Hastings grad featured in Subway film promoA 2002 Hastings High School graduate is making a bit of a splash in the online film community. Billy Sullivan is a graduate student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the writer and producer of “Frat House Musical,” a three-part web series that premiered last week at one of the largest film and music festivals, South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas.
By: Katrina Styx, The Hastings Star-Gazette
A 2002 Hastings High School graduate is making a bit of a splash in the online film community. Billy Sullivan is a graduate student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the writer and producer of “Frat House Musical,” a three-part web series that premiered last week at one of the largest film and music festivals, South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas.
The musical, made up of three five-minute episodes, was one of four winners of the Subway Fresh Artists Filmmakers Series competition. This was the second year of the contest. Graduate students at the University of Southern California and New York University were given a shot to pitch a film idea to Subway. More than 50 teams submitted materials, but only five were chosen to make an in-person pitch, Sullivan explained. His team was one of them. He and his production team got to pitch his idea – a story about a college student who wants to get into a fraternity but is initially rejected for his tendency to break into song. They made the pitch to a group of Subway marketers and executives as well as a couple celebrity actors and directors, including Kevin Malone from “The Office” and the director of “Two and a Half Men.”
“We felt extremely good about the pitch,” Sullivan said.
That night he flew home to Hastings to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family, but two days later he got a call telling him his team was one of those selected. Production had to start right away, so his family had Thanksgiving a week early and he flew back to California.
The award gave his team $40,000 to create the episodes. After finding out Nov. 20 that the film was a go, Sullivan and his team had until Dec. 11 to write the scripts and all the music.
“Ours was a musical, which was extra challenging,” he said.
They had just five days to shoot, from Dec. 11 to 15. Another challenge fell from the weather. It doesn’t often rain in Los Angeles, Sullivan explained, but during their five days of shooting it rained twice.
The bulk of the work was in the editing and sound work. That had to be completed by March 1, and the series premiered March 12 in Texas.
A filmmaker from the start
Sullivan has been making movies for as long as he can remember.
“I even remember making Superman movies with my sister when I was 5 years old,” he said.
At first he used his parents’ VHS recorder. When he was a senior at Hastings High School, he took the TV broadcasting class, where he was supposed to produce news stories. He always tried to do fictional pieces instead, he said, but people seemed to like them. From spending so much time at the station, he got to know the people at Hastings Community TV, and after he graduated he would sometimes get to borrow the station’s cameras for other projects.
Sullivan attended St. Cloud State University for his undergraduate degree. Knowing he wanted to do film production as a career, he majored in creative writing and film studies, but the program there wasn’t as comprehensive as he would have liked.
“I knew I needed to go somewhere to learn it and harness it,” he said.
He found USC, rated as one of the top schools for film production in the country. Once he graduated from St. Cloud State, he packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles.
“It was definitely a culture shock,” he said of the move.
While the Twin Cities have a strong theater scene, Los Angeles is much more expansive and diverse, he said.
“That was really nice to really be immersed in it all.”
Sullivan has tried to work in all sorts of film styles.
“I try to do everything, but when I got to grad school I learned pretty quickly that I’m naturally better at comedy,” he said.
His professors noted his inclination to humor, too.
“You can write comedy in your sleep,” one of them told him.
Still, he challenged himself to do other genres as well.
Finding the inspiration
The inspiration for “Frat House Musical” came from the university itself. Coming from Minnesota, Sullivan went to California thinking that the academic Greek culture wasn’t a very big deal.
“I always thought it was something you only see in the movies,” he said.
But living directly across from frat row at USC, he quickly learned otherwise.
“It is almost exactly like you see in the movies,” he said.
The scene fascinated him. He even got a little obsessed with figuring out how it could exist, he said. And then one day last summer he thought, “what if this was a musical?” The idea developed from there, to a student who loves to sing trying to get into a fraternity that cares nothing for singing.
“The big message behind it always was to accept outsiders, to accept people who aren’t exactly like you,” Sullivan said.
When the Subway series came around, he got another person involved, and the web series was born.
The musical idea was a new one to Sullivan. Before pitching this idea, he had never done one, although he had always been a fan, he said. One reason he’d avoided doing them was the cost. But with the Subway budget, he figured it was a perfect opportunity.
Although it only runs 15 minutes total, the film series involved a large group of people. Including the crew, cast, background, musicians and post, there were 205 people in the credits.
While “Frat House Musical” is enjoying some extra attention, Sullivan is working on finishing his thesis project, which is being edited now. He aims to premier that film and send it to film festivals this summer. He’ll graduate in May, and after that he aims to focus on directing and editing films, doing freelance projects to work his way into the editing and directing world.
“My ultimate dream is to be able to support myself with this art,” he said.
It’s a tough field to break into, but the struggle and failures along the road don’t bother Sullivan.
“You just have to keep failing, and sooner or later you’ll do something right,” he said.