At 22, Ryan Suffern was struggling to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
The answer hit him like a ton of bricks at Chicago's 3 Penny Cinema, of all places, as he watched the film "American Beauty."
Movies Ryan Suffern has worked onŸ "War of the Worlds"
Ÿ "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"
Ÿ "Road to Perdition"
Ÿ "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat"
Ÿ "Matchstick Men"
Ÿ "Right to Play"
Ÿ "Bidder 70"
"I remember leaving that movie, my eyes filled with tears, and I said (to my girlfriend), 'I wish I could have been part of making that. I would have carried coffee around.' That's when the bug got in me. That's when I knew what I wanted to do," he said.
There were a few obstacles. Suffern didn't know a single person in Hollywood. While he'd been a photo editor at the Daily Illini, the University of Illinois' student newspaper, his degree was in English. He had no filmmaking experience whatsoever.
Suffern didn't let any of that stop him. And within a few years, he was doing more than just carrying coffee as an assistant to the likes of Sam Mendes and Steven Spielberg.
Suffern says he initially got his start by deciding to "let the universe know" what his plans were. He told everyone he talked to about his desire to work in film. Eventually, someone knew a woman who worked on small-budget independent films in Chicago. She got him an unpaid assistant job on a movie.
Before he could accept it, though, Suffern had to quit his full-time paying job as an associate publisher at UR Chicago magazine.
"I said, if this is what I want to do, then I have to (quit)," he said. "On my first film, I was literally on my hands and knees picking up dog (doo)because the actors were going to be rolling around on the ground at that location ... but I was, like, 'Yeah! I'm doing it! I'm working in the movies!'"
Suffern did three movies with that crew, rising up the ranks to become an assistant director. Even though he now brought home a few hundred bucks a week, the low pay forced him to temporarily move home with his parents, who own the Banbury Fair antique store in downtown Bartlett.
"They've always believed that, even if I struck out, if I took a swing toward some of my lofty goals, that was good," said Suffern, an alumnus of Elgin High School. "I got that from them -- and my dad in particular -- that entrepreneurial spirit."
When Suffern heard director Sam Mendes was coming to Chicago to film "Road to Perdition," he was determined to get a job on that movie set. The film was Mendes' follow-up to "American Beauty," the movie that started it all for Suffern.
Suffern networked and persisted -- and got the job.
"I got one of the two set (production assistant) jobs. I don't know if it was naiveté or self-confidence or what," he said, laughing.
One job led to another, and Suffern was on his way to Hollywood. He landed jobs as Steven Spielberg's assistant on the films "Terminal," "War of the Worlds," "Munich" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." While he did some gopher work, he also was tapped to film Spielberg for behind-the-scenes and "making-of" footage.
"I was (Spielberg's) shadow. I'd grab his tea, get his lunch, and also shoot behind the scenes. By the time 'Munich' came around ... I was the primary behind-the-scenes guy," Suffern said. "It was a highlight of my filmmaking career to work with Steven."
After a while, though, Suffern was eager to branch out and use what he'd learned to make documentary films. Working with director Frank Marshall, he made "Right to Play," about the organization that brought sports to children in poverty-stricken and war-torn parts of the world, which will air on ESPN in the spring.
His newest documentary film, "Bidder 70," is a true story about a Utah college student who went to jail for putting $2 million worth of fake bids on pristine Utah desert land to prevent companies from accessing the oil drilling rights and ended up saving the land in the process. It will be shown at film festivals in 2012.
Meanwhile, Suffern is still keeping his love of photography alive. Many of the photos on his website, suckatashproductions.com, feature Chicago scenery.
"Looking back, I can say, 'Wow. What a great ride I've been on,'" said Suffern, now 33, married and expecting his first child in January. "There's the great unknown staring at me -- I have no idea what I'll be doing a year from now. But I'd rather have it that way."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would be good to feature, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com