Lights, Cameras, Action! — From a Master

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

PROFILE: JONATHAN WACKS
BROOKLYN COLLEGE’S BARRY R. FEIRSTEIN GRADUATE SCHOOL OF CINEMA

Profilewacks_059siloJONATHAN WACKS, founding professor of Brooklyn College’s Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, discusses what unique qualities the new film school — scheduled to open in the fall of 2016 on a working production lot — will bring to both students and the industry.

What is the vision for the program?
That is being formulated every day and it runs from the design of the building to that of the curriculum. There is a public context as well. The school intends to reach out to find those voices that are not being heard a lot. In New York City we are in an environment which is blessed by a wonderful diversity of people. That will be the essence of this film school.

How will you address changes in the cinema business itself?
I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to develop a set of curricular ideas that are responsive to the changes going on in the business. There are technological changes but also changes in the means of production, distribution, exhibition and the financial structures.

Today, a screen can be in a movie theater, at home or on a mobile phone. The distinction between television and cinema is rapidly blurring. We are going to address all those issues at Feirstein, including writing for television, writing for mobile, writing for YouTube etc. At the end of the day, it is all about storytelling and filmmaking, whether you are using a 35 mm camera or an iPhone. The question is: What do you want to say?

What role did the faculty in the undergraduate film department play in this?
A significant role. They developed the initial curriculum; it’s a working document. And some of them will be teaching in the graduate program. But there will be new professors hired, as well.

Why has there never been a film school on a working lot before?
Film schools didn’t exist till the ’60s and the people who worked in the industry came up through the ranks. The idea that you could actually learn how to make a movie at a university was in some ways antithetical to the way studios worked or the way universities worked.

And today? Or better said, tomorrow, at the Feirstein School?
What I like about our school is that it will give students a chance to be very focused. It will address the fact that there is an industry out there and students are going to leave this school prepared. Everybody may want to direct. But not everyone will be able to get a job directing. I do think it is important, though, that someone who wants to be a cinematographer takes courses in other areas as well. This also speaks to the advantage of being at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. Students will be on a campus where film professionals are actively engaged in their work. The plan is also to offer internships on these productions so that our students can take advantage of our location.
In regard to the development of our building, itself, one of the wonderful things is that we are not trying to shoehorn a film school into an existing building, which often happens. When you do that it is all aboutcompromise. The big plus for us is that we have an architectural plan for the school– and 69,000 square feet of space to develop it in.

Speaking of jobs, can a student take what he or she uses in film school to work elsewhere?
We will be giving students the tools to think through and create as filmmakers. These are tools that have relevance to many other endeavors they may wish to pursue. We will teach our students how to think critically and to problem solve. And that is relevant to everything you do in life.

Are you still working as a filmmaker?
When I got involved in academia, I had to pretty much put on hold whatever else I was doing except for screenwriting because I can do that and have a day job. I tend to write either dramatic fiction or comedy but the project I am working on right now is neither. It’s actually an adaptation of a police procedural called Coldsleep Lullaby, a book by Andrew Brown. I just wrote a comedy called Stuck which is about some college kids in Santa Fe, N.M., trying to get out of town. They can’t get any traction on their lives. Another project is an immigrant story. It takes place in the early part of the 20th century and it is about a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who falls in love with an African girl.

I’ll end with a question that I hope does not make you weary. Tell us about “Repo Man.”
Not at all. When I got out of film school at UCLA, I wanted to write and direct and so did two of my pals. We all agreed that whoever got the screenplay written first would direct and the two others would be producers. Three weeks later Alex Cox came back with “Repo Man” and Peter McCarthy and I produced it. The film that I am most proud of is “Powwow Highway,” a feature film, the first feature I directed. It brought together the political and the spiritual through the eyes of two Cheyenne Indians. It was “Repo Man,” though, that got me working on films that were fictional, even if “Repo Man” isn’t really fiction.