James Franco may be America’s most visible grad student or at least its busiest one. Though his own academic projects may be everywhere, Franco and his Rabbit Bandini producing partner, Vince Jolivette, have turned their attention to the lives of other students through the documentary web series Undergrads.
Streaming a new episode every Thursday on Franco’s web site, the show examines college life at universities across the country. Undergrads' latest installment, directed by native Austinite Joy Gohring, follows four film students at the University of Texas at Austin as they work on class projects and embark on their nascent careers.
Gohring explained that shooting the show in Austin was a natural choice for Rabbit Bandini. “With an active film scene and the fact that Austin has such a unique culture, it just made sense to document students here.” The result, Undergrads: South is the third in the series, and it makes for some compelling computer-watching (or, you know, TV streaming).
Though the title may conjure images of drunken college keggers, doc subject David Bukstein insists he and the other students of Undergrads: South have more to offer than a rehash of Animal House. “You see inside the personal and professional lives of these people who are very different but who all have similar goals, are very professional and really want to do good. Undergrads are interesting if you pick the right ones.”
In that vein, Gohring and her crew certainly chose their subjects well. They cast four divergent filmmakers — all intense, focused individuals in their early twenties who could make the most seasoned adults feel downright unaccomplished — and documented them producing and directing their own work.
In casting the filmmakers on the show, Gohring was clear that she wanted divergent perspectives and a variety of backgrounds as well as experience levels. "My interest as a director is to find what's already interesting or funny about a person and pull that out of them. People are already fascinating in their own specificity. A good director sees it and brings it out."
Invoking Franco's name certainly attracted students to the project, but it also made them wary. In fact, Truong nearly passed on the opportunity. “A friend called me saying he was with James Franco's producers and that they wanted to meet me. Skeptical, I figured I had two options: call BS and miss out on a chance of a lifetime, or just risk getting egg on my face and go for it. So I went for the eggs.”
Over the course of the series, audiences peek into the students’ processes and, at times, witness their struggles with serious topics. The nine-episode run follows Bukstein, a director/producer, helming a music video for Austin band, Mother Falcon; takes a road trip with auteur Bao Truong as he documents Austin band Little Lo on tour; sees documentarian Morgan Young filming a PSA for the Brady Campaign against gun violence in Texas; and watches producer Ali Haji as he makes a documentary about UT acapella group, the Ransom Notes.
The students admit that as filmmakers accustomed to being behind the lens themselves, the experience of being in front of the cameras threw them a bit. Truong recalled, “Everything changes when there is a camera. It really puts a person into some serious self-evaluation." Bukstein extrapolated, “I really opened up a lot in front of the cameras and about my more private life, but the awareness of being taped fixing you in a place where you are aware of acting."
If there were any struggles being on camera, it doesn't show in the final episodes, where these four students come across as alternately energetic, introspective and, ultimately, impressive.
Already the series has taken the students to places they didn’t expect. In March, the series debuted at SXSW's joint Film and Interactive section, Digital Domain. For Truong, Bukstein, Young and Haji, it's a solid start to what are certainly some bright millennial lights.
You can watch the first episode HERE