It’s hard to imagine what being stranded in a boat with a Bengal tiger has to do with the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. It turns out their connection runs straight through the Creative Arts Department at SF State.

Alumni David Gropman and Ethan Van der Ryn have each been nominated for film’s highest honor for their respective work on the critically-acclaimed blockbusters “Life of Pi” and “Argo.”

Gropman is nominated for Best Production Design for “Life of Pi,” director Ang Lee’s meditative take on the tale of young boy stranded at sea with a tiger as his sole companion.

Van der Ryn is nominated for Best Sound Editing for his work on “Argo,” director Ben Affleck’s dramatization of the harrowing rescue of six American diplomats taken hostage in Iran.

Van der Ryn’s path to Oscar gold was a slippery one. One chilly morning as an 18-year-old freshman studying science at UC Santa Cruz, Van der Ryn lost control of his car, crashed into a telephone poll and went right through the windshield.

As a result, he took a year-and-a-half off from school and in that time, had an epiphany.

“Life is too precious to spend any time doing anything that isn’t really in your heart,” Van der Ryn said.

He always had a love for film, but instead decided to pursue a career in oceanography; an idea he was never too convinced of. He eventually enrolled at SF State and completed his degree in cinema.

“We only have one life and it’s a fairly tenuous relationship we have with this earth,” Van der Ryn said.

Van der Ryn’s nomination for “Argo” marks his fifth, having already won twice before in 2003 for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and in 2006 for “King Kong.”

“I decided that I was not going to pay attention,” Gropman, a ‘74 drama graduate, said of the early morning announcements and the wake-up call that every filmmaker hopes to get on nomination day. Gropman had been nominated once before in 2000 for “The Cider House Rules.” It was a nomination that took him completely by surprise.

However, Gropman understands all too well the sting of not receiving that early morning phone call after he was overlooked for his work on 2008’s “Doubt,” a film for which many insiders had pegged him as a sure bet contender.

“You can’t spend your life or even your morning thinking about it,” Gropman said.

Despite his best efforts to sleep through it, Gropman and his wife found themselves jet lagged and wide awake come the 5:30 a.m. announcements.

By 5:40 a.m., a restless Gropman was lying in bed and figured that he once again failed to make the short list. Just as sleep started to feel like a real possibility, a friend called excitedly informing Gropman of his nomination.

“It makes your entire orbit of family and friends so proud,” Gropman said.

As a drama student at SF State, Gropman dreamed of nothing more than a life in the theater. While completing his bachelor’s degree, he dabbled in set design for several school productions.

He went on to the Yale School of Drama and earned a master’s degree in theater design. He eventually started to make a name for himself in New York City’s famed theater scene and designed the set for legendary director Robert Altman’s Off-Broadway play “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

It was a collaboration that would change the course of Gropman’s career. Altman hired him to design the set for the play’s film adaptation and the rest is celluloid history.

“To find myself working with him was pretty incredible,” Gropman said. “It’s a great way to start in film.”

Aside from their SF State connection and distinguished careers in Hollywood, Gropman and Van der Ryn have another thing in common: neither expects to win.

“I try to convince myself that it’s not going to happen for us,” Van der Ryn said.

Gropman feels similar butterflies at the thought of possibly hearing his name called and having to give a 30 second speech in front of Hollywood’s elite and the billions watching around the world.

“God forbid I have to walk up on that stage,” Gropman said.

SF State cinema chair Daniel Bernardi feels differently. He knows exactly who he will be rooting for on Oscar night.

“I’m going to root for every alumni who is nominated for an Academy Award,” Bernardi said. “I want to brag. It’s my job as chair.  I want to brag about how great my film school is and how great the alumni are.”

The Academy Awards air live on ABC, Feb. 24 at 5 p.m.

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Jonathan Ramos

Jonathan Ramos

  • ed graczyk

    It is Ed Graczyk’s play “Come Back To The 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” NOT Robert Altman’s. It was also produced ON Broadway not Off-Broadway. Get your facts straight.