Film director, producer and screenwriter Steven Spielberg once said, "I dream for a living." For David Randag, a Springfield native, and classmate Chris Brannan, following their filmmaking dreams not only led to a College Emmy this year for their thesis documentary "Standard Deviation," but also to their dream careers.
In 2006, Brannan and Randag, graduate students at the University of Florida's Documentary Institute, forged a friendship based on their love and appreciation of filmmaking.
When it came time to ponder their thesis project, a short film, Randag and Brannan teamed up and found inspiration in an unlikely source: a Wikipedia page on Billy Cottrell, a childhood classmate of Brannan.
"I was doing research for and organizing a 10-year high school reunion," Brannan says, "and one day, I got an e-mail from an old friend, and I think it just said 'Remember Billy Cottrell?' and had a link to his Wikipedia page."
Cottrell, who had attended school with Brannan in sixth and ninth grades, was pursuing his doctoral degree in physics at Caltech when, in 2004, he was arrested and accused of burning several SUVs and a California Hummer dealership in August 2003 in support of the environmental group the Earth Liberation Front.
"I remember Billy as being bookish in sixth grade, and then rebellious in ninth. It was a total transformation ... he moved away after sixth grade, and when he returned, he had shredded jeans and was a hell raiser," Brannan recalls.
In April 2005, Cottrell was convicted of conspiracy to arson and sentenced to eight years in federal prison, in addition to $3.5 million in restitution charges.
After reading Cottrell's Wikipedia page and learning more of his story, Brannan and Randag knew they needed to tell Billy's story.
"We were tossing thesis ideas around," Brannan says, "and we knew that this was a great story and that we were the right people to tell it ... we knew we could do the story justice."
In February 2007, Brannan and Randag met with Billy's mom, Heidi, and the wheels were put in motion for "Standard Deviation," their thesis film which, in March 2009, was awarded a College Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for best student documentary film of 2009 at the 30th College Television Awards in Los Angeles.
Randag, who graduated from Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in 1997 and double-majored in writing and philosophy in addition to minoring in film at Marquette University, says he has been interested in film ever since he was little.
"It sounds cliché ... I would steal my dad's video camera from his office and make movies all the time," Randag recalls. "I couldn't ever justify film to my parents, though. It was not a practical thing to be a filmmaker."
After moving to New York to help a friend edit a film in 2002, working for an import company in Miami, teaching English to Argentine children in South America for two years and even living in Brazil for two months, Randag realized that film was where his heart was, and with the College Emmy win in March, he's more confident about his career path.
"Winning the Emmy really changed things," Randag explains when asked how it felt to win. "It was awesome, and I definitely got more self-esteem after winning it. It helped my resume, and it made me feel much better about my future."
Brannan, whose love of film developed during high school, feels the College Emmy win has definitely helped his resume, too, but has also helped "Standard Deviation" gain more acclaim and exposure.
"The Emmy has definitely opened doors for the film and Billy's story," Brannan says.
"Receiving a screener request from HBO was amazing, too."
"Standard Deviation" has certainly been successful since its completion in May 2008. In addition to the College Emmy, "Standard Deviation" has secured several awards at film festivals, including an award for audience favorite runner-up at the 2008 Daytona Beach Film Festival and the Golden Palm Award at the 2009 Mexico International Film Festival just last month. The documentary is also slotted to be screened at the Globians Documentary Festival in Berlin, in August, Brannan says.
As for Randag and Brannan, success has found them living on opposite coasts, but living their dreams nonetheless. Upon graduation in 2008, Randag moved to New York and began working as a freelance associate producer and production assistant. Since 2008, he has worked on several series for CBS and is currently working on a 10-part mythology series for the History Channel.
Brannan ventured to Los Angeles after he graduated from the University of Florida and found work as a freelance editor, working on programs for both the Food Network and HGTV. "I'm also saving money until I can make my next indie documentary," Brannan says.
Living on opposite coasts, it is not as easy as it once was to keep in touch, but "Standard Deviation" has kept Randag and Brannan together, and they hope that they will collaborate again.
"Dave and I joke about meeting in Topeka, Kansas, some day since it's right in the middle of the country," Brannan says with a laugh. "I think it will happen in the future ... our skill sets are like yin and yang, so we work well together. It will be down the road a ways, but yeah, I hope we get to work together again."
For more information on "Standard Deviation," visit www.standarddeviation-themovie.com.
'Standard Deviation' timeline
Story published Friday, July 3, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 4 )