as a second second assistant director on the TV show Entourage. For five seasons, she served as second assistant director on the Criminal Minds TV series, where she oversaw the production schedule and ran the set.
“Criminal Minds was great, but it’s time to move on,” says Mundo, who is poised to take on a new challenge. “I’m so excited about constantly moving forward and moving up the ladder in this business. It is challenging and always rewarding.”
Like Mundo, Kristopher Carter’s (’93) connections at UNT helped fuel his career.
The music major was interested in film composition. While playing double bass in the UNT Symphony Orchestra, Carter shared a music stand with Ian Walker, son of television and film composer Shirley Walker.
At Ian Walker’s invitation, Carter flew to Los Angeles in 1993 to meet Shirley Walker on a scoring stage. He sat next to a young man taking notes. That man was a fellow UNT composition graduate, Michael McCuistion (’87), who was working on Walker’s music team.
After talking to Walker in her home studio, Carter returned to UNT to finish his degree. Soon after he graduated, she called and offered him a job. While working for her, Carter helped compose music for the animated Batman TV series.
Now, Carter works with McCuistion and composer Lolita Ritmanis at their company Dynamic Music Partners. The team holds 20 Emmy nominations — with six earned by Carter himself. In 2001, he won an Emmy for an episode in the Batman Beyond series. Carter has composed for a long list of TV episodes and films, including the Cartoon Network’s Ben 10: Alien Force and an independent film, The Dance of the Dead. He recently finished working on a musical episode of Batman: The Brave and The Bold featuring actor Neil Patrick Harris as the villainous Music Meister.
Carter cites several UNT teachers who inspired him, including Martin Mailman, Jean Mainous, Joán Groom-Thornton, Cindy McTee and Joe Klein.
“North Texas prepared me better than I could have imagined — writing for different media, styles and groups. Just hearing all of the music at the college had a profound impact on my creative voice,” he says.
Playing with action figures
For many alumni, career dreams started in childhood.
At 18 months old, John McInnis (’99) picked up a crayon and began drawing shapes. Concerned about a twitch in his hand, his mom took him to the pediatrician.
“Maggie,” the doctor said, “your boy is sketching!”
McInnis eventually got a pencil in his hand to draw spaceships, robots and creatures. He enrolled in UNT’s School of Visual Arts — now the College of Visual Arts and Design — and credits Russ Pensyl, who taught a 3-D and multimedia art class, with inspiring him.
“He said that once you learned tools of one software package, you can learn anything,” McInnis says. “Keep up your traditional artwork and try to blend it with this new medium.”
After graduation, McInnis got a job with Dallas-based Janimation, where he helped create a two-headed serpent in Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams and a flying dragon for a Blockbuster commercial, among other projects.
By August 2005, he was in California, where he worked for Third Floor on “pre-viz” — or concept shots — and for 20th Century Fox. His projects have included Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Aliens in the Attic, The A-Team and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. One of his favorite projects: creating a raging river god who rises from the roaring waters and rips off a bridge in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
Today, McInnis lives in Toluca Lake, Calif., and is a rough layout artist for DreamWorks. He takes ideas from the script, director and storyboard and creates a virtual environment. Recently, he finished work on Shrek Forever After.
“Nothing is very detailed in layout but quickly choreographed with cameras and characters to help tell the story — kind of like playing with action figures,” he says.
UNT also helped Matt Poitras (’01) discover his best talents. Poitras says the films he made as a student didn’t always have the best stories and direction, but they always had the best costumes and props.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in radio/television/film, Poitras opened MP Filmcraft in Austin and settled into a prop-making career. Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report wore Poitras’ handcrafted Patriot Armor on his show in 2007.
“For a while, that was how people would introduce me — ‘This is the guy who made the armor for Stephen Colbert,’” Poitras says.
Colbert’s outfit included a breastplate, cape, sandals, shin guards and gauntlets. Poitras also created Jedi belts for Disney’s Mickey Mouse and codpieces and original artwork castings for a gladiator school in Rome.
His RTVF classes, a metalworking jewelry class and history courses at UNT helped give him the skills to research details about period costumes and bring them to life, he says.
“UNT offered the best hands-on program that I had heard about in Texas,” Poitras says.
A great starting point
UNT connections run deep for several alumni in Hollywood. Carter and Murphy met at UNT. Mundo and Murphy had a fellow classmate, Michael Phillips (’92), who’s also in the business.
Murphy first got a bachelor’s degree in music from UNT but then pursued his real love by getting his master’s in RTVF, where he was helped by professors such as Fred Watkins (’92 M.S.) and Gerry Veeder.
“I really look back fondly on the time I had then,” says Murphy, who has written episodes for Angel, Flash Gordon and The Nightmare Room, and sold a screenplay to Miramax.
“I was able to get my hands on equipment and work with a crew. That was a great starting point, because in the industry you have to know how to collaborate. It was a place where I could fail without a lot of downside, as opposed to out here, where it is very competitive.”