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Matthew Arnold, Producer/director

This article first appeared in issue 18, and was written by Ed Waggener.

He went on his own to follow a dream in California. A year-and-a-half later, hard work + a little luck have put him on Hollywood's inside track

"This is a business about connections," says Matthew Arnold, first year graduate student at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Video Arts.

Arnold, the son of Dr. Ben and Margaret Arnold, Columbia, is one of 15 students working toward an MA in the graduate Film Production. Counting the 25 students who have chosen the MFA side, the program admitted a total only 40 students this fall.

It may seem that his chosen career was cut out for him at Woodbridge High School in Irvine, California. "I knew pretty strongly in high school that I wanted to be in film. I had a group of friends who made short strips. I guess that was my favorite activity."

But with a high school diploma from Woodbridge, and with the family back in Kentucky, young Arnold followed in his father's footsteps, majoring in physics at the Centre College of Kentucky. It was in his senior year of college, when he needed a project for his physics major that filmmaking reentered his life. "I proposed shooting a film," he says, "and the department accepted it. After all, filmmaking is physics."

The film was a 40-minute video. Arnold did it all: Writing, editing, producing, raising the money for the project, and videographing the film. The product, Suspicious Minds, played to a packed house and got enthusiastic reviews by his classmates at Center.

With a Bachelor of Science degree from center, he applied to graduate film school at USC. But he was turned down on this try. USC does not interview students, but uses a mathematical scoring for admissions based on all the applicant's records. Subjective ratings for other factors are reduced to a mathematical component. His only option , if he wanted to go to graduate school, was to reapply and make the best of the intervening time.

For a time, Arnold kicked around, waiting tables at his parent's Cafe Columbia, or with the family's other business enterprises, including the Columbian Theater, his only real movie job since helping Robbie Henson make Pharoah's Army at Perryville. His title for that job was production assistant/location manager. And he doesn't know whether he got his name in the credits or not. The film was produced by Henson's Cicada Films/Sinkhole Productions, and is distributed by Orion. Robby Henson is the son of Eben Henson of Pioneer Playhouse in Danville. That work did offer Matt to make connections, including meeting the film's star, actor Kris Kristofferson.

"My father has this philosophy," Arnold said. "He thinks that if you want something bad enough, you go after it yourself." He added, "He also believes that hardships build character."

The hardships for Arnold came the second summer out of Center. On the hottest day of the year, Dr. Arnold sent him to clear brush from the orchard. "I remember it struck me to go after my dream," he recalls. "I was out there in that orchard, cutting grass with a sling blade-some folks call it a Kaiser blade, I call it a sling blade-and I was dripping wet with sweat. I had blisters, and I was itching from the grass. I said to myself: It has to be better than this. I am going to follow my dream. I am going to California."

He did.

For a month, he lived in a friend's kitchen. "I had a cardboard box desk and a cardboard couch," he says. He was able to quickly break into the movie industry, with Blockbuster Video. He was clerk in one of their stores. He moonlighted with a temporary service, and they got him a job with New Regency Films. "This got me close to the movie lots and I became expert at sneaking onto film sets."

His main goal was to meet Quentin Tarantino. "I'm a great fan of Quentin Tarantino-Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Natural Born Killer. He's a pop icon for my generation. Post-modern. People my age-23-like his work.

"I really didn't think it would be possible to meet Tarantino, but it was worth a try. I was working in the office, but I'd sneak out on the movie lots at Universal Studios. I thought, 'If I have the balls to sneak in, I'd just go in and talk to the office manager."

He did.

"I B.S.'ed him and got a second interview," Arnold remembers. And in the second interview, the office manager said. "By the way, we just lost an intern. Would you be interested in that?"

Arnold jumped at the chance. As an intern, he got to read scripts and suggest story edits. They were reading a script for Good Will Hunting. Now out, the film is about a really brainy guy who is a janitor at a college. A physics professor, played by Robin Williams, is in the habit of writing problems for his class on the board the night before lectures, but he is surprised each morning to find all the problems solved. The janitor is working them.

