At first, the email seemed like a gag: A room at Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, two tickets to a movie premier and a live conversation with some of its biggest stars.
Tess Koman and Gabriella Levine were instantly skeptical of the offer. But after some probing, the two 21-year-old editors at Union College's Concordiensis realized the event was legit — Focus Features was handing them an all-expense-paid trip to screen "The Place Beyond the Pines" and rub elbows with some of the hottest names in Hollywood.
"It was sort of like a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Levine, a junior majoring in political science at Union. "We couldn't pass it up. There was no way we were going to miss it."
The event was surreal for the two college newspaper editors from start to finish — from watching the film in Universal Pictures' screening room to getting a chance to snap a photo in the arms of actor Ryan Gosling. And it also served as a perfect swan song for Koman, a Union senior majoring in English, as she prepared to step down from her role as editor-in-chief of the Concordiensis in March.
"It was perfect timing," she said. "It was like the perfect way to end."
Both students were surprised to see Schenectady remain a visible and central theme of the film and how the city seemed like a metaphor for the central themes of the plot. They were also impressed by director Derek Cianfrance's strict attention to detail — how even a sausage-and-peppers sandwich from a city landmark like Civitello's was incorporated into the narrative.
"Things we probably drop by and pass by every day just started popping out at us," Levine said.
Then they sat with about two dozen other college students to have a discussion with cast members, including Gosling, Cianfrance, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, and Emory Cohen. They heard how Mendes spent her free time at Union, exercising on the track and enjoying the green space interspersed around the campus.
On the train ride home, Levine and Koman remained spellbound with the experience. Both were accustomed to covering significant events, like President Barrack Obama's visit to General Electric in 2011 or Union's unlikely trip to the NCAA Hockey Frozen Four in 2012.
But this assignment was different. This was special.
Levine quickly printed out an 8-by-10-inch copy of the picture they took with Gosling and had it framed. And she proudly posted the shot prominently by Koman's door, where it's plainly visible to visitors.
Union College was on break during the bulk of the filming during summer 2011 and the campus didn't play a significant role in any of the scenes. Still, its unabashed focus on Schenectady has created a buzz among students, something that was augmented with the coverage Levine and Koman devoted to the special screening.
"We took back our own personal stories," Levine said. "And that really perked up interest on our campus to go see the movie."