BY: Vanessa Naive
Sasha Joseph Neulinger started his film career because he couldn’t rollerskate on carpet.
An avid hockey fan since a young age, Neulinger fell multiple times on the carpet during his Chuck-E Cheese commercial audition at seven years old — but he made it into the cast. This commercial jumpstarted his career into film, which led him from Pennsylvania to Montana.
Film is a small but well-known major at MSU. Many graduates go on to produce independent features or work at big companies such as Dreamworks and Disney. While few MSU graduates have won Oscars, they do form a prominent workforce in the industry through the “Montana Mafia,” a tightly-knit group of filmmakers from Montana. As Bozeman is far removed from many places lauded for filmmaking, the decision of leaving or staying can weigh heavily on a graduate’s mind.
A year out of film school, Neulinger has started his own production company, “Step One Films,” and is currently working on a feature-length documentary, “Rewind to Fast Forward.” The documentary covers Neulinger’s past and his struggle to understand why three members of his family sexually abused him as a child.
Because of his youth, huge heart and ambition, Neulinger feels that Montana not only keeps him centered, balanced and healthy, but has many more opportunities to offer him than he could find elsewhere.
“My escape has always been fishing and hiking and nature. When I saw the MSU website, and that overhead shot of campus, ‘Mountains and Minds,’ I knew this is where I could recuperate from the past,” Neulinger reflected. When scoping schools, retired film option coordinator Paul Monaco told Neulinger, “We aren’t a huge film school, but we will know who you are as an individual. You will only get as much as you put in.”
After graduating from MSU, Neulinger took Monaco’s advice into account when deciding whether to stay in Montana or move on to bigger industries. Ultimately, he decided that if he wasn’t happy and balanced as an individual, he had no business talking about the world through film, and felt that Montana offered a frontier to expand his filmmaking skills.
“I’m not interested in working up to camera assistant in five years,” Neulinger said. After his internship with Big Sky Youth Empowerment, he realized that there are people that are very serious about film, and that it does exist in Montana.
Neulinger feels that incredible scenery sets Montana-made films apart from other movies. “There’s an appeal to a Montana-based company that does good work. There’s something attractive about a company working out of a majestic place to a busy city person.”
And as a filmmaker, Neulinger is grateful for his home. “Montana gives me the opportunity to be me, to embrace that, and to make a living for myself. Montana allows a young filmmaker to show up, be real, and create their own story.”
Speaking from the west coast, fall 2012 graduate Sarah Beagle was afraid of becoming too comfortable in Bozeman after graduation.
“I love Bozeman, and I wouldn’t have left if I stayed too long,” Beagle said. “I needed to leave. I didn’t want to look for a new job in Bozeman when I could be looking in L.A.”
Having moved to Bozeman primarily for the snowboarding over the film school, Beagle realized her career goals were not in line with the type of productions that come to Bozeman. This, coupled with tapping into the “Montana Mafia” in Los Angeles, has enabled Beagle to focus on her career of becoming an assistant director in the industry-saturated city.
“The Montana Mafia has helped with every single area. Every single job I’ve gotten has been through an MSU alum one way or another,” Beagle said.
Her big break came last fall when an MSU alumnus put out a call for assistants on a reality TV show in Whitefish. It happened to be “The Bachelor,” which has led her to other jobs on that show, as well as other commercial shoots.
While Beagle feels that isolation from major industries hurts MSU’s film program, she says learning the technical skills of all major department areas, such as camera and sound, help her in Los Angeles as much as networking does.
Beagle feels like having a concise goal for what she wants to do in the industry has helped her adjust. While she primarily focused on set construction and art direction in school, in Los Angeles she made the change to assistant director (the “general” of the set) with no regrets.
“I had a professor tell me the week before I left that they would hate to see my management skills go to waste just because I wanted to do art,” Beagle said. “I don’t have the artistic skills needed to succeed in the art department. I had more assistant directing opportunities open to me. It was a smarter career choice.”
Still, life in L.A. required her to adjust her expectations, Beagle said. Young film grads start at “the bottom of the chain,” often volunteering their time and hoping they’ll be asked back on set. “You have to start over on your hierarchy. Not your knowledge, because that is what will propel you.”
So far, Beagle feels that her move to Los Angeles has been successful — she hasn’t gone a month without paying rent, and she can “afford to eat at the end of the night.”
It’s not all about fame
Success in the film world is not all about winning an Oscar. “If that’s people’s definition of success, then there will be a ton of disappointed people out there,” said Mark Vargo, an Academy Award-nominated member of the American Society of Cinematographers and graduate of the MSU class of 1977.
After a career as a visual effects supervisor with Industrial Light and Magic and as a director of photography, Vargo and his family moved back to Montana in 2003. “If I’m going to shoot on location somewhere, I’m happiest knowing I can leave my family in Montana,” he said.
Despite the commercial productions that do occur in Montana, Vargo encourages young filmmakers to “fly the nest after college.” Stating that college in some ways shelters one from the real world, Vargo firmly believes that you can only grow as a person if you are willing to put in what you get out of it. “It’s still a career that entails long hours, and you still have financial obligations to keep to.”
Vargo and his younger counterparts prove that when it comes down to it, you need to love what you’re doing to survive in an industry as intense as film. Though Montana is not famed for its filmmaking industry, that doesn’t stop film from thriving here.
“The film world is a crazy one,” Neulinger said. “When I take my head out of a ten-hour editing session, then send 20 emails and put together a pre-production packet — when I’m done with that whole day, I can sit outside and look at these beautiful stars. I don’t hear horns honking, I don’t hear buzz. It’s beautiful, it’s natural and humbling. Montana is humbling.”