Michael Grillo ’71 (Business Administration) had just walked out of the Valley Performing Arts Center on a calm autumn morning still in awe of the scale of the building and the beauty inside and out. There was a student to his left playing a saxophone and providing a soundtrack to his California State University, Northridge reunion.
It was this same spot, some 40 years ago, where Grillo played intramural football as a student, long before the VPAC existed — and, for that matter, before many of the buildings on campus existed.
Grillo stood for a second to enjoy the saxophone. “That’s fantastic,” he said.
A successful film producer who has been the executive producer of multiple Marvel Studios feature films, including the recent blockbuster Ant-Man, and former head of production for DreamWorks, Grillo couldn’t remember the last time he had been to CSUN.
His best answer for a time or date was: “It was San Fernando Valley State College.”
Life got in the way of Grillo returning to his alma mater. This fall, the 67-year-old Hermosa Beach resident returned to campus for a photo shoot and a tour.
He discovered a different CSUN — one that ran so many scenes, past and present, through his mind. There was excitement about returning and what had become of his university, as well as some regret for how quickly time had passed since he was a student.
It’s easy to see how life got in the way — even for a man who has maintained a residence in the Los Angeles area for decades.
Grillo studied business and marketing at San Fernando Valley State College, but he admitted that his mind was elsewhere. It was a time of political unrest, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. CSUN was a safety net for Grillo, and he admitted that having a draft deferment for attending college was an additional motive for pursuing his education.
After earning his degree, Grillo decided to explore Europe for six months. When he returned to the United States, he had a long beard, a ponytail and no clue what the next step in his life would be.
His brother, Gary, worked as an assistant director. He suggested Grillo try the Directors Guild Training Program. It was a competitive process to get in, and Grillo didn’t make it on the first try. He started taking film classes at UCLA and making Super 8 movies on weekends. He eventually got a job in the Universal Studios mailroom and got into the training program on the second try.
That program led to hands-on training on TV sets, including work on The Six Million Dollar Man, Kojak and McMillan & Wife.
Grillo quickly fell in love with television production and was disappointed when he was re-assigned to a movie set at 20th Century Fox. That movie was Young Frankenstein, and his disappointment quickly faded.
With experience, more credits and meeting the right people, Grillo transitioned from assistant directing to producing. And life got busier. Married with kids and with a growing career, CSUN became a distant memory.
Grillo has been involved in more than 100 feature films, alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood — from Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and Martin Scorsese early on to Richard Donner, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Ridley Scott in later years.
The two most influential people in his career were producer Charlie Okun and screenwriter, director and producer Lawrence Kasdan, the director and producer who wrote screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark, among other landmark films. Kasdan also wrote the upcoming Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens.
Grillo collaborated with Kasdan and Okun as assistant director on Body Heat and The Big Chill. Kasdan gave him his start as a producer with the film Silverado. The trio worked together on numerous other films, including Wyatt Earp and The Accidental Tourist, a movie for which they were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
In addition to his work with Kasdan, Grillo also worked as an assistant director on such movies as The Deer Hunter, the infamous Heaven’s Gate and In the Line of Fire, to name a few.
When DreamWorks formed in the mid-1990s, Grillo was hired as the studio’s first head of feature film production. He oversaw production on all of DreamWorks’ live-action movies from 1996 to 2006, including the studio’s first film, The Peacemaker. He also served as the movie’s executive producer.
During that time, DreamWorks released Saving Private Ryan, American Beauty, Gladiator, Cast Away and Anchorman.
At DreamWorks, and on prior movie sets, Grillo developed, honed and implemented his organizational skills. There are parts of his CSUN education and experience that Grillo said impact his work to this day — even if he admits he didn’t give his all.
“I wasn’t the greatest student. But one of the things I did, and I certainly didn’t think it would help me later in my career, is cram. I’m really good at it,” Grillo said. “I learned how to do what I had to in a short amount of time to accomplish (my goals).
“I also learned how to find information. It became the skills I learned more than the specifics. It wasn’t the marketing as much as how to find information, how to get my stuff together to get a paper in on time. That focus really helped me.
“When I joined the film industry, everything changed,” he added. “You cannot afford to work in movies and be unprepared. There are too many elements involved in a day of filming to not do your homework. Otherwise, you fail the director, the movie and yourself. Cramming still plays a part. They tend to rewrite movies constantly, with key elements changing. There’s so much at stake. It’s not uncommon to get a set of pages at night for the next day of filming that have to be budgeted and prepped. I’m comfortable with that. I did that in school.”
Back to school
On his tour of the campus, Grillo expressed, for a moment, some slight regret that he didn’t take more advantage of the college experience at San Fernando Valley State College.
The university didn’t offer a film major when he was a student. Now back at CSUN, he said he was amazed to see the opportunities afforded to today’s film students. In Manzanita Hall, he observed a film class and entered the sound stages and editing rooms with interest piqued.
Rolling through campus on a golf cart, Grillo passed Live Oak Hall.
“I remember that. I had biology there on the second floor,” he said.
CSUN’s array of buildings made him marvel at what his alma mater had become. After a quick tour of the Student Recreation Center, “maybe I do want to go back to school,” he said.
He won’t be able to this spring. Grillo will have his hands full in preproduction for the next Marvel Studios Avengers films, where he will serve as executive director. Grillo was the executive producer for Ant-Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Green Hornet.
Grillo didn’t grow up collecting comic books, but the respect he has earned in the industry led to his work with what has been one of Hollywood’s most successful studios over the last decade.
“I don’t know what else I would do,” Grillo said of moviemaking. “I still feel so fortunate every time I work on a movie.”
As he walked through campus, memories of his past — Robert F. Kennedy speaking on campus, cheerleading with CSUN’s legendary spirit leader Dorothea “Granny” Heitz, belonging to Zeta Beta Tau, the oldest fraternity at CSUN, and going to class at a school very much in its infancy — clashed with new ones — modern classrooms and buildings that would have seemed unimaginable when he was a student, as well as the bustling student life and diversity on many levels.
“I hardly recognized anything,” he said. “This is just not comparable.”
So maybe the end scene of a movie about his life is a feel-good reunion. A saxophone will play. Then credits will roll. Fade to black.
Now that he is reconnected to CSUN, a sequel is in the works.