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To the Head of the Class

Steve Gute, a 2001 graduate of San Marino High School, films the receding glaciers in the Arctic for the documentary film “Ice on Fire.” Photos contributed by Steve Gute

The outdated television production studio located on the west side of San Marino High School’s campus is a long way from the world-famous Cannes Film Festival that is held annually in the south of France—10,000 miles, to be semi-exact–but if your name is Steve Gute, you can see it from there. It just might have taken a little while for him to pick it out from amongst all the clutter.

The film business has been a life-long labor of love for the San Marino native and 2001 graduate of San Marino High School, but after almost two decades of diligence, the finish line is right around the corner, if indeed he hasn’t already sprinted across.

Most recently, Gute (pronounced “GU-tee”) was a camera operator, production coordinator and 2nd unit director for “Ice On Fire,” a critically acclaimed documentary that was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and debuted at Cannes in May. The film is a sure bet to receive interest at next year’s Academy Awards, but it has hardly been a smooth path from Gute’s days as staff member for Channel 19—this city’s since-defunct local cable access station—to his current status as a highly regarded filmmaker.

“My first documentary was a project for a World History class during my freshman year,” Gute explained. “I was teamed up with a group of overachievers and we were assigned to make a film about the European theater of World War II. Instead of making a silly short project like everyone else in class and having recently watched ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ we decided to make a feature film re-enacting the entire story in Europe starting from the invasion of Poland and annexation of Czechoslovakia up to D-Day and ultimately V-Day and the fall of the Third Reich. We recreated battle scenes in our backyard using whatever war props we could pull together.”

Most students find at least one happy place on campus and for Gute, it was that production studio, which twenty years later looks strangely, strikingly and sadly similar.

“[Former station manager] Jon Bell saw my willingness to learn and took me under his wing and I basically co-ran the channel with him while I was in high school,” Gute said. “From 1999-2001 I filmed just about every event imaginable, from theatrical productions, sporting events, and anything that pertained to community origination. This is what probably prepared me better than anything for a career as a documentary filmmaker. I produced the official senior video twice, which led to years of making Grad Night videos and basically a feature film about every graduating class for ten years.”

Gute matriculated to Chapman University’s renowned Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, where he, at least initially, encountered few challenges.

“I was so well prepared from my experience with San Marino High School’s video production program that film school at Chapman was largely a waste of time and money,” Gute told The Tribune. “It was a massive review session with other students who were not nearly as ready for the industry as I was.”

Gute and Bell occasionally took Channel 19’s production truck–a discarded, repurposed ambulance from the San Marino Fire Department–on late-night sojourns, listening to a police scanner and “nightcrawling,” trying to be the first to a crime scene to capture and sell footage to Los Angeles news stations.

During his senior year, Gute produced, directed and shot what he called his “first serious short film” called “Brotherly Love” with schoolmate Andrew Duncan that starred SMHS stage veterans and icons Ian Mills, Kevin Smith and Allie Wucetich.

“It was a dark comedy about two bickering brothers who come to a tragic end,” Gute said with a hint of pride.

Even after leaving SMHS, Gute was a constant fixture at Channel 19, filming community events and pretty much operating the station.

“I’ll never forget former teacher, coach and Athletic Director Mickey McNamee once told me, ‘Mr. Gute, when you were at school here we never could get you to come, but now that you graduated we can’t get you to leave,’” Gute recalled with a hearty laugh.

He also took the occasional Saturday film class Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.

“That taught me a more narrative minded style of filmmaking,” Gute said. “I really wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg, so it was surprising in the end to focus mainly on documentaries.”

While at Chapman, Gute collaborated with classmates Christopher Duffer (of “Stranger Things”) and Justin Simien, who made “Dear White People.”

He and Duncan then reunited to create a feature film called “College Bound,” a social commentary and comedic look into the college admissions process. The film was an homage to “Damn Yankees,” where a student sells his soul to get into Harvard. It premiered at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and placed at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers annual student film festival. The film included a large group of young people from San Marino who had major parts in the cast and crew and even included a rather forgettable cameo from this reporter.

His first post-Chapman project was a documentary about corruption associated with the Iraq War called “Beautiful Europeans” and marked his entrance into the feature film world. San Marino residents and filmmakers Howard Kazanjan and Craig Darian then helped Gute get a gig at Warner Brothers, where he worked on a host of narrative films. He also found time to help on “The 11th Hour,” another DiCaprio documentary.

