Behind the Scenes of Car Dogs: Students, Stars & Cars in the Valley of the Sun

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People notice different things when they watch a movie for the first time. Perhaps it’s the all-star cast or a relatable storyline. Maybe it’s a homegrown vibe — they recognize the location of a scene or the name of a classmate in the credits. “Car Dogs” will likely combine all of the above for ASU students when it premieres on Friday, March 24.

Production still from the set of Car Dogs

The movie, which was filmed in Phoenix, features an award-winning cast including George Lopez, Patrick J. Adams, Josh Hopkins, Nia Vardalos and Octavia Spencer, but it also gave 85 ASU film students and 15 recent alumni the opportunity to work on the set through ASU’s Film Spark program.

The program is the brainchild of Adam Collis, a prolific film professor at ASU and director of “Car Dogs.” Since its inception in 2009, Collis has connected students with four Oscar winners, five Oscar nominees, three studio chiefs and the presidents of the Academy and the Directors Guild.

Students learn feature filmmaking from an Oscar-winning cast and crew,” says Collis. “There’s not another university in the country that accomplished that, certainly not at that level with a cast as prestigious, and it was really a great pleasure to be able to give that to students.”

One of those students is Lisa Vargas, who served as George Lopez’s assistant throughout the production process. Prior to “Car Dogs,” she had only worked on student films.  

“Now I’m coming up to the whole full Hollywood production down the street from my house. This is my first feature production credit and it’s with big names like this,” she says. “To be given the opportunity humbles you, to be taught by your professors, getting an experience while you’re getting an education is absolutely amazing.”

Collis says that Film Spark was born out of the culture of innovation at ASU.

Adam Collis and Josh Hopkins

“I am living proof and Film Spark is living proof that ASU really is the No. 1 ranked school in innovation by U.S. News and World Report, above MIT and Stanford. That’s a big deal,” he says. “But I’m here to attest to it — that’s not just some accolade. This opportunity to do something really different within the independent film space would not be here today were it not for ASU, the culture of innovation that it is, and (president) Michael Crow and what he’s created.”

Film Spark didn’t stem from a large amount of resources or funding. In the beginning, it was simply Collis connecting his film students with Hollywood professionals through guest speakers, video conferences and small projects.  

“It was just stuff we were doing because we were inspired by the culture of innovation, because it was fun to do this for my students,” he says. “That was before ‘Car Dogs,’ before we were even on President Crow’s or ASU’s radar. I had just inadvertently sort of gone on this mission to connect my students with working Hollywood professionals.”

Jacob Pinholster ran the Herberger Institute School of Theatre and Film at the time and approached Collis about expanding the curriculum.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Adam, we’re the fastest growing program in the biggest school in the country, which effectively makes you the fastest growing film program in the country. We’ve got to get students on film sets in order to give them real working set experience in order for them to graduate,’” he explains.

Wendy Crawford (top left) and Nia Vardalos (bottom center) pose with ASU students.

As a joke, Collis mentioned making a feature film to accommodate all of the film students’ graduation requirements.

According to Collis, Pinholster looked at him and said, “Got a script?”

The rest is Hollywood history. Collis reached out to former student Mark King, who had shared a short film script with him several years prior. The script was loosely based on King’s experience growing up in Scottsdale and working at a car dealership.

“I called Mark and I’m like, ‘Hey do you want to make a movie somewhat based on the story of your life in your hometown with students from your alma mater?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, of course,’” recalls Collis.

The main character, Mark (Patrick J. Adams), is an honest, hard-working sales manager at an Arizona auto dealership who is tasked with the seemingly impossible task of motivating his team to sell 300 cars by the end of the day. As the story unravels, it becomes clear that there is a lot more at stake, including Mark’s morality.

“Fundamentally, the movie is about a dude and his team of dudes that have to make an impossible sales number before the end of the day,” outlines Collis. “It’s also an inside look at a world that everybody can relate to. Everybody in America has bought a car. This is an American rite of passage. There’s nothing as American, aside from baseball and apple pie… it’s an emotional touch point for everyone. Whether it was a good experience or a bad experience, everybody wants to know, did they get played? Did they get a good deal? ‘Car Dogs’ is the film that will tell you whether you got played or you got a good deal.”

Collis contends that “Car Dogs” is the first movie to ever get the car business right — an accurate behind-the-scenes survey of how car dealerships operate from someone who grew up in that universe. It is a story about “car dogs” — an old industry term for car salesmen who know all the tricks of the trade — written by someone who’s been there.

“I think a big part of the story is that Arizona story we’re trying to tell, a guy who grew up in Scottsdale, making a movie about a car dealership like the one he grew up working at,” he says.

Lisa Vargas with Patrick J. Adams

“A big part of what we’re trying to do is get Arizona going…we think this could be a shining example of what can happen in Arizona to attract Hollywood movies to our state.”

Collis also believes that “Car Dogs” is the trailblazer for a new era of independent film.

“I think there’s a bigger story, even beyond the professional immersion opportunities that our students are getting,” he says. “What if we could help other film schools across the country learn how to do this in their communities? And what if an entirely new independent film ecosystem was born out of the college filmmaking environment, where college filmmakers are sharing feature films with each other and watching them at theaters across the country and creating a creative research and development component? It’s the same way that engineers successfully partner with academic institutions. Could we find a way to do that in the creative space?”

Lisa Vargas with George Lopez

Collis claims that innovation was also a key constituent in the casting choices for the film. He says Christian (George Lopez) was originally envisaged as a cocky, twentysomething Caucasian kid. However, Collis says Lopez was “born to play this part.”

“No one knows how good of a dramatic actor George Lopez is and I think this is going to create huge opportunities for him,” he continues. “Everybody thinks of him as the sitcom, stand-up George…I definitely had people at high levels in Hollywood saying maybe George Lopez wasn’t the right way to go because he comes from a sitcom world. I am super proud of that choice. I had this hunch that he could just kill it.”

Vargas says one of the highlights of working on the film was forming a bond with Lopez, a rapport she says opened a lot of doors for her.

“It was amazing how we got to create a little bit of a friendship, especially when talking about our favorite shows together. Even the experience from working with ‘Car Dogs’ itself led to other opportunities after,” she says. “After ‘Car Dogs,’ I ended up getting another opportunity to cover another one of his films that just premiered because of my experience.”

The comradery and community doesn’t end there. The film was shot at an abandoned car lot and came to life with inventory from local dealerships.

“It’s an incredible community story where everybody rallied around this,” says Collis. “When you find your location, all of a sudden it feels like a vision quest…it’s become real. I hit that location, and I thought ‘This is going to happen now.’”  

Ultimately, Collis believes that “Car Dogs” is “the kindling” that will put Arizona on the map in filmmaking. He hopes to create a similar student opportunity every year.

“It starts here,” he says. “In Arizona, in Phoenix, at ASU.”

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