Los Angeles Times
Tiny school has big dreams
On a patch of sand near the Oceanside Pier, a student director called “Action” on a recent Friday afternoon, sending actors into motion during the filming of a comedy short called “Pick Up Chicks.”
The plot, involving a guy trying to catch the eye of a young woman, was goofy and paper-thin. But the filmmakers were flat-out serious as they hustled to get the shot while the lighting was just right.
Hollywood has come 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. Which it does not.
As it nears its 20th anniversary, John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido has emerged as a vibrant trade school for the film and TV industries, one that’s sending alumni to entertainment powerhouses, including Netflix, Paramount and Marvel Studios.
Theology is part of the core curriculum; so is philosophy. And everyone gets a deep grounding in business. But the emphasis is on turning students into everything from actors and directors to screenwriters, camera operators and sound experts.
“We’re nontraditional in every way,” said Derry Connolly, the school’s founder. “Students get their hands on the equipment right away. They’re doing shoots all the time. [Sometimes] they film at my house, and I’ve seen them really get into it. You have to be passionate to be good.”
Over the past year, students worked on more than 150 productions, ranging from quick hits like “Pick Up Chicks” and music videos to documentaries and a feature-length movie called “O, Brawling Love!” The latter, which uses Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as source material, was written by Bella Lake, a student, and directed by alumna Maggie Mahrt, a Hollywood filmmaker.
Known as JP Catholic for short, the university plans to produce one major movie a year.
The school will soon have more space in which to work: It’s about to spend as much as $5 million to renovate a bland, brick building in downtown Escondido so that it can house film production facilities, a recording studio, an actors’ black box theater, a fine arts workshop and a virtual production lab.
The expansion also will flesh out the school’s animation, illustration and graphic design programs and will more than double its academic and production space.
There are plans to expand enrollment to 600 students, as well as to convert part of Escondido’s former Center City High School, which the university owns, to a chapel.
“We’ll be engaging with more students who are looking for a place where they can integrate their faith and passion for storytelling in film and television,” said Nate Scoggins, a Hollywood writer and director who teaches at JP Catholic.
The school’s practical, get-it-done, high-energy approach reflects Connolly’s personality, education and professional background.
He’s an Irish immigrant who earned a doctorate in applied mechanics at Caltech in 1982 and went on to serve as a senior engineer at a San Diego Eastman Kodak imaging facility and as an advisor to IBM.
Connolly, 67, also was an associate dean at UC San Diego, where he helped develop digital media and web technology.
“It was pretty clear in the early 2000s that the internet was going to be huge,” Connolly says in a YouTube video that recalls the school’s rise. “It was also extremely clear that media was an evil force in our culture. Increasingly, Satan was using media to take souls away from the Lord.”
Connolly’s determination to push back is ref lected in the school’s motto: “Impact culture for Christ.”
While some students go to work in traditional evangelist media, the university has its sights on careers in the mass market.
The faculty say they’re trying to produce skilled storytellers who create content that has broad appeal and explores humanity in clear, candid ways — particularly when it comes to faith and family.
“I’m thinking about films like ‘A Quiet Place,’ which is about a family in a postapocalyptic setting where you can get destroyed [by aliens] if you make a sound,” said George Simon, who teaches film production at JP Catholic.
“The youngest child gets killed in the opening of the film. Two years later, the mother is pregnant, and the family is preparing to bring another child into the world, despite the danger it poses to their survival,” he explained. “It says that life is worth fighting for, worth nurturing. This is not a Christian movie. But the Gospel is present.”
Reaching the masses also is a priority for Connolly, whose take on the matter is a bit harder-edged than Simon’s.
“Christian films sort of feel good but never seem to wrestle with what I would call the horror of sin,” he said. “From a Catholic perspective, we’re much better at dealing with depravity. We don’t sugarcoat it.”
Students are permitted to explore any issue they want, including abortion. But there’s unease about addressing the political wars that have divided the country.
“I was on Twitter looking at [comments about] this horrible shooting in Highland Park,” Connolly said. “They were saying, ‘Can we identify this [shooter] with the left or with the right?’
“I was like, my gosh, there are six people dead. There are 50 people shot, and you’re looking for a political agenda? So we have found with the student body that it is far better to stay away from political things that divide.”
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 grow incrementally, even after the school moved to Escondido in 2013. There was no desire to achieve the sort of size and cache enjoyed by the film programs at UCLA and New York University.