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Jesse Shapira '95: From Shady Side Academy to the Academy Awards

Jesse Shapira '95 sat up in bed at 5:30 a.m. He was wide awake. From his Hollywood Hills apartment, he nervously scanned the Oscar website on his laptop. For the executive producer of Room, this was it - the moment the Academy Award nominations would be announced and the culmination of six months of ups and downs through the film awards season. Buzz had been building for the independent film about a young woman who was kidnapped and imprisoned with her five-year-old son in a shed.

First came the widely-predicted best actress nomination for Brie Larson. Shapira was thrilled, but he hoped for more than one nomination. It wasn't a sure thing, though. After all, Room was the ultimate underdog, a low-budget indie going up against blockbusters like The Martian and The Revenant. Many people - even fans of the Emma Donoghue book on which it was based - hadn't seen the movie because of its disturbing subject matter.

His hopes soared as Donoghue won a best adapted screenplay nomination. Then the best director nomination for Lenny Abrahamson flashed on his computer screen. Seconds later, Shapira shrieked when Room received a best picture nomination. It was an honor he would have never imagined 10 years ago, when he and two friends decided to make movies and no one in Hollywood would return their calls.

From the moment Room earned its fourth nomination on Jan. 14, Shapira's phone vibrated with one congratulatory call after another. But before he talked to anyone in the movie industry, he made a call to Pittsburgh to talk to his parents, Daniel and Barbara Shapira, who had been watching the announcements on TV.

Father, mother and son screamed and cried in unison, pure joy coming through the phone line. "I'm going to take you to the Oscars," he told his mother.

Shapira felt such a debt of gratitude. When he told his parents a decade ago that he wanted to make movies, they didn't roll their eyes or look at him like he was crazy or tell him to get a real job, one that didn't depend on beating ridiculously slim odds.

"To my parents' credit, they stuck by me. I wouldn't be here without them."

Shapira grew up going to the movies every week. His grandmother, Frieda, would take him to the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. It took 20 minutes just to wade through the lobby, because Frieda, a philanthropist whose father co-founded the Giant Eagle grocery chain, would be greeted by dozens of people.

The first movie he saw was Chariots of Fire, and he was hooked. He loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Sting and The Big Lebowski, inhaling the dialogue like molecules of air. "He has a photographic memory as it relates to movies and lines," said his father, Daniel Shapira, an attorney with Marcus & Shapira. In fact, father and son have always entertained themselves by batting movie lines back and forth.

Jesse Shapira got an even better appreciation of film at Shady Side Academy, where his English teacher, Jeff Miller, taught a film class. Miller taught his students to analyze great movies like The Graduate. Shapira loved the class not just for the subject matter but because Miller treated his students like equals.

But Shapira didn't grow up wanting to make movies. The athletic kid dreamed of managing a professional sports team.

Shapira, who attended SSA from kindergarten through twelfth grade, played baseball and stood out as a sprinter on the track and field team.

He had never played football when he got a call from former head football coach Art Walker. The coach was impressed by his athleticism and speed and asked him to try out for the team his senior year. He not only made it - he became running back.

"He took a chance on me," Shapira said. "He got something out of me I didn't know I had. I didn't want to let him down."

His mother Barbara said he would rev himself up before big games. "Whatever he does, he gives it 100 percent."

He stood out enough in his season as a high school quarterback to play football at Colgate University, where he majored in political science. In his last semester of college, he interned for the Steelers and then became a scout for the Buffalo Bills. He liked working with professional sports teams, but it left little room for creativity. It seemed like an ideal job for Shapira when he got a position as the associate producer of Fox Sports News and The Keith Olbermann Evening News.

Then he got a call from his childhood friend, David Gross. They had gone to camp together in Canada and kept in close contact over the years. Gross had relocated from Toronto to Los Angeles and was attending the American Film Institute (AFI). He encouraged Shapira to join him. They had always talked about making movies together. Why not do it now?

So Shapira flew to Los Angeles and enrolled in the AFI in 2005, and the two childhood friends set up a production company in 2008.

They needed a name - and they found the inspiration when Shapira, a self-confessed slob, visited Gross' neat-as-a-pin apartment. Within minutes, Shapira's clothes were on the floor and half-eaten food was strewn around. Gross surveyed the destruction and told his friend that he could only stay with him if he left no trace of his mess in his apartment. "Like no-trace camping," he told Shapira.

"That's it - our name," Shapira said. No Trace Camping production company was born.

The name was the easy part. The hard part was getting their company off the ground. In fact, they were struggling so much in the first two years that their unofficial office was a Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard.

