I grew up mostly in Wellesley, Massachusetts. As a teenager, I read a lot, watched a lot of movies, and wrote short stories. I went to Carleton College, where I majored in English. In college, I kept writing short stories, and I got interested in making movies. I took a screenwriting class and a video production class. But I didn’t really understand how you get to make movies in the real world. Sure, you go to Hollywood, but then what? I took a course on feminist independent film, and for the first time saw short films by people like Su Friedrich and Barbara Hammer. I liked a lot of what was screened in class, but again, I didn’t understand how these films were made, who their audience was, or much else about them. Sure, you go to New York City, but then what? The answers would have been there had I investigated, but at that point I think I lacked the confidence and imagination to try to learn things on my own, outside of school. I liked school, and I was good at it. (This is a hidden drawback to attending good schools: it can lead you to assume that school is always the best way to learn something. Not true.) What appealed to me then was the laid-out path of a structured graduate degree program.
So, I found a path. I decided to go to graduate school to become an English professor. It seemed like a good job, getting paid to read, write, and talk about literature. I went to the University of Iowa. I read a lot, watched a lot of movies, and wrote literary criticism. (I did make a short film early on one summer as an independent study, but I ended up arguing with the professor about the grade. It was embarrassing.) I still wanted to write fiction and make movies, but it seemed too unstable and unknown. I had chosen to be an English professor so that I could be close to literature and movies, but still have the stability of a steady job. Well…maybe you know that the job market for English professors is legendarily dismal, and has been for some time. Many, many English PhDs never land a full-time teaching job. Over the years, it slowly dawned on me that although I had indeed signed up for a lot of school, it wasn’t necessarily going to produce the desired result. If I’m not headed for stability anyway, I figured, it’s probably better to go down trying to do what is nearest to my heart.
English graduate school was fine in a lot of ways. I did learn a great deal about American literature and film, and also American social history. Teaching, too—while I was a PhD student, I taught many of my own literature classes. My idea of being an English professor as proximate to being a writer or a filmmaker, however, didn’t turn out to be true. At base, I was drawn to books and movies as art, that is to say, to their emotional meaning, and their use of form and style to convey emotional meaning. That isn’t really the way that most scholars approach literature and film nowadays. I wrote a passable dissertation, with some good parts, but I never really found my voice as a literary critic.
While still working on my English degree, I started taking film production classes at the University of Iowa. (This involved returning to the professor with whom I had argued about the grade for my independent study, and asking if I could take his Film Production I class. He was gracious about it.) I didn’t really understand this at the time, but film production schools vary greatly in approach and emphasis, and Iowa happened to be a place that treated students as individual artists, with an artisanal-type approach to production that was rather ad-hoc and improvised. There were students working in all forms, experimental, animation, documentary, and narrative. Everyone made their own films, in the sense that the directorial vision and responsibility of a film rested with one person, but that one person also usually drew on the help of many other people in getting the film made. I’d describe the model of filmmaking taught at Iowa as a “sustainable” one. Students were expected to make films that were suited to the available technology and resources.
I think two major lessons follow from this approach, both of which have significantly influenced my own work as a filmmaker, and also as a teacher of film. The first is that working within limitations and parameters in fact fosters creativity and invention, probably far more than having limitless resources does. The second is that every film should be judged on its own intentions and aspirations, without regard to length or production value. Length and budget are simply not in any way indicators of a film’s quality, or of the ambitions of its maker. I suppose another way to say this is that at Iowa, I learned to value short-form filmmaking as an end in itself.
I decided to keep on making films as an M.F.A. student at Iowa. By that point, I had figured out that one could combine filmmaking with college teaching, and since I liked teaching, I thought I would try to do that. Since 2011, I've been a Film and Media Arts professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and from 2002-2011 I taught in the undergraduate Film/Video program at Penn State. Teaching is an interesting job in its own right, and it also forces you to really figure out what you think is important for students to learn about making films, and for me that always seems to lead back to making me be more reflective and deliberate about my own film work, which I think is good.
The fact that I came to film through writing rather than through a visual art is probably well apparent. I write scripts for my films, and stick pretty closely to them during shooting. I also like onscreen text, physical words out in space somewhere. As for content, I seem to be interested in characters caught in conundrums, sometimes real-seeming, sometimes absurd. I like to make interior life visible, and also show that exterior life can be worth a second look. Most of my films use humor, or rely on humor, or are funny in some way, but that element is one of the most difficult for me to articulate. I suppose an analogy would be the satisfaction you get not just from telling a good joke, but from telling it to the precisely right person who will appreciate it the most. That’s the person I want to laugh with, and connect with, and make movies for. I think I would like to try to use humor in a different and perhaps deeper way, though, and I am also trying to write scripts about people who do things, and not just think things. I love short-form film, but I am interested in long-form, too, for the way it enables you to create a sustained emotional experience for an audience. I’d like to keep making short films, on my own and in collaboration, and give a long screenplay a try.