August 2019, San José’s Coyote Valley: The Spartan Studios film crew awakened at 2 a.m. to prepare for a sunrise shoot of “Breakfast,” a film adaptation of one of John Steinbeck’s short stories.
They only had a few hours to set up camp, ready the old-fashioned stove and capture the dozen or so lines of dialogue that compose the story, which is rumored to have inspired Steinbeck’s masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The story, which is excerpted from “The Long Valley,” depicts a man walking alone in the wilderness when he comes upon a migrant camp before sunrise. A young mother busies herself over a stove while nursing an infant, frying bacon and baking biscuits. Two men emerge from a tent to join her for breakfast, and upon noticing the stranger, invite him to join them.
The short film originated a decade ago, when San José State Film and Theatre Lecturer Nick Martinez, ’02 Radio, Television and Film, shared his vision with SJSU’s Director of Production for Film and Theatre Barnaby Dallas, ’00 MA Theatre Arts. Together they approached Nick Taylor, director of SJSU’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, and English Professor Susan Schillinglaw, with the idea to acquire the rights to the story.
“Steinbeck fits so much beauty and symbolism in three-and-a-half pages,” said Martinez, who is also co-founder and director of Spartan Studios. “It’s a first-person story, and he didn’t write many first-person stories. The more I researched it, the more I thought, he probably wrote it this way because it happened to him. That means I had an opportunity to put Steinbeck on screen.”
Martinez, the film’s director, worked with producers Dallas and Jessica Olthof, ’13 RTVF, of Roann Films, to shoot in summer 2019. Assistant Professor of Film and Theatre Andrea Bechert served as the production designer, Film and Theatre Lecturer Cassandra Carpenter was responsible for wardrobe and costumes, and Costume Shop Manager and Costuming for Theatre Arts Instructor Debbie Weber, ’83 Theatre Arts, was responsible for the student costume and makeup teams on the days of shooting.
“It was the thrill of my career at SJSU to be able to collaborate with Nick, the faculty, staff and students on this film,” said Dallas. “Steinbeck has been and always will be my favorite author.”
The film was funded by Spartan Film Studios, the Film and Theatre Department, and fundraising efforts of Martinez, Dallas and College of Humanities and the Arts Dean Shannon Miller through Artistic Excellence Grants.
Though the project was completed by early 2020, they waited to release it until spring 2021. “Breakfast” premiered in late April at the Beverly Hills Film Festival.
“Adaptation is never easy,” said Film and Theatre Department Chair Elisha Miranda. “Dallas and Martinez did a good job of taking Steinbeck’s intentions during a very different time to create an educational piece of media. The synergy — not just from theatre to film but between faculty, staff and students — is critical to our department and the collaborative nature of the film industry.
“We look forward to more of these productions with our student directors and filmmakers at the helm, which is true to the mission of our department and implemented through our department production entity, Spartan Films,” Miranda added.
“When you always put the students first, and you put great staff and faculty together, San José State is unstoppable,” said Martinez.
“Breakfast” will run the film festival circuit for the rest of the year, with screenings on campus and events through the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. Martinez said they hope to make it available free of charge to educators who plan to incorporate it into lesson planning.