Shonda Rhimes pilot show filming comes to Ursinus College

Lighting crews, set builders and technicians prepare Olin Auditorium at Ursinus College in Collegeville over the weekend for filming of a TV pilot. The producer is Shonda Rhimes of Greys Anatomy, Scandal and Private Practice. (John Strickler/21st Century Media)
Crews were busy Saturday filming a television pilot on the campus of Ursinus College in Collegeville. (Kevin Hoffman/21st Century Media)

COLLEGEVILLE — Small screen magic was in the works at Ursinus College this weekend.

The auditorium in F.W. Olin Hall was chosen as the setting for a few scenes in a pilot for a new television show written by Shonda Rhimes.

Rhimes is the creator and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, two popular hour-long dramas on ABC.

Advertisement

The show, which has not yet been picked up by a network, is using the working title, “How to Get Away with Murder,” and stars Academy Award nominee Viola Davis, from “The Help,” and Matt McGorry, from the Netflix series, “Orange is The New Black.”

The show is about a professor, played by Davis, “and her students who become entangled in a murder plot,” according to a press release issued by Ursinus.

A college in Bryn Mawr was also used for several scenes shot last week, according to the college.

Maureen Cawley, the events coordinator for Ursinus, said a location scout for a movie came to campus in the fall and called when he heard about the show.

“He knew our campus from walking around and taking pictures. He contacted me when he knew they were looking for a location,” Cawley said.

An Ursinus graduate works at the Philadelphia Film Office and also approached Cawley about using the auditorium for the pilot.

“I think they looked at a number of different halls at different schools,” she said.

Although Olin Auditorium was a good match, changes had to be made so that it fit in with the vision of the show.

Lighting, sound and construction crews were on campus Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to make the Ursinus lecture hall into a lecture hall at the fictional university.

The scenes filmed on Saturday and Sunday were going to be a class of some kind, but Cawley couldn’t say what the details of the scenes were or how important they were to the plot of the show.

“I think it is going to be a law school class,” she said.

Writing on the three chalkboards at the front of the auditorium gave hints to what the scenes were about. The far right chalkboard read, “Attempt: impossibility, renunciation, and withdrawal.”

The middle chalkboard had a class title — Criminal Law or How To Get Away With Murder — scrawled across the top with the definition of “mens rea,” the court case “Morissette vs. The United States,” and “Model Penal Code vs. Judicial Dictates.”

Morissette vs. The United States is a real court case. It is a 1952 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that is relevant to the legal topic of criminal intent.

The synopsis of the ruling said omission of the language of intent can not be construed as eliminating the element of intent. Is this a clue to the plot of the show?

No one was able to answer that question, not even the student extras who were on set.

Victoria Steinberg and Leslie Potruch, both sophomores at the college, were extras in the scenes at Olin Hall.

Both girls had to be on set at 6:15 a.m. to fill out paperwork.

“We waited for everyone to get here, then the core group of actors went in and then we filed in after them,” Steinberg said. “The director was telling us where to go and where to sit.”

Steinberg said she was positioned right next to one of the lead characters for several shots.

“I sit next to the main character in the show. (McGorry) comes and sits next to me. I was like ‘Oh my god,” she said. “It is so cool. I never thought I’d be able to do this.”

When Ursinus sent an email to students letting them know that filming would be taking place, the campus became very curious and excited.

“Of course everyone flipped their lid,” Potruch said.

Potruch, who lives in Los Angeles and works as an extra, decided it would be a fun way to fill the last two days of her spring break and a good way to earn a little money.

Both girls said they are getting paid $7.25 an hour.

The process for becoming an extra was easier than Steinberg thought.

“All we had to do was send our name, our phone number and a recent photo,” Steinberg said. “Within twenty minutes I got an email back.”

Despite the constant buzz of crew around Olin Hall, the campus was fairly quiet. Runners, walkers, students with backpacks and small tour groups milled about but no one stopped to camp out.

“I just think it is exciting,” Cawley said. “I think the students get excited. It’s Hollywood. It is something out of ordinary and it gives the college some exposure.”

It is unknown at this time when the show, if it is picked, will start airing episodes.