Alums’ production company takes the lead behind the scenes

How’s this for a new reality show? Ten of the nation’s most elite soldiers, plucked from all branches of the United States military, competing to prove who is the toughest, most strategic fighter, shooting Glock pistols, AK-47s and even M249 light machine guns mounted on the back of Jeeps during a series of military-inspired challenges.

That’s “Maximum Warrior,” a Web-based series commissioned by Jeep and men’s magazine Maxim set to start filming in Arkansas in June. The New York City production company making the series is Grand Street Media, which traces its roots straight back to Wheaton, where a decade ago three friends met and began dreaming big.

On the set of “Maximum Warrior”: Jesse Guma rides in the follow vehicle as a warrior fires a M249 machine gun off the back of a Jeep at targets.

Since the start, a confluence of friendship, talent, luck and connections has driven the success of the company, which lists several celebrities among its clients. Jesse Guma ’01 and Lowell Freedman, who attended Wheaton from 1997 to 2002, run Grand Street Media full time. And co-founder Harry Lapham ’01 assists on projects. Out of their West 21st Street office near the Flatiron Building, they develop, produce, direct and edit reality TV shows, commercials and music videos, and they have worked with ’N Sync, Fergie and Wyclef Jean.

“On any given day we could be running around the city with cameras and sound gear in our hands shooting for assorted projects, or we could be on a soundstage producing and directing a commercial with 30 to 40 extras,” says Guma, whose filmmaking previously took him to Cuba in 2003, when he co-produced the first independent film done there since the embargo. “We also might just be in the office editing our latest project. Production is almost always different day to day.”

The story behind “Maximum Warrior” offers a good example of how Grand Street operates. Maxim and Jeep commissioned the company to produce 15 episodes for the Web last year. (The winning warrior took home a 2011 Black Ops edition Jeep Wrangler.) The sponsors liked the explosion-packed results so much they ordered another set of installments this year. And now Grand Street is in talks with several networks about turning the program into a full-scale TV show.

Posing with Dakota Meyer, United States Marine Corps veteran and recipient of the Medal of Honor

“The show is one of a kind because it showcases the diverse skills, endurance and training acquired by those in the U.S. military,” Guma says.

Case in point: Dakota Meyer. Guma and his colleagues got to work with Meyer, who became the first living U.S. Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for service in the Afghani and Iraqi wars when President Obama awarded it to him last year.

Another Grand Street project for Maxim is scheduled to take place in May, when the company travels to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan to film a U.S.O. show. (It won’t be Guma’s first time in that part of the world; in 2007, he traveled to Iran to make a documentary on young people. The project was quashed by the Iranian government once he arrived there.)

Of course, Grand Street does plenty of work that isn’t related to soldiers and the military. The company has done work for MTV, VH1, BET and Motorola. And, Grand Street recently finished shooting a series of commercials for Contigo, the Chicago-based maker of travel mugs and water bottles, that included a lead role for another alum, Joseph “Joey” Mintz ’03.

Guma, Lapham and Freedman all say their interest in film started at a young age. Guma grew up in Burlington, Vt., where his mother was a documentary filmmaker and his father was a writer. Freedman and Lapham both grew up in New York City, where Freedman says that photography and the darkroom were part of daily life. And Lapham’s father was a well-known soundman for film and TV productions.

Opening scene: Wheaton

The three met at Wheaton. Guma and Freedman majored in theater and Lapham majored in history. The college didn’t offer film production classes at the time, but the Theatre Department helped fill the gap.

“We definitely used those classes as a base for a developing interest in the arts,” says Lapham, who joined the Directors Guild of America last year. “Being a theater minor gave me a great understanding of story structure, characters and directing.”

Keen to scratch their moviemaking itch while students, Guma and Lapham hatched the idea of creating a Wheaton Video Club. They raised funding themselves from donors, including the parents of a classmate, to make a movie as an independent study for Professor Pamela Bongas, who was then head of the Theatre Department. They wrote a script (“Liberal Arts”) and cast Freedman in a lead role.

The movie, filmed everywhere from Balfour-Hood to Craigin Hall, “was a sort of coming-of-age story set at a small liberal arts college, if you can believe that,” Guma quips, adding that Freedman “was probably the funniest part. … We screened it in the Media Center and, surprisingly, a large group of people showed up to watch. But I’m guessing they all wanted to see if they were in the movie.”

Lapham, for his part, thinks the project offers an example of what makes the college special. “Wheaton is a place that does not hold you back,” he says. “If you prove that you have a passion for something and want to make something out of it, Wheaton will support you. I saw that in many aspects while I was a student there.”

