Vassar Today

In a Time Machine Vassar is All Male

By Jessica Winum

If you plan to see the remake of the 1960 classic film The Time Machine when it arrives in theaters at the end of this year, don’t be late. You’ll miss seeing Vassar on the big screen playing the part of all-male, turn-of-the-19th-into-20th century Columbia University.

filming of time machine
filming of time machine

Danny Swerdlow '01 gets a 19th-century cut in preparation for his stint as
an extra in the film The Time Machine. Scenes for the movie
were shot on campus in February.

DreamWorks SKG, the Hollywood-based production company, brought lights, cameras, and plenty of action to campus for three freezing February days to film the first two scenes of The Time Machine. The movie features Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Rules of Engagement) as a young professor who builds a time machine and travels thousands of years into the future and is based on Herbert G. Wells’ 1895 novel of the same name. It is directed by his great-grandson Simon Wells, who also directed The Prince of Egypt and An American Tale: Fievel Goes West. Jeremy Irons (Die Hard: With a Vengeance) and Phillip Bosco (Shaft) also star.

New England Building–with a few new coats of paint and some authentic artifacts in the bookcases, for which DreamWorks foot the bill–and the lawn in front of Rockefeller, the setting of the second scene, needed only authentically-clad extras milling around in the deep background to recreate Columbia for filmmakers’ purposes. And Vassar could provide those too.

More than a hundred students, faculty, and administrators donned corsets, top hats, long wool skirts, three-piece suits, and dainty shoes and proceeded to walk up and down stairs, or back and forth on the street–just for the chance, said Ian Saginor ’01, "of being able to see myself [on screen], if only for a brief second." Other students spent time as production assistants and had the opportunity to learn on the job what filmmaking is really all about.

classroom scene
classroom scene

Vassar College, 21st century, portrays Columbia University, 19th century.
More than one hundred students, faculty, and administrators were outfitted
with authentic clothes of the era for three days of filming. For women, this
included the eye-popping necessity of donning corsets.

For the most part, they learned, it’s about waiting. "We spent about 25 minutes actually doing the scene," said Director of Grounds Jeff Horst, who was appropriately cast as a groundskeeper. "Otherwise, I spent three days, for a total of 34 hours minus the 25 minutes waiting in Kenyon or the Villard Room or Main lobby, or a van. . . ."

The lag time allowed for some true liberal arts reflection on what life might have been like in the early part of the 20th century.

"The corset was the biggest eye opener for me," said Julia Van Develder, editorial director for the Office of College Relations. Two days in Victorian garb left Van Develder with "enormous respect for the accomplishments of 19th-century women. But it also led me to think about how clothing can be, both literally and symbolically, a form of social control. The corset is a fairly efficient means of keeping women ‘in their place.’ "

Those involved in the filming also got a glimpse of what life is like for industry professionals. "They had all of these tables set up in Kenyon for people to sit down and eat, and half the tables had cloths and flowers and real silverware, and 10 different desserts," reported Van Develder. "We started to sit down there, and we were quickly told that we were not to sit there; that food line and those tables were for the production crew. The extras had a noticeably scaled-down version." Mostly, she says, they ate doughnuts.

women in film
women in film
Life beyond the filming also had its frustrations. While the production company did its best to respect the daily life of the college, 21st-century cars and clothing could not make unexpected appearances in the movie. Consequently, campus security and production assistants blocked off several parking lots, closed roads, and rerouted foot traffic. To alleviate inconvenience, DreamWorks supplied a bus, which shuttled displaced staff and administrators to an off-campus lot. Filming in New England displaced students and faculty for one day, but all were accommodated by the registrar in other campus locations. To help compensate for the inconvenience of hosting Hollywood, DreamWorks paid the college a standard location fee of several thousand dollars that will fund further improvements to New England Building and elsewhere.

Waiting, boredom, and uncomfortable clothing aside, most of the community seemed to agree that DreamWorks’ Vassar visit was worth it. Not only was it a great learning experience for all involved, but it was fun too.

"I think that Vassar should try to get a film here about every five years so every class has a shot at being a star," said Adrian Chase ’01, who played an assistant groundskeeper. "Well, a shot, at least, at being an extra."