Setting the Scene
WFU alum is major movie player
Wake Forest University alumnus Curt Beech returned to his alma mater earlier this week to talk with current students about his career as a feature film art director.
Beech, a member of the university’s Class of 1994, served as guest speaker for the opening day of the school’s sixth annual Reynolda Film Festival.
Beech, whose film credits include the Academy Award winning productions “Lincoln” and “The Help,” addressed the audience in a candid, unpretentious manner, poking fun at his life and the pitfalls of his job as he schooled them about the world of art design. When designing a set, no detail is too minuscule to consider, provided that it will actually make it into the shot, the Ohio native said.
“Insist on the little things,” he advised. “…You’re trying to hit this sweet spot in the camera – don’t go too high, don’t go too low, because they’ll never see it on camera. You’ve got to aim for the strike zone.”
Beech walked the audience through his process, explaining how he and his team transformed Virginia’s House of Representatives into “Capitol Square” for “Lincoln.” The team faced many obstacles in converting the structure, which Beech said looked “nothing like” 19th Century Washington, D.C. To make it look authentic, every sign of modern life had to be masked, from electronic voting boards to light switches. The crew did decide to leave one tiny element that wasn’t present in the original White House: Virginia’s state seal, which reads, “Sic semper tyrannis,” a phrase meaning “Death to tyrants,” which John Wilkes Booth is said to have uttered just after assassinating President Lincoln.
Beech told the group that crew members were strictly forbidden from photographing actor Daniel Day-Lewis dressed as Lincoln. The Oscar winning actor took on the role wholeheartedly, Beech reported.
“When he got into the office, he said, ‘This all looks great, now please take down all pictures of Abraham Lincoln. I am now him,’ so we did,” he related. “That was his process, and you can’t argue with the results.” (Day-Lewis recently won his third Best Actor Oscar for his role in the film.)
Though he went on to earn a MFA at UCLA, Beech said he got his start in the industry at Wake Forest, doing a work study program in the theater to help pay his bills. He met his wife, Mary Beech, the chief marketing officer for designer Kate Spade, on campus. The couple’s two daughters, Tate, 9 and Eden, 7 were on hand for the talk, as were Beech’s parents and two of his siblings. Though he has had the pleasure of working on several highly acclaimed projects, Beech told the audience last week that he’s always in search of the next big thing.
“My favorite project is my next project, always,” he said. “‘Lincoln’ is very special because of all the acclaim, and I think I did some very good work on ‘The Help’ … but I’m always looking for the next thing – that’s the one I’m excited about.”
Film Festival Executive Directors Connor McCarthy and Rebecca Moberly said they were thrilled to be able to launch this year’s festival, which runs through April 5, by featuring a WFU alumnus. McCarthy, a junior communications major who is minoring in film study, said he heard Beech speak during a visit to the campus for an unrelated event last year, and was eager to bring him back for the festival.
“We thought he was amazing – the match could not be more perfect,” declared the Orlando, Fla. native. “We just thought it would be borderline insane not to at least reach out and see if he was available.”
Many of the speakers also took time out of their schedules to visit classrooms and talk with students one on one, giving an added dimension to the festival, McCarthy said.“I’m proud of the fact that we’re getting some of these speakers to go to the classrooms and speak to the students outside of their speaking time,” the 21 year-old said. “We wanted people who wanted to be here and wanted to give something back to young, aspiring filmmakers.”
Moberly, a senior art history and Chinese double major, said organizers sought speakers who were young and/or well versed in working on low budget productions. The Plymouth, Ind. native said she was inspired by Beech’s talk.
“He said it best when he said to really focus on the little things. There’s so much beauty in the details and that’s what I learned tonight,” she commented. “I think that’s so important to remember in every aspect of life.”
Moberly added that this year’s festival has lived up to its mission of “entertaining, inspiring and challenging” its audience.
“I think, compared to years in the past, this year we really embodied that mission statement,” she remarked. “We have some fantastic entertainers and we want to challenge students to think outside the box with the festival this year.”