Mr. Chatterbox

Hollywood Confidential: Inside Ringling College’s Film Program

In the past several years Ringling has zoomed up to No. 17 on the list of best film schools in the country as ranked by the Hollywood Reporter

By Bob Plunket May 31, 2016 Published in the June 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Ringling College film program head Brad Battersby, far left, with students Nichole Fernandez, Harrison Stagner, Natasha Thornton and Jeff Boos.

When I heard several years ago that Werner Herzog was showing his movies after dinner over at the Field Club, I didn’t know what to think. I’m sure that once a week or so, the Field Club has entertainment for its members, maybe an apprentice from the opera or a lady pianist from a local music group.

But Werner Herzog?

Francois Truffaut considered him the greatest living movie director. Time magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. And now he’s picking up a $50 honorarium by hauling his old projector over to the Field Club and showing Aguirre the Wrath of God?

Only now, of course, do I realize what was really going on. That was the beginning of the new fund-raising model for the film department at Ringling College of Art and Design: Use the glamour and mystique of the movies to get big money from the local rich, particularly those at the Field Club, whose bar seems to have turned into the Sarasota version of the Polo Lounge.

In the past several years Ringling has zoomed up to No. 17 on the list of best film schools in the country as ranked by the Hollywood Reporter. All you have to do is drive by to see the fruits of this success. There’s an enormous soundstage and post-production facility under construction on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and it seems like every month or so a big-name film person is on campus, not just to speak but to work on some project with the students and staff.

The latest example: Dylan McDermott, star of TV’s The Practice, is currently in town shooting a web series called Sugar. It’s about a young girl who gets drawn into the gritty world of human trafficking. The crew and much of the cast are Ringling students.

The unsung hero of all this movie making is Brad Battersby, who has run the film program at Ringling for the past eight years. Brad, half-preppy, half-hippie in appearance, must be in his 50s by now, but he still has the driven air of a young filmmaker who will do anything to get his movie made. After a few beers I got him to tell me all about his early days—mostly cautionary tales of what a young, untried director goes through. My favorite story concerned his first feature, Blue Desert.

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Blue Desert was to be his “calling-card film,” a low-budget thriller that would show the industry what he could do. Today it’s considered a cult classic, but it teetered on the brink of collapse during the entire production.

The plot concerns a beautiful young cartoonist, played by Courteney Cox. She gets raped in New York—twice—so she flees to the California desert to recover. There she meets a sexy bad guy (Craig Sheffer) who’s always getting his feelings hurt. One night things get a little out of hand and she has to bang him (on the head, that is) with an enormous frying pan. The cop who arrives to sort things out (D.B. Sweeney) is a real dreamboat. He asks her out. You sense a romance brewing. Then he—the cop—starts to act a little weird. Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad? And what’s that shadow outside the window? Like they say, don’t watch it alone. I did and had to chug a couple of shots of Fireball and sleep with the lights on.

My favorite Blue Desert story concerns Cox’s breasts. This was just before her incredible success in Friends and she was the hot girl in Hollywood, poised for major stardom. “She was a sweetheart,” Battersby recalls. Maybe too much of a sweetheart. A squadron of A-list male stars kept circling the set and editing room.

Anyway, back to the breasts.

It seems that she had to do a nude scene in bed with D.B., and she was having second thoughts. D.B. was a hot young actor at the time (1990), so hot that he got the part over George Clooney and Bryan Cranston, who also auditioned. After a couple of weeks, though, everybody on the set was getting a little sick of D.B.

He would sulk in his trailer because he didn’t like the sunglasses Brad was making him wear. Courteney finally laid down the law. She wasn’t doing any nude scenes with that guy. They would have to get a body double.

So Brad had to audition breasts. Various actresses would come in and take off their blouses and Brad would have to scrutinize their breasts and try and figure out which pair looked the most like Courteney’s, which of course, he had never seen in the flesh. It was tough, nerve-wracking work and so much depended on it—the completion of his wonderful film, his future career, etc.

After many callbacks and much deliberation, he finally found the perfect pair. He called in Courteney to get her approval. One look at her reaction and he knew he was in trouble. She hated the breasts. They were much too small, she said. So it was back to the breast auditions. Brad learned an important lesson, both about filmmaking and women. Reality isn’t important—it’s all about dreams and wishful thinking.

Brad survived Blue Desert—the reviews were terrific—and he went on to make several other features, most notably The Joyriders with Martin Landau and Elisabeth Moss. He married June Petrie, who now teaches at Ringling, too. June is from a famous movie family. Her father, Dan Petrie, directed the classics A Raisin in the Sun and Fort Apache The Bronx, and her brother, Dan Jr., wrote Beverly Hills Cop.

The Battersbys are very much Sarasota’s film power couple of the moment, their main competition being Mark and Jennie Famiglio over at the Sarasota Film Festival. They preside over a mini-studio that’s making movies all over town. At Servandos the other night, they had the premiere of one of the student films that was filmed in the restaurant’s kitchen. And former U.S. Congressman Katherine Harris—one of the film program’s staunchest behind-the-scene backers—let them film a period drama at her bayfront French-style mansion. She even got her own director’s chair, from which she watched every shot.

Now I’m trying to figure out how to get in on the excitement. I’ve offered the use of my condo in Palm Aire just in case the students have a film about Canadian snowbirds in the works. And I’ve sent Brad and June my resumé. I have an idea I want to pitch. It’s about a gossip columnist stuck in a little Florida town. Not too much action, but it’s full of emotion, longing and despair. And it doesn’t have a single breast in it.

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