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The graduate

Local filmmaker heads to Hollywood for the Student Academy Awards

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Sean Overbeeke - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

Sean Overbeeke's short film Christmas Wish List is poised to win the Student Academy Award in Los Angeles on June 10. But as we talked over coffee in Durham one morning last week, the film that really interested him was The Da Vinci Code, which he was going to be seeing in a sneak preview later in the day.

"What do you think it will make this weekend?" he asks me, suggesting a future cup of coffee as a wager. I pull a mad money figure out of thin air: $120 million. Overbeeke widens his eyes, but then bets me it'll be $80 million.

Perhaps by the time Overbeeke comes to collect his bet, the 25-year-old Connecticut native will have won either the gold, silver or bronze prize of $6,000, $4,000 or $2,000 at the Student Academy Awards. He's already in the money, being one of three finalists (the other two are both filmmakers from Columbia University). Along with the cash, the winning film will be considered for the big league Oscars next year. Past winners of this award include Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis and South Park co-creator Trey Parker.

Christmas Wish List, which preceded feature screenings in a Chapel Hill theater last winter, is a tender and sentimental holiday tale about an arrogant businessman who tries to bully his way into the affections of a young physician while forced to spend Christmas Eve in a "podunk town" that looks an awful lot like Chapel Hill. While its true-meaning-of-Christmas theme is familiar, Overbeeke's film never becomes cloying or sanctimonious, and he provides a genuinely pleasing resolution that shows a poker player's gift for hiding a winning hand until the showdown.

Overbeeke came to filmmaking relatively late, while a student at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He began school planning to study cell biology, but gravitated to the school's film club. His first effort was called Sam, and it tells the story of a puppet squirrel who cheats on his (human) girlfriend. While the film is unmistakably collegiate in its enthusiasms, Overbeeke demonstrates an easy familiarity with film language, concise dialogue and the timing of jokes. (The film can be seen online at www.YouTube.com.)

The success of Sam convinced Overbeeke to begin studying film. He transferred to UNC after his uncle, a filmmaker in Chapel Hill, asked for his help in finishing his own feature effort. After another lively collegiate short, Skip Rogerson, Extreme Walker, Overbeeke turned his attention to a film that would be a viable professional calling card.

The resulting film, Christmas Wish List, is in the middle of a splendid run. After winning the UNC student film contest last fall, Overbeeke has won awards at festivals in New York and Los Angeles and shown his film in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. Lately, he's been getting feelers from a festival in Sydney, Australia.

Overbeeke is, for the time being, unburdened by the things that distract too many student filmmakers: too many influences and a need to visually quote everything from Orson Welles to David Fincher, or to duplicate the mediocrities already in theaters. Instead of citing something fancy, Overbeeke offers a change-up when asked to cite a favorite film: The Burbs, with Tom Hanks. The title brings a smile to his face and he recites a line from the film: "'I hate cul de sacs. The people are weird and there's only one way out.'"

"That's my favorite line ever!"

Indeed, not only are Overbeeke's cinematic references disarmingly modest, he doesn't even watch television (excepting the games of the Carolina Hurricanes--who were once, agreeably enough for this Connecticut native, the Hartford Whalers). "I don't like shows with a lot of cliffhangers and a lot of commercials. I'm bored by it--I'd rather be making films."

It's clear from Overbeeke's work that he has a natural gift for storytelling. "I like films that have strong characters and a strong resolution," Overbeeke says. "I like to walk out of the theater feeling better, or at least walk out thinking about the world differently."

Overbeeke just earned his bachelor's degree from UNC and recently bought a condo in Chapel Hill. He's the rare college grad who doesn't feel pressure to either go to law school or move to Portland and serve coffee. Instead, he's planning to spend the next few months continuing to promote Christmas Wish List. Meanwhile, he's rewriting a script that he originally wrote three years ago in Connecticut. He's being discreet about the project, called Pike's, but it's a feature comedy about a pair of airport parking valets. Although it's set in Connecticut, he hopes to shoot most of it in North Carolina.

Although Overbeeke is spending a lot of time on the road promoting a very successful film, he isn't planning to relocate. "You can make movies anywhere. You don't have to be in L.A. If someone asks me to make film elsewhere, I would just come back when I'm done," he says.

Overbeeke hastens to add that he's "not there yet."

Maybe not, but he will be in Los Angeles on June 10 to find out whether he'll get to say the immortal words, "I'd like to thank the Academy...."

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