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Alumnus talks Oscars

Feb. 23, 2001

BY KAREN KALB

Entertainment Editor

Though he wasn't always exposed to Oscar-nominated arthouse films while a student at Baylor, Orian Williams is now making them.

The telecommunications graduate recently saw the film he co-produced, Shadow of the Vampire, nominated for two Academy Awards -- a best supporting actor nod for Willem Dafoe and a nomination for best makeup artistry.

'I always dreamed of having a film participate in the Academy Awards, and now I'm living that dream,' Williams said. 'Willem totally deserves the nomination. He put so much into the role and he gave everything he had to give life to Max Schreck once again.'

Shadow of the Vampire fictionalizes the making of German silent classic, Nosferatu. In an effort to make his horror film more authentic, Director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) has hired a real vampire in the form of Max Shreck (Willem Dafoe) for the role of Count Orlock. Throughout, Murnau struggles between his desire for cinematic realism and the cast's safety.

Williams and E. Elias Merhige, the film's director, came across the script through actor Nicolas Cage. After seeing Merhige's earlier student production Begotten, he knew the script and team would be a perfect marriage. Almost four years later, the film was released.

'I more or less stuck my head into everything that was going on,' Williams said. 'A couple years later we started shooting.'

Studying telecommunications led to Williams taking theater classes as an undergraduate. He said the acting was purely a creative endeavor.

Though avant-garde films were not always available for viewing in Waco theaters, Williams said he gained knowledge of them through his classes and British film publications.

'I'd read about films and bands, a lot of things not a lot of people would find in Waco,' he said.

He said he knew he wanted to make movies after seeing the film Bladerunner.

'It had an aesthetic to it,' Williams said. 'It exposed me to a work of other motion pictures.'

Williams graduated from Baylor in 1990 with a degree in telecommunications and a minor in business. Though he had this background in film, Williams said he never pictured himself as a producer. He moved to Los Angeles after graduating to pursue acting.

'My major helped me. I had a little bit of insight into film, radio and TV, at least enough about it to get a job,' he said.

In addition to the degree, Williams said encounters with other alumni helped his burgeoning career. One of the first agents he worked with was also a Baylor graduate.

Williams did a lot of career jumping before producing. He was an extra in the films Get Shorty and Strange Days, and was a production assistant for Scream 2.

'It pays the bills until you get your dream job,' Williams said.

While producing Shadow of the Vampire, Williams even landed a non-speaking role in the film.

'In many ways what that did was give me a position within the cast that made me the eyes and ears,' Williams said.

Working with several of Hollywood's most celebrated actors was a surreal experience, Williams said. He said that when he and Merhige put together a wish list of actors for the film, Malkovich and Dafoe were at the top. On the seven-month shoot in Europe, Williams recalls the two actors bringing a great professionalism and humor to the set.

'You're almost like a bystander, like this is too good to be true,' Williams said. 'To be shut in with these big guys, it was a wonderful ensemble, very bizarre.'

His role as a producer, however, was not as one of bystander. He said his job involved being an answer man, a morale keeper on the set and trying to help bring the director's vision to the screen.

'The producer is involved on every level,' he said.

He hopes that other filmmakers won't limit their product based on money.

'We're creating worlds, and that's a huge responsibility,' he said. 'It's such a hard thing to get a movie made, we should not limit our thoughts or ideas based on budgets.'

Williams is currently hoping to work on another project with Merhige. He said that during this interview, three scripts were brought to his desk.

'They're bringing projects to us from some of the most amazing writers on the planet,' he said.