Washington College produces a winner

Success: How Tamara Tiehel Stedman went from Chestertown student to flight attendant to Academy Award acceptance speech giver.

April 07, 2000|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Up until March 26, Chestertown's Washington College held as its biggest claim to Hollywood fame former student Linda Hamilton, famous for her role as guerrilla mom Sarah Connor in the "Terminator" movies.

But this year's Academy Awards blew Hamilton out of the water when Washington graduate Tamara Tiehel Stedman took home the Oscar for best live-action short film.

Stedman, herself a mom-to-be, took the Oscar stage wearing a spaghetti-strapped silver gown (an original by maternity designer Liz Lange), looking glamorous and giddy. Producer Stedman and director Barbara Schock accepted the award for their work on the 33-minute film "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York," a reality-based "mother/daughter biker comedy."

Bikers in Manhattan, let alone award shows in Hollywood, are a far cry from the world Stedman knew as a lacrosse player and international relations major at Washington College.

"One of the amazing things about this," says Maureen McIntire, vice president and dean of student affairs at Washington College, "is that she did so many things at Washington, but none of them were connected with the theater."

But it was as a senior at Washington in 1985 that the seeds were planted for what grew into an Oscar.

"I took my first film class at Washington," Stedman said recently from her home in Portland, Ore., "and learned what was going on behind the scenes and loved it."

Martin Kabat, now a vice president for a high-tech start-up in Toronto, taught the class.

"I'm shocked that she was so inspired," he says. "It was a very strange class, especially for Washington."

Kabat, who petitioned to start the class because of his own love of film, hoped only that his students would at least begin to understand that there was value to art films other than entertainment.

Stedman got it -- and turned it into a career. But the road was winding. She detoured from movie-making when she graduated in 1986 and went into real estate for three years. She then spent a year as a flight attendant, until a call from her younger sister, Amy Tiehel, helped get Stedman back on track.

"She called me up and said: `What are you doing working as a flight attendant when you want to work in film?' " Stedman says. That and the offer of a job at the small video production company where Tiehel worked in Philadelphia were enough to get Stedman out of the friendly skies and back on her feet in film.

"I always had a sneaking suspicion that I couldn't make a living at it," Stedman says of why she held back. "I thought that was for other people."

She began her work in Pennsylvania as a script editor and writer but after a stint as a production manager realized she "liked being in charge." So, when a friend suggested she apply to the producing program at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Hollywood, she did. In the fall of 1994, she was admitted as one of 28 producing fellows.

Enter Barbara Schock. Schock also was at AFI, as a directing fellow, and both women were asked back for a second year, which allowed them to earn a Masters of Fine Arts at the conservatory if they completed a graduate project.

Schock and Stedman had worked together during their first year and got on well, so when Schock submitted a proposal for her graduate project, she asked Stedman to produce it. "It" became "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York."

The film was inspired when, years ago, Schock's mother came to visit her daughter in Manhattan from her home in Sioux Falls, S.D. Schock happened to live across the street from the New York headquarters of the Hells Angels. Schock's rural-bred mother wouldn't leave the apartment at first but loosened up as the week wore on. Enough, in fact, that she decided to pay a visit to the neighbors across the way.

"I looked over at the clubhouse," Schock says in a phone call from Los Angeles, "and saw [my mother] standing there, looking so proud of herself." She introduced herself to the Hells Angels, told them she'd heard they had a reputation for keeping that block safe and asked them to keep an eye on her daughter.

The real-life Hells Angels became Satan's Disciples in the film to avoid a lawsuit the group threatened when Schock first brought her idea to them. "It was really kind of hairy," she says. "We didn't think we were going to be able to make the film." But after taking a "club" member's advice to fictionalize the motorcycle gang (and even hiring him as an actor and biker casting director of sorts), the group backed off.

They started the film in 1995, completed it in 1998, and sent it out on the festival circuit in the next two years. Last year it won the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, which put it in the running for an Academy nomination, which it earned Feb. 15.

"I just started screaming," Stedman recalls of the moment she heard the news from her husband at 5: 30 that morning. "I told him he'd better not be joking. This was no laughing matter."

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