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Hollywood Frogs

There's no business like show business -- like no business that Kara Harshbarger '95 and a growing number of Frogs know.

By David Van Meter

WALKING DOWN Hollywood Boulevard in July, I saw Groucho Marx first. Then I passed Burt Lancaster.

Telly Savales.
Jerry Lewis.
Bette Midler.

I even walked over the bronze star of the Bee Gees, whom I hadn't seen since their 1976 Saturday Night Fever album cover.

Reaching the front of the Chinese Mann Theater, a camera-toting current of starstruck tourists surrounded me. The sun peeked through their shadows as they searched the sidewalk for the names and hands of the famous, to connect concrete impressions with the people they've only seen on a silver screen and in digital surround sound. A man put his hand where Clint Eastwood's hand once was and smiled. Go ahead, make my day.

Then I saw Kara Harshbarger '96. Tall. Blonde. Kind face. And a movie star something. Honey, isn't that what's her name, the one we saw on HBO the other night? No lie, a couple with one of those disposable yellow cameras snapped her picture, just in case.

Even though Harshbarger is not an actress, I could see their point. Harshbarger is in fact a writer and a director, and if her first film is a flicker of what the future holds, she may one day be sticking her own hands into a slab of wet cement.

The 15-minute "short" film is called A Little Inside, starring 6-year-old Hollywood powerhouse Hallie Kate Eisenberg, who will appear opposite Robin Williams in this winter's Bicentennial Man. In Inside, Harshbarger tells the story of Abby (Eisenberg) and her father Ed (Benjamin King), who share the game of baseball while they cope with the loss of Abby's mother. Harshbarger lets her camera look into the eyes and linger on body language, and her dialogue steals the heart . . .

Abby (tucked in bed, with her father seated at the edge of her bed): Ms. Thompson can't be team mom anymore. Now, Ms. Miller might do it.

Ed: I could do it!

Do what?

Team mom!

You can't be team mom.

Of course I can! I can make that orange Gatorade you like and --

No! The dads get the bats and stuff together. You put the bases out. I can do both . . .

You can't! You're not a mom. Moms do mom stuff. Dads do the Dad stuff, Dad. Then Ed pauses, his eyes soft.

I do the Abby stuff, Abby.

Harshbarger's film was selected for the prestigious Lifetime Women's Film Festival in June, with the film being one of only four shorts chosen out of a pool of thousands. Skewering two of the selections, the Hollywood Reporter lauds Inside . . . "Harshbarger's camera catches the characters in dissonant angles and close-ups, infusing their relationship with affection and humor."

And that is just the beginning for the 24-year old filmmaker. Domestic distribution rights for A Little Inside, perhaps as part of a short film collection, have already been secured by one company, and Harshbarger is negotiating international rights with a New York firm. Even airlines looking for short films for quick flights have expressed interest.

Being a baseball movie, one could call it a triple play. A grand slam. Either way, Harshbarger is just glad to be in the game.

"I'm not even sure where the idea for the film came from," she said. "I printed all this stuff off the Internet about Babe Ruth and baseball and the Yankees, and I didn't even know how to read the stats. People see the short and they say, 'Wow, you must be a big baseball fan,' and I say, 'Ohhh, yeah.' "

The real game plan, Harshbarger admits, is that she simply needed a credit, something with "a beginning and a middle and an end" that was all hers.

"Nobody was going to say, 'Oh, you look like a director' or 'I see you have director qualities,'" she points out. "You have to do something. . . .You have to put your soul up there on a movie screen and hope people accept you."

At the moment, it seems Harshbarger at least has been taken in by Hollywood. An invitation here . . . to the premiere of Entrapment, starring Sean Connery. A special seat there . . . at the MTV Awards, Jim Carrey just a shoulder tap away. Even bouncer-at-the-door entrance into the nightclubs that "they" go to. The buzz that everyone in Hollywood wants -- to be singled out and talked about amid a cast of thousands -- now includes a young filmmaker from TCU. One Hollywood exec saw Inside and said its director had "amazing style." Harshbarger giggles. "It wasn't style. It was the only thing we could do."

She and I walk across Hollywood Boulevard to a white napkin burger joint called the Hamburger Hamlet. The last time Harshbarger was here, she saw Matthew McConnaughey. Today, it's quiet. Just outside the place is a five-story-tall advertisement for the latest Austin Powers film. Inside, there's a watercolor painting advertising Tarzan. Both will be old news in a few weeks. We all wait for what's next, and we forget it as soon as it arrives. It's the same in L.A., only accelerated, and Harshbarger knows this.

That's why she quit her day job. A week before this conversation, she worked as an associate producer on the Warner Bros. lot. She mostly put together Inside in her spare moments.

Now she writes the feature-length screenplay for her baseball movie. In her Santa Monica apartment, she sets her alarm every day and writes until the radio comes on.

If all goes as planned, Eisenberg will again play the lead. Maybe Benjamin King will come back. Perhaps a Sarah Jessica Parker will play the love interest. Maybe successful L.A. producer Brad Hall will produce it. All for the bargain price of $3 million. Harshbarger is clearly excited. But you can see the weight of the opportunity pushing down her optimistic shoulders. Time's ticking.

"Hallie's getting bigger," Harshbarger said. "She's going to grow up quick. Plus, it's as hot around me as it's going to get."

Director Wayne Wang, whose credits include the Joy Luck Club, befriended Harshbarger, telling her to trust her instincts. Yet, wondering if she's doing the right thing can be maddening. It figures; Wang also told her that's why there are no sane directors.

Harshbarger sighs.

"That's the risk of film, injecting life and life savings into a project that may never see the light of a theater projector."