"I looked at the problems they were going to have on the board and I saw that originally, they weren't really physics problems and that they weren't current. I wrote some problems they could use instead. Producer Lawrence Bender liked the changes and thanked me for them. They used my ideas in the movie.

"After I did that, I told them I wanted to be on the set. They said that was unlikely, but I kept bugging them. After awhile they said they had gotten me an interview for the position. In the film business, it's really connections. I had a feeling some strings had been pulled because of my work on the script and that 'interview' really meant ''hired.'"

He was interviewed at the office on the set for Jackie Brown. "I did get the job," he said, but I was working for nothing again, and I still had the jobs at Blockbuster and at the temporary agency.

Again, he wanted to move up. His next step was to lobby for a job as an assistant director on the Jackie Brown set. It worked. "I was hired. I was building steps. I had worked hard in the production office and I got to move to the office on the set, and then onto the set itself, full time, in the production area. Everything seemed to be working. They feed the crew in the production area, and that meant I could quit sustaining myself on frozen yogurt. That was a great perk. And, while the pay was no pay or minimum pay for the other work, on the lot they pay really well. For me, it was up to $1,000 a week. What they didn't know is that I would have paid to do the work. It was pure heaven for me."

Things had been going so well that he had practically forgotten the reapplication he had made to USC for the Fall '97 term. He was so busy working in movies, working with Quentin Tarantino, on Jackie Brown, it was totally out of mind. On the set, he was able to meet Robert DeNiro, Michael Keaton, Bridget Fonda, and Pam Grier, who has the title role. The script, based on the novel Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard, was written by Tarantino.

When the letter came from the University of Southern California, he didn't know whether to open it and risk ruining a perfect day. He could eat. He was getting paid big bucks. He was able to understudy Tarantino. He could be with the stars. "At first I thought I wouldn't open it and run the risk of knowing of a second rejection. But in a few moments, I decided I could handle anything. After all," he said, "Tarantino had told me that formal schooling in film making was just an option, not a prerequisite for success in the business. So I opened the letter, and I was in."

Arnold is now a part of the Tarantino social circle, even getting to meet Tarantino's current romantic interest, actress Mira Sorvino.

Making connections is now much, much easier than it was a year ago. And he's found that Tarantino, who is from Knoxville, is a real help in advancing his career. Maybe, he says when asked-maybe he'll be doing films in Adair County one day. "I'd love that," he says. And if he could direct his sisters-the younger one, Lizzie, has often been likened to Sophia Loren-well, that would be great, too.

He says that his mixed ethnicity background-half city boy and half country boy-gives him a better perspective than if he hailed from just one of those cultures. "I was born in Boston. I grew up in California.. But we spent as much time as possible here at Egypt, so my background is really varied."

He's not breaking totally new ground as far as the family is concerned. Adair Countian Phil Combest, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Reed Combest, former Columbians, is a screen writer in Studio City, CA. Combest wrote several scripts for Hill Street Blues and McGyver. Combest is a cousin of Arnold's. "After I found out that Matt really wanted to go into the movies," Dr. Ben Arnold said in another interview, "I called Cousin Phil and invited him to dinner at the Polo Room at the Beverly Hilton. While we were there, Ringo Starr walked through and Matt was really excited. He is a great Ringo Starr fan. Phil was really helpful, too."

That was over a year ago. Now, when famous entertainers are introduced to a member of the Arnold family, most likely it will be Matthew Arnold doing the honors.

This story was posted on 1997-12-24 12:01:01
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Archive Photo

1997-12-24 - Photo Staff. MATT ARNOLD, MIRA SORVINO, & QUENTIN Tarrantino after the completion of Jackie Brown.This item first appeared in Issue 18 of the print edition of Columbia! Magazine.
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