“It was a beautiful film about the environment that put me on a different trajectory,” Gute recalled. “I was brought in as an editor, but wound up directing and producing all the social media campaign content in the early days of Facebook and MySpace. I got to work intimately with Leo and was a pivotal part of the production. We interviewed some of the smartest people in the world, including professor Stephen Hawking.”

Simultaneously, Gute produced an improvisational comedy series that was a social commentary of college fraternity life called “The House,” again with Duncan.

Steve Gute at Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France for the debut in May of the film “Ice On Fire” he worked on alongside producer Leonardo DiCaprio.

“The whole series was shot in a real frat house, which was a challenging work environment,” Gute said. “While the production was crazy, we did something right and predicted that long-form, high quality entertainment was ultimately destined to move from cable television to the internet. The first week of the self-release, we had hundreds of thousands of views around the world and were ultimately picked up by National Lampoon. They released the series on one of their smaller channels and we were about to make a $5 million feature film version of the series.”

But the project was sidelined by the writer’s strike of 2007.

“That threw my career a big curveball,” he said. Channel 19 was also shelved and Gute was left to “re-invent myself.”

“The journey ultimately led me to Europe, where I lived in Scandinavia for several years,” he said. “I enjoyed a good life as an ex-pat directing music videos and shooting stock footage for a company that would sell the materials to the BBC, National Geographic and Getty Images, among others. During that time I made a short film in Estonia called ‘Igatsus,’ [Yearning] that put me in the middle of the Estonian film scene and to this day is the only film I’ve ever directed in a foreign language.”

He kicked around The Industry for several years, bouncing from a project called “Project Los Angeles” that included San Marino High School graduates Reza Mir (Class of 2003), Eric Medina (2005) and Nick Kanelos (2002).

The Occupy Movement brought Gute back to the United States permanently in 2011. Gute and Medina produced and edited a documentary about income inequality, police brutality and the right to protest.

“I was not happy with the economy and government at the time and wanted to make a series that told the real story of the protest without a manipulative voice over,” Gute said.

That led to a documentary series about water pollution called “Confluence.” Originally an investigation of the Missouri River, the series evolved into a massive five-year look at all of America’s watersheds. Gute ended up visiting 48 states to create the film, which is highlighted by an investigation into the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and living in a tent with Native American tribes in Standing Rock, South Dakota.

“During that time we were getting three million visitors a week on our Facebook page,” Gute said. “I have seen everything making that film.”

He also reconnected during the shooting of the film with Kanelos and Eddie Mnoian, a 2005 graduate of San Marino High School and revered drone operator.

Gute was working with Tree Media when he got the call for “Ice On Fire.” After hiring the majority of the crew, Gute led the initial journey to the Arctic, where the team “bounced around on snowmobiles for hundreds of miles in -50º weather while trying not to be eaten by polar bears and filming the receding glaciers” in Gute’s parlance.

“‘Ice On Fire’ ultimately started in the Arctic, but we bounced all over the world highlighting technology that can help reverse environmental pollution,” Gute explained. “We spoke with scientists in Norway, Germany, Costa Rica, and everywhere in America.”

“Ice On Fire” is currently in the rotation on HBO, but Gute has moved on to “Young Turks,” where he contributes as producer, director, camera operator and reporter. Some of Gute’s memorable contributions to that show include exposing “corruption in the 2016 United States Presidential election and misappropriation of FEMA money in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.

Steve is the son of Wendy Gute and Rick Gute. He has two sisters and a brother and attended St. Edmund’s, Valentine Elementary and Huntington Middle Schools before receiving his diploma from SMHS. In 2005, he graduated from Chapman with a degree in Film with an emphasis in writing and directing & cinematography and a minor in Political Science.

Gute reserved special thanks for Kazanjian, whose glittering film CV includes such American treasures as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”

“Mr. Kazanjian was a big influence and helped me realize I wanted to pursue film for a living,” Gute said. “Before that, I had been focused on marine biology most of my childhood and had an obsession with saving the oceans and under-appreciated animals, like sharks. I also wanted to learn how to communicate with whales and dolphins via sonar instead of sign language.”

At the rate he’s going, only a fool would bet that he won’t accomplish it all.

Gute provided some words of advice for those who might find themselves in the position of self-doubt he once occupied.

“Listen to your intuition and carve your own path despite what external advice others may give you,” Gute said. “The landscape of media is in constant flux, there’s no right or wrong methodology and it is inevitable you will need to improvise and reinvent yourself. Develop your own voice, multiple skill sets, and understand all aspects of production and post-production. What is needed more than ever in this era or remakes and replications is authenticity and honesty; stay independent, never compromise your integrity, and lastly… never sell out or give up on your dreams.

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