Harshbarger never used to think about what was at stake inside the dust-filled lights of a moviehouse. Growing up in the sleepy town of Keller, just north of Fort Worth, her career choices ranged from ballerina to veterinarian to flutist by the time she reached her senior year of high school. Then came the Keller High School senior class video. A member of the student council, filming fell to Harshbarger.

"I was so upset," Harshbarger said. "I had to go to work at every event instead of getting to be a social butterfly. And then I had to go to this editing bay to put together all the stuff I had taped."

Lights, camera, career change.

"The first day -- I know this makes me sound like such an idiot -- but I became mesmerized by all the buttons and lights that could change all this raw footage into a story with music dropped in.

"I had never thought once about how movies and television shows and music videos were made. Once I saw it, I started telling everyone that I was going to be a director." Harshbarger came to TCU in 1992. A year later, she showed up at the office of a new radio-TV-film faculty member, Richard Allen, telling him she wanted to be a film director. Allen, now with 15 years of Hollywood soap opera and screenplay writing credits, tried to gently direct Harshbarger to other places in the profession, knowing the odds against sitting in a director's chair.

Allen said he lost the argument that day.

"Kara has always known what she wanted to do," he said. "She's a very emotional and sensitive person, and I think movies have always affected her very strongly. She wants more than anything to make people feel the same way."

Before leaving TCU, Harshbarger associate produced The Garden with James Kerwin '95, a film that earned a Telly award. She also directed 10 30-minute episodes of The Round Table, a multi-camera talk show for the City of Fort Worth.

In 1996, Harshbarger loaded up her vision in a U-Haul and drove with her parents across the country to Los Angeles. Her father Rockie is an airline pilot, mother Sue is a manager for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and her younger brother Matt is now in film school at the University of Texas.

"We pulled off the highway in Los Angeles, and at the very first stoplight we came to, I looked out the window and screamed," Harshbarger said. Steven Spielberg -- the most successful Hollywood director of all time -- was in the car next to them.

"I yelled, 'It's a sign! It's a sign!,'" Harshbarger said. "I thought that this was such a cool town. You see famous people everywhere. I quickly learned that was not the case. But it was so uncanny."

Unreal is more like it. Reality quickly set in for Harshbarger, who worked for free her first six months in Los Angeles. Her first job, she interned for a company that may have used film production as a front for something illegal. Her second gig wasn't much better.

"I hate to say this, but my supervisor was the meanest woman I have ever met -- a screamer, all the time, with a lit cigarette in hand at all times."

After two weeks, the yelling smoker asked Harshbarger to sign a one-year contract. "I'm backpedaling at this point, telling her that I may go into another line of work, anything," Harshbarger said. "She told me to get back on my horse and go back to Texas, and that I would never work in this town again."

Harshbarger did work again. By the fall of 1998 -- after begging one of Hollywood's most influential casting directors for a job -- Harshbarger had helped cast Clay Pigeons (starring Vince Vaughn), L.A. Without A Map and Paulie. It was while searching for a child star in the latter that Harshbarger came across the tape of an undiscovered 4-year-old girl from New Jersey.

"I told everyone to stop what they were doing and watch this tape," Harshbarger said. The little girl was Eisenberg.

"After Paulie, I had started working on my short, but Hallie had started doing these huge movies now. But I called her mom and told her I had written this script with Hallie in mind, but she had become so big. Her mother said, 'Kara, she's the same size she was when she did Paulie.' The family is so down to earth. The next day, she called and said, 'We're doing this.'

Even with free star labor, Harshbarger needed at least $30,000 she didn't have to make a short film the conventional way. So she turned to the unconventional:

-- While working on Anywhere but Here, Harshbarger worked with director of photography, Roger Deakins, who had also shot Fargo and Shawshank Redemption. Soon, she became fast friends with his first assistant; he agreed to shoot A Little Inside, providing $10,000 in leftover film from other projects. And they, uh, found a camera for three days.
-- Unable to fill the role of Ed, Harshbarger finally discovered him while exercising one morning on a treadmill and watching television. He was doing a peanut commercial. He waived his salary for a chance to work with Eisenberg.
-- Her apartment became the film's set, with sound and lighting equipment consuming her complex's courtyard, a giant generator humming from the alley.
-- Her parents did all the catering for the three days of filming, the highlight being her mother's famous chicken spaghetti.
-- One of her friends went to a Yankees game in New York, where he scraped together the film's baseball memorabilia, including a life-sized cutout of Babe Ruth.
-- And in the film, there's a picture of Ed's deceased wife holding Abby as an infant. The woman is Harshbarger's roommate, and the baby belongs to one of her neighbors. Harshbarger herself also served as wardrobe director. And the film's producer, Greg Dunigan, doubled as a driver for Eisenberg.

On the morning of filming, a huge truck rumbled into Harshbarger's complex. "I was standing with my father, and I thought the truck was going to interrupt filming," Harshbarger said. "Then I said, 'Oh, Daddy, that's my truck.' It didn't really hit me until then that I was actually going to make a movie."

And risk everything.

"I had a big actress for three days. I had all the money I ever had [$16,000] and debt and then some. I had a whole crew that didn't need to be there. And I had my future."

Day edges into evening as Harshbarger and I drive through the mansion neighborhoods of Beverly Hills. While we wonder who lives behind the hedges -- we were sure only of producer Aaron Spelling's palace and the Playboy Mansion in Bel Air -- I can't help but see Harshbarger as part of this Hollywood wonderland, not a tourist, or on assignment like me.

She belongs here.

She is a Hollywood director.

"I am fascinated by the power of storytelling," Harshbarger said. "Movies create whole new worlds. They change perspectives and attitudes; they can heal." And that, as they say in the biz, is a wrap.