MU alumnus co-directs movie about eco-terrorist

about a brilliant young physicist imprisoned for vandalizing Hummers as part of the eco-terrorist group Earth Liberation Front.,”Knowledge of bell curves or algorithms isn't necessary to appreciate Dave Randag's short documentary "Standard Deviation."

Nominated for a College Television award, it is the story of Billy Cottrell, a brilliant young physicist who is now imprisoned until 2011 for terrorism after vandalizing Hummers as part of the eco-terrorist group Earth Liberation Front.

Randag, who co-directed the film, graduated from Marquette in 2001 with a degree in writing intensive English and philosophy. He then went to the University of Florida in 2006 for a Master of Arts in documentary filmmaking, where he and classmate Chris Brannan made "Standard Deviation" for a senior thesis.

Brannan, originally from Gainesville, Fla., attended middle school and high school with Cottrell. He said an old classmate e-mailed him a link to a Wikipedia article about Cottrell, which detailed his criminal activity and incarceration in 2007. That's when they got the idea to make a documentary about the socially — awkward nerd turned federal criminal.

"I felt that there had to be some sort of misunderstanding," Brannan said. "While Billy was always getting in trouble when I knew him in our younger days, this was obviously trouble on a whole new level, and it just didn't seem to fit with someone doing as well as he was."

Cottrell studied physics at the University of Chicago and was one of the most promising theoretical physics doctoral candidates at the California Institute of Technology.

"He spent so much time working that he lost himself from the reality most of us are in," Randag said. "He was in his own world of physics and not completely in touch with reality."

Although Cottrell didn't start out with an interest in environmental activism, his friends in California brought him along for the ride. They'd attack cars with "my SUV supports terrorism" bumper stickers.

"One night, however, the protest went from adhesives to arson at a Hummer dealership," Randag said. "It's safe to say that Billy wasn't the mastermind. He was more like a reluctant participant."

Cottrell then taunted The Los Angeles Times after police mistakenly arrested someone who wasn't affiliated with the vandalism and arson at all. The police tracked him down and charged him with terrorism, since the Hummers were considered interstate commerce, which made the arson a federal crime.

Clocking in at 36 minutes, the short film mostly consists of Cottrell's friends and relatives talking about Billy's social struggles. Randag nervously watched the final version of the documentary with Cottrell's mother and sister.

"Thankfully they liked it," Randag said. "We didn't want to be too easy on this guy. He participated in some not too cool things."

Randag said that Marquette director of undergraduate studies C.J. Hribal and Larry Soley, Colnik chair and professor of communication, contributed greatly to his interest in documentary filmmaking.

"C.J. helped me with my writing, which is so important to any job," Randag said. "Soley really cared about filmmaking and pushed me towards documentary filmmaking."

Randag said he hopes that "Standard Deviation" will be adapted into a half-hour television special. As for Cottrell, he is scheduled to be released in August 2011. The College Television Awards will be on March 21.