Season of Thanks: American University

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently an MFA student at American University in Washington, D.C.  While I consider Catching Up to be a professional (if low budget) production, it also is serving as my thesis project for graduation.

AU doesn’t have the mainstream reputation that some other film schools might have, so I often am asked “What do you think of it?” when people find out I’m a student there.  The one thing I always have to say is that AU’s faculty, staff, and students are wonderfully collaborative and supportive.  I’ve largely felt that my professors wholeheartedly want me to succeed and make great films.  The department themselves have always worked with me on whatever I could need, and they have really come out in support of Catching Up.

American chose this project as their nominee for the Princess Grace Filmmaking Grant, and though we did not win it meant the world to me that they felt it was a strong contender.  We were also chosen to receive one of AU’s inaugural Filmmaking Grants, which still comprises over half of our raised funds.  We might still need more money to finish this film, and my donors were all wonderful and generous, but in the end without that grant I would have had to give up on this movie, or have made a vastly inferior project.

My crew largely consisted of fellow students who lent me their expertise and talents, and I am happy to say that as I continue to direct and I am able to hire crew members I will continue to look to them first.  I have the utmost respect for their abilities and if anybody is looking for good crew members, please just email me and I will send you a list of amazing people you should hire.

The biggest thing that AU has provided to me though is a huge wealth of knowledge and experience in the form of my professors.  In the two and a half years I have been there I have learned so much more than I ever would have thought possible.  These are teachers who were most concerned with helping me to be a better filmmaker on my own terms, and with my own voice, than just teaching me to follow some formula or to sound just like they do.

I want to specifically thank a few people:

Claudia Myers: I started at AU the same year that Professor Myers did, and my first class was her Writing for Visual Media course.  More than any other writing teacher I have ever had, she has forced my writing to change and grow.  She has made me really look at what I write, and why.  I have learned so much from her.  She also teaches Directing for Camera, which I still consider the single most informative class I have taken in all of my experiences in higher education.  It changed the fundamental way that I thought about the task of the director, and made me a better storyteller, a better leader, and a better communicator.

Professor Myers also serves as my thesis advisor, which means that for the last four months (when she had much better things to do, I promise) she has been walking with me through every step of this process to get Catching Up made.  She met with me to work on the five rewrites I did of the script, helped me do my break downs and pre-production planning, listened to me talk about casting for goodness knows how long, and generally has been the first person I go to whenever I need advice.

Garry Griffin is also on my committee, and served as an advisor to my cinematographer as well as myself.  Every fall, his Dramatic Production class fills up within minutes of the start of registration, and for good reason.  As my friend (and crew member) Colin put it, there is a sort of nebulous and artistic quality to everything that we do, and it’s very difficult to teach.  But Dramatic Production is the class that accomplishes that task best.  It’s a class that isn’t about production and just the mechanics and technical aspects of making a film.  It’s about story, about voice, and about the filmmaker as an artist.  One of Gary’s favorite things whenever you present him with a script or a pitch is to ask how you would make the same film as a silent.  This forces you to really concentrate on your visuals, on the action, and makes you stop using dialog as a crutch.  I went through this process with Catching Up, and it made the visuals a hundred times stronger.

Brigid Maher rounds out my committee, and is there to help me in the coming months as I approach the scary task of post-production.  I’m not going to lie, her advanced editing class nearly killed me.  While I am not editing Catching Up myself (that task goes to the wonderful and talented Banu Debre) I did learn so much about the post-production process that I had never known before.  Brigid’s insights as an editor are invaluable, and I’ve never sat down to a critique with her and not come away with a page of notes on how to make the project better no matter how complex or simple the actual film was.  What I’ve learned from her has made me not just a better writer, director, or script supervisor but just a better filmmaker.  I can’t wait to start meeting with her about cuts of Catching Up.

I also want to give a special thanks to members of the faculty who are not on my committee but have helped with the project in one way or another:

John Douglass is the head of our department, and has been a huge help getting the project off the ground.  Any time that I needed a piece of paperwork, a letter, or a signature he’s been able to get it to me ASAP.  He was instrumental in the process of most of our grant applications.

Larry Engel served as an informal advisor to members of our camera crew, and was always available for a quick question or an encouraging word.

Gilles Wheeler gave me probably the best combination pep talk/career advising session I have ever had in my life last Spring.  The things that he said inspired me as a writer but really had a huge impact on my ability as a director.  It is an absolute blessing to meet somebody in your life who is able to look at you and your work and give you a straightforward and honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses.  But to have that person also give you concrete and achievable advice for overcoming your weaknesses?  Even more amazing.

Jeff Heibein had the misfortune of being my Digital Imaging professor this semester.  I was only enrolled in two classes, Masters Thesis (which meant working on Catching Up) and Digital Imaging.  Obviously one of them was taking up the bulk of my time and energy, but Jeff was willing and able to help me juggle the time commitments of both.  He also is the sole reason that we have such an amazing teaser poster for the film, since it was completed as an assignment for that class and I used a lot of techniques that I learned from him to make it and his advice to make it even better.

Robert Johnson, a member of the faculty in the Justice, Law, and Society program, was the professor who actually prompted me to write this script in the first place.  It was for his class called “Crime, Media, and Culture” that I created Catching Up.  As a writer himself, Prof. Johnson encouraged us to make our final project a creative piece inspired by what we learned in the class.  Early on, when I mentioned growing up with my dad as a member of law enforcement and a guard he mentioned that he had read a lot of works from and about the inmates point of view but there weren’t as many pieces out there in the voice of the guards in our prison system.  Catching Up came from all of those things, and was directly inspired by a wonderful documentary he showed us called “How Do You Spell Murder.”  I encourage you to look it up.

Also, Geoff Turner at the SOC Equipment Room has always been a huge help.  I’m sure that I drive him absolutely crazy, but he’s never failed to come through when I needed him.

There are many, many other people at AU who have helped me over the last few years.  I’m afraid to start listing them because I know I’ll forget somebody unintentionally.  But please rest assured that I am grateful to all of my professors, and every member of the faculty and staff that have helped me out in any way.  From my advisor to my fellow students, everybody has been really great.  Thank you!

Photo courtesy of Jeannie Truesdell

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