Big Screen Country 

How the University of Montana is building a cutting-edge moviemaking program

Missoula’s tradition of storytelling is steeped in literary narrative. From Norman Maclean and A River Runs Through It to Richard Hugo and the University of Montana’s Creative Writing program to James Crumley and the modern-day gang of crime-novel swashbucklers, the area’s been well established as fertile ground for fiction. In a sense, the Garden City nestled in the Rocky Mountains is the perfect home to the old craft of literature—quiet, subdued, more secluded than most places even as it grows into a bigger and bigger city. Missoula would seem to cater to the lifestyles of writers more so than, say, big-time Hollywood players.

Or, as some are betting, maybe not.

The same University of Montana that created one of the more esteemed writing programs in the nation is in the midst of building its equivalent in another creative arena: moviemaking. Tucked away within the School of Fine Arts under the banner of Media Arts, a graduate digital moviemaking program has developed with direct ties to major Hollywood players, new faculty with experience making award-winning independent films, newly renovated facilities with the latest technologies, and a growing enrollment rate speaking to its popularity.

“There’s no reason, in today’s digital world, that we can’t have a program here that has students making movies just as well as someone in Los Angeles or New York City,” says Michael Murphy, program director for Media Arts. “Location means little anymore with digital media. What students need to have are the tools to be competitive in the industry, and the teaching to know how to tell a good story. We can do those things as well as anybody.”

For Media Arts to reach this point took years of evolving the program, assistance from inside and outside the University system, and some luck. In some ways, the building of the graduate moviemaking program is similar to the making of an actual movie: the Media Arts script had to be written and re-written in multiple drafts over many years; casting was a long and arduous process, but hugely important to the project’s credibility; studio support and financial backing were vital to getting the project off the ground. And as with any movie, creative differences and off-set bickering were part of the process.

The script
In Hollywood, studios commission feature-length scripts about as often as the executives who purchase them work on their tans, which is to say often. Where those multitudes of screenplays go after completion is a long and tangled tale that rarely ends up on the big screen. One frequent practice is for a purchased script to be passed around in-house and commented upon—notes provided by dozens of creative bigwigs until the thing is so re-shaped the writers lose track of the story they’re trying to tell.

The script for the Media Arts program almost went that path. Michael Murphy readily admits the program struggled for some time to establish its identity. Murphy laid the groundwork for Media Arts in 1995 with Dr. James Kriley, and the degree was officially approved in 1998.

“We kind of hurled ourselves into the pool back then,” says Murphy, sitting on the couch in his spacious office, his coffee table littered with recently released DVDs, his walls decorated with production posters, and his floor host to stacks of screenwriting textbooks. “We understood that there would be a lot of things coming our way as far as the latest technologies and what the students wanted to do, and all we knew was that we wanted to come back to some basic principles that were real simple. For the longest time, if you looked at us all you would hear was story, story, story. It was our mantra no matter what we were doing.”

Story, story, story was the mantra partly because both Murphy and Kriley came from theater backgrounds, and story is what they know. Murphy is a professional actor and director who worked for years with New York’s prestigious Circle Repertory Company. Kriley, former dean of UM’s School of Fine Arts for 13 years, worked professionally in theater and taught in the Drama/Dance Department before launching Media Arts. Both envisioned that they could lend their narrative-teaching skills to the new program, fostering an environment that Murphy calls “a Renaissance curriculum.”

“In a sense, it was perfect because students are having to become Renaissance students everywhere, and learn a little bit of everything,” explains Murphy. “The trick when we started was we tried to do it all within our own program.”

Whereas traditional Media Arts schools focus on web design, motion graphics and digital art, with some elements of moviemaking, the Media Arts graduate program slowly evolved in the opposite direction—toward a core of moviemaking, with aspects of a traditional media arts school mixed in. The result was confusing to some students, but also sparked some academic discussion over what the definition of Media Arts should—or could—be.

“I didn’t want to just be a moviemaker when I went there,” says recent MFA graduate David Macasaet. His thesis project, Donuts at Night, was a short film screened at this summer’s Missoula Outdoor Cinema on the North Side, a series Macasaet founded. “I wanted to explore the art side of things, like sound design and motion graphics, while I made movies. Because story is at the heart of the program, I tried to think how I could express an idea across all sorts of different mediums.”

But, for better or worse, Murphy felt the Media Arts script needed tightening. As the program continued to grow on both the undergraduate (two students originally graduated with the minor in 2000; 130 are working toward it today) and graduate levels (15 are accepted into the program under increasingly selective criteria), the lack of a defined focus became a cause for concern.

“Finally we decided, we’ve got to commit and go in one direction,” says Murphy. “So, last year we made the decision that we needed to commit to moviemaking on a graduate level and do it well, as long as we could maintain a prominent digital arts component on the undergraduate level.”

This year Murphy will submit a proposal to the Board of Regents requesting the addition of a Media Arts undergraduate major at UM with a split-track focus on production or digital art and design (Murphy says more than 100 students in the minor have expressed interest in the major).

While the graduate program will still have access to the undergraduate components of digital arts and design, the graduate program will focus primarily on moviemaking.

