Photography alumna weeks from stardom

By Assistant Campus Editor

At 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 16, a Columbia alumna was anxiously waiting for a phone call that most filmmakers can only dream about. Caryn Capotosto was about to find out if her film would be nominated for an Oscar. One year after the film’s premiere at the

Sundance Film Festival, “20 Feet from Stardom” will head to Los Angeles March 2 for the 86th Academy Awards. Capotosto, a 1999 alumna, is the associate producer of the Best Documentary Feature nominee. The documentary follows the story of nine backup singers who performed with notable bands and recording artists such as The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger.

Capotosto said she worked on the administrative side of the movie with former A&M Records President and late producer Gil Friesen to figure out what director Morgan Neville needed to carry out his vision. Capotosto was also involved in hiring the crew and renting out filming locations. She said she collected the archival footage used in the film and handled financing for the music that was used. After its Sundance debut, the film was named “Best Documentary” at this year’s Critic’s Choice Awards.

The Chronicle spoke with Capotosto about Columbia, her film and its Oscar nomination.

THE CHRONICLE: How did it feel to hear the film was up for an Oscar?

CARYN CAPOTOSTO: It was so exciting. I couldn’t have imagined that this would have happened. It was such a fun film to work on. It had such good energy surrounding it the whole time because the singers that we worked with were such wonderful people and so giving … [We thought] opening for Sundance was the greatest thing that could have happened, and then The Weinstein Company picked up the film and that was the greatest thing that could happened … It just kept getting better and better. We were just holding our breath to see if it could really make it all the way and we’re all so thrilled.

CC: How did you get the idea for the film?

CAPOTOSTO: The idea for the film came from one of the producers [Gil Friesen] who unfortunately passed away about two weeks before Sundance. He was a music executive and president of A&M Records for many years. I guess he was always wondering about the backup singers throughout his career, and his curiosity finally got the best of him, so he went to Morgan [Neville] and said, “I think there’s something interesting here. Let’s explore this idea and see if we can make a documentary out of it.”

CC: What was the most rewarding part of working on this film?

CAPOTOSTO: I think one of the most rewarding things was just seeing how wonderful it is to finally get the singers the recognition that they have always deserved. They’re just so amazing and talented, and they’ve been here for so long doing what they love and doing it really well that it’s a little frustrating over a whole span of a career when nobody knows your name. People are finally starting to take notice of who they are and what they’ve contributed to music.

CC: What was your experience like while studying at Columbia?

CAPOTOSTO: The Photography Department at Columbia was second to none and it gave me a really good foundation to figure out what I wanted to do in the creative world. From there I went to the University of Chicago for my master’s. There I focused on contemporary art and documentary-style filmmaking.

CC: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers or photographers?

CAPOTOSTO: Learn by doing and make the mistakes because you learn from them. There’s no better way to learn how to make a film than [making a film].