The biggest roadblock was getting anyone to take the two young outsiders seriously in the insular world of Hollywood. But Shapira's family took the dream seriously enough to give No Trace Camping the investment it needed. His father, Daniel Shapira, a corporate attorney who did legal work for Giant Eagle, and his uncle David, the chief executive officer of the supermarket chain, gave Shapira both financial backing and business advice.

"It wasn't like, 'Here's the money,'" Jesse Shapira said. "I had to have a plan to be successful. Giant Eagle is not a flashy company. The reason I am successful is that they were extremely critical of decisions - in a good way. They gave us guidance on managing our business and finances" so Gross and Shapira could make good movies while returning the investment to funders.

But before they could get investors, they needed a good idea. "That is the hardest thing to do," said Jeff Arkuss, the third partner of No Trace Camping and Shapira's friend from Colgate. Jesse is constantly thinking of ideas of what would be a good movie. He has a real curiosity about the world."

Shapira plucked his first idea from his childhood going to Penguin hockey games. He would cringe as tough-guy goons from the opposing teams attacked superstar Mario Lemieux. "It got me so angry," he said. That got him thinking – who are these goons, these players who are not gifted hockey players but are ferocious with their fists? What makes them tick?

That question became the genesis of his company's first movie, Goon.

They got their big break when Shapira met Evan Goldberg, a screenwriter who had worked with Seth Rogen on big hits such as Knocked Up and Superbad. He agreed to co-write the screenplay for Goon, an R-rated comedy, with Jay Baruchel.

"We got lucky that the first movie was well-received. We made enough money to pay all of our investors back," Shapira said. "It gives you momentum to move forward... It's part luck, part skill, a lot of banging your head against the wall."

They went on to make What If, an indie romance/comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.

Then came their breakout movie, Room. Shapira and his partners got wind that author Emma Donoghue had already teamed up with a director to turn her 2010 best-selling novel into a film. Shapira, Gross and Arkuss aggressively chased the project. They landed a role as co-producers and co-financiers with an Irish production company.

When the time came for casting, luck was on their side. Brie Larson took on the role of the young mother. The other lead would play a five-year-old who had never seen the world outside that room. The company did an extensive search throughout North America to find the right boy for the part, ultimately casting gifted child actor Jacob Tremblay.

"Jacob's performance changed everything," Shapira said. "Without him, there was no movie."

With a child actor in practically every scene, they had a limit on how many hours they could shoot. They also had to manage finances carefully for a movie that wouldn't be a box office smash.

"It wasn't like Ironman where you throw money at special effects. We had to be thoughtful and careful."

Shapira adored the actors and the director. "But not in a million years did we think we would end up with an Oscar nomination. If you would have told me that, I would have said, 'You are out of your mind.' But the beauty of movie making, you never know what is going to happen.'"

Shapira and his partners knew the movie was extraordinary. Despite the depressing subject matter, the movie managed to be uplifting, depicting the strong bond between mother and son and ending on a hopeful note.

The movie grossed $15 million domestically, making it profitable for a low-budget movie.

As word spread about Larson's and Tremblay's remarkable performances, No Trace Camping had to make sure it came to the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the Golden Globes. They scheduled screenings and events and dinner parties with appearances by the actors. But the tiny production company faced an uphill battle.

"You're going against gigantic films that spend 20 times more on their Oscar campaigns," Gross said.

February 28, 2016, was the day of the 88th Academy Awards ceremony. It was surreal. Shapira and his partners were whisked to the Dolby Theater in a car, and even though Shapira had the flu, he was so excited to be sharing this moment with his two best friends. They stepped out of the car and walked on the red carpet and took in all the movie stars.

As it turned out, Shapira couldn't get a ticket for his mother, so he did the next best thing - he FaceTimed his parents during the event to let them in on the experience. "This is actually happening," he told them.

Then he settled in his seat and watched Chris Rock give the monologue. The highlight of the ceremony was Brie Larson's win for best actress. It was the only Oscar for Room, but for Shapira, to be included as one of the eight best films of the year was a victory.

Despite the success, "he has not let any of it go to his head," said his father Daniel. "He is still the regular kid, still humble. There is not a shred of arrogance."

The four Oscar nominations have, however, changed his professional life. People in the industry have been more aggressive about bringing projects to No Trace Camping.

Currently, they are working on two new movies: a sci-fi movie in the vein of True Romance, and a film adaptation of Inside the O'Briens, a novel about Huntington's Disease and genetic testing. They also have shot a sequel to Goon called Goon: Last of the Enforcers, directed by Jay Baruchel.

Shapira hopes there is another Oscar nomination in his future so that he can make good on his promise to take his mother to the ceremony. Until that happens, he is still relishing his trip to the Oscars. "I don't know when it will sink in. My wildest dreams did not include going to the Academy Awards."

by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography provided by Jesse Shapira
Published in the Summer 2016 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine