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And to be sure, the pair’s industry knowledge in 1999 was nearly a vacuum. Back then, Cronk concedes, “I didn’t even know people made livings as art directors.” To him, movies just appeared on the screen, almost magically. “I didn’t understand that it could take hundreds of people on a movie set to make it happen.” Regardless, Los Angeles film people liked Tailford and Cronk’s work. “Matt always over-delivers, and he is super detail oriented,” Cronk says.
Take toasters again. Tailford was art directing and put toast crumbs on a table, because the scene called for the actress to
have just eaten some toast. “So it wouldn’t look so sterile,” Tailford says. The director came by and wiped them off. “Cronk and I just looked at each other and laughed, and when the director wasn’t looking, we put them back,” Tailford says.
After the first L.A. job, Cronk continued teaching in Michigan, though in Evart, and Tailford quit teaching to take a job at an advertising agency in Holland, Michigan. But the film industry had taken hold of their desires, and during the next four years the pair invested all of their free time and money into making two short films—The Agent and South Manitou. “They were basically our film school,” Cronk says.
While making the films, the two employed one of the most important lessons they’d gained from watching Hollywood in action: a positive approach to managing production. Early on, “We were on a set and everything was going great until
the director showed up,” Cronk says. “We watched how she screamed and screeched at the crew. And we thought, if we run this more like a classroom, using positive reinforcement—the things we learned through our teaching degrees—we would have a happier crew and get a better product too. A lot of directors are really insecure and feel the need to yell,” he says.
Along the way, Cronk and Tailford had met people associated with Compass Film Academy, a faith-based film school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that trains people for Hollywood jobs so they can influence the direction of film content. Contacts at Compass lined up a private film showing with Ralph Winter, the producer of such blockbusters as The X-Men and Fantastic Four.
“He told us this is really well done, and filmmaking is something you should pursue—he gave us a huge dose of confidence,” Cronk says. So much confidence that, in the summer of 2004, Tailford and Cronk moved to L.A.
The two still knew only the fundamentals of the broader production process and had no reputation beyond art direction, so they relied again on their Midwestern roots, this time their work ethic. “We busted our butts,” Cronk says. “We made ourselves indispensable when we got the work.”
Cronk recalls a day when he was working as a production director for a national TV commercial that was being directed by
Chuck Bowman, who created The Incredible Hulk TV series and had directed some episodes of MacGyver, the TV show
about the ultimate gadget man crime-fighter. The script hadn’t mentioned that the lead male was supposed to be married, and so he needed a wedding ring. Nobody on set had a wedding ring that would fit the actor. Cronk, the sculpture major with metalsmithing experience, went to his vehicle, where he had his tools and a torch, and hacked out a wedding ring on the spot.
Later, Cronk was packing things up and tying stuff to his truck while Bowman chatted with him. “Bowman asked me where
I learned all those knots, and I said, ‘I used to watch a lot of MacGyver.’ He said, ‘Son, I’m taking you to lunch.’”