All the right moves

After graduating, Guma moved to Los Angeles, while Freedman and Lapham returned home to New York, where they moved in with Marc Fairstein ’00 and Justin Fantasia ’00.

“We all lived together in a brownstone on the Lower East Side,” Freedman recalls. “We were fresh out of college and eager to start our careers in the film business.”

A decade later, their various résumés highlight work on plenty of familiar film and TV productions, including “The Sopranos,” “Law and Order,” Spider-Man, Baby Mama, “Rescue Me,” Music and Lyrics, The Devil Wears PradaAcross the Universe, and Michael Clayton.

Guns, glory and good camera shots—it’s all in a day’s work on the set of “Maximum Warriors.”

Freedman, Lapham and Fairstein started Grand Street Media shortly after they moved in together as a way to do freelance film work. (Fairstein is now living outside the city, where he works in computer graphics, though he still visits Grand Street from time to time.)

Among those who helped them find jobs early on were the parents of Lauren Soloway ’03, who produce segments for the Food Network.

Though the company wasn’t a full-time job for any of them yet, slowly but surely Grand Street’s list of clients grew. “Our initial projects came to us mostly out of sheer luck,” Lapham says. “We just had the good fortune to be recommended by a friend or co-worker for small film and editing gigs. A lot of the time, the smaller, low-paying jobs would lead to larger, high-paying jobs.”

“The production industry is extremely inconsistent and ruthless,” he continues. “That’s never changed. But every now and then, doing a good job for a client or taking the extra time making sure something is done right will lead to repeat business or a recommendation.”

The big moment came during the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007, when film and TV production on both coasts shut down for more than three months as writers protested their compensation. But the long work stoppage had an upside for Grand Street: Freedman met a potential investor who eventually agreed to back the production company.

“It’s pretty much been a blur since then,” Freedman says.

Meanwhile, Guma had been pursuing his career on the West Coast, where he worked on a number of films and music videos and served as director of development for a small production company. But the friends kept in touch, with Guma visiting the others in New York when he came home to Vermont. And Freedman occasionally went out to L.A. to help Guma with projects.

Finally, in 2008, Freedman went to California to direct a car commercial in Napa Valley and asked Guma to help produce it. “We worked so well together we knew we would have to do it again,” Guma says. With the new financial backer’s investment in Grand Street secured, Guma moved to New York early the next year and began running the production company full time along with Freedman.

Rule No. 1: No rules

Jesse Guma (left) and Lowell Freedman (right) film during the History Channel show “Swamp People” in Grand Street Media’s office in New York.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for Guma and Freedman about who does what at the company. “One person could be dealing with a budgetary issue while the other is giving actors direction, and we could switch, with no issues,” Guma says. “Depending on the project, either of us could be doing anything from producing to directing to camera-operating to editing. In the modern age of filmmaking, you have to be well versed in all facets of the production process.”

While Lapham doesn’t work at Grand Street full time, he has stayed involved and is frequently brought onboard to work on specific projects.

“Since the time in between production jobs can be as little as a few days to as much as a month or more, it can get very difficult to find other work in the industry in that time—especially challenging work,” Lapham says. “I know hardly anyone who has the good fortune of having a relationship with a company such as Grand Street Media, which is not just run by friends but calls for interesting and diverse types of production work almost year-round.”

Guma describes Lapham as a “fantastic” assistant director, a job that requires “someone who can constantly manage chaos.”

“Imagine if you had to manage 50 crew members and 20 cast members as all of them are doing different things and in different locations,” he explains. “An assistant director makes sure everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there, with everything they need. It’s one of the hardest jobs in the industry. So whenever we have big jobs, we make sure to bring Harry with us.”

That suits Lapham: “Working with friends from college is a happy bonus to already exciting work.”

When he’s not at Grand Street, Lapham doesn’t lack for high-profile gigs. He spent the last two seasons working on Tina Fey’s NBC comedy “30 Rock,” starting off as an additional production assistant.

The next year he was the key production assistant, coordinating and setting up exterior locations. Occasionally he got bumped up to serve as an extra second assistant director.

They all revel in the diversity of their assignments with Grand Street, which can take them from Afghanistan and Arkansas to Nevada, where they’ve filmed rally truck races in the desert. But Lapham has even bigger goals for the company.

“More than anything I would like us to try and tackle something of our own such as a feature-length film, documentary or television pilot,” he says. “We have been honing our skills for years, and I feel that the next step would be to try and produce something of our own on a larger scale. The projects at Grand Street have always been at the behest of a client. Writing, directing or producing something of our own would not only let us use everything we’ve learned about film production so far, it would hopefully allow us to feel the same freedom and reward that we felt when doing small student films at Wheaton.”