Financial backing and studio support
Nothing in Hollywood gets far without financial backing. While 20th Century Fox made Titanic for a whopping $200 million plus, even “small” films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding are made for budgets close to $5 million. Money is important, and the state of Montana—especially when it comes to higher education—is not exactly in 20th Century Fox’s ballpark. In order for Media Arts to develop as a program, especially in the competitive arena of digital moviemaking, outside support was going to be hugely important.

Palmer West is 32 years old and a 1997 graduate of UM’s acting program. In 1998, he had already begun production of his first film (Saturn), and today he has five films completed, including Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and The Clearing starring Robert Redford. He has two more films in post-production and was recently at the Toronto Film Festival to support another film he’s helped produce.

“My family’s given money to a number of different areas of the school, but I had not,” says West, speaking from Toronto. “My parents are of the belief that financial support has to come from people because it’s certainly not coming from the state. So, when I spoke with Michael and Kriley about [Media Arts] and their ideas, it hit me right where it mattered.”

West is outspoken in his criticism of the School of Fine Arts during his time at UM. Looking for more than just stage acting experience, he felt the school was too restrictive when he attempted to delve into radio, television and other forms of media. Not long after he graduated, he and Murphy began discussing the Media Arts program, which was then still in its infancy. From the start, the program’s potential intrigued West.

“Palmer always told me, ‘Let me know when I can help,’” says Murphy. That time came four years ago when rare real estate became available in McGill Hall in the heart of UM’s campus. While a number of different departments and programs competed for the space, Media Arts knew it could secure McGill if it was able to bring an outside donation to the table. Renovating the space would allow the program to grow and update its facilities, essentially creating the equivalent of a studio lot.

West donated $1 million to the program, plus a $50,000 planning grant, in part to update McGill. According to Dean Shirley Howell, it’s the largest private donation to the School of Fine Arts since at least 1999.

“The arts department as a whole offers the full gambit of creative aspects that go into a film—lighting, sound, acting, directing, cameras, makeup, editing. It’s all on hand, but the one piece that was missing was something that brought it all together. Media Arts can be that piece,” says West. “I let them sweat the details, but I play the role of telling them where they could be.”

Where they could be, according to West, is at the forefront of the industry. He explains that while his films are still captured and projected on film, most of the work that goes into making them, such as sound design and editing, occurs digitally. Right now, with the program’s current equipment and facilities, West thinks Media Arts’ graduate program can compete with any other digital moviemaking program in the country.

For example, in the graduate lab on the second floor of the newly renovated McGill, each student has his or her own editing station outfitted with dual monitors, an Apple G-5 computer (some first-year students work on G-4s), and a software package including Final Cut Pro (for movie editing), DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro (to create movie scores), Motion 2 (for motion graphics), Final Draft (for script writing), Flash, Dreamweaver, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and more. The room is available to graduate students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for editing and refining their movies.

“This space is unbelievable,” says Joseph Long, a third-year graduate student at UM. “I can’t tell you how lucky we are to have the opportunity to work whenever we need to—it’s a huge advantage creatively.”

In addition to the graduate lab, McGill also houses two networked undergraduate labs, and all the seminar rooms include video projectors. The building’s old gymnasium has been turned into a rehearsal space with a corner dedicated to a “green-screen” for shooting scenes with computer-generated effects. There are plans to add a sound recording studio to record voice-overs and sound effects, as well as to record larger groups for movie scores.

“This is like no other traditional film school,” says West, who visits the campus regularly and provides feedback to students on their projects. “What they are doing is working toward a future trend, not a past trend. They are ahead of the curve, not on the curve.”

West is not the only supporter of the program. Additional Hollywood insiders have donated time and money, including Gerald R. Molen, a Montana resident and producer of such Steven Spielberg blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Minority Report.

Murphy credits UM administrators with helping to get the program where it is today, naming everyone from Dean Howell to President George Dennison.

“It’s like certain executives in a film studio believing in a project and supporting it from the beginning,” says Murphy, “all making sure that it happens.”

Andrew J. Smith made his mark in movies when he and his brother Alex debuted The Slaughter Rule at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. Andrew is still a working writer and director in regular contact with his brother about ongoing projects, but as of this fall, he’s also a tenure-track professor in the Media Arts program teaching two screenwriting classes and one directing course. Among the lessons he’s teaching is the value of good casting.

“The dirty secret I tell my students about directing is that most of your most important work is in casting,” says Andrew. “So, I’m encouraging the students to really consider the audition process and think about who they want, because if you find the right actors, your work becomes that much easier.”

The same could be said for Media Arts. In order to create a moviemaking graduate program, it helps to have faculty who have worked either behind the camera or selling scripts in Hollywood. While Murphy and Kriley were both experienced in narrative storytelling and writing, neither had the experience that Andrew brought to the table. His hire not only gave the program a boost of credibility, but the interviewing process also helped cement Media Arts’ direction. At the end of last year, as the program was looking to add faculty, it still had not focused on moviemaking over traditional digital art and design on the graduate level.

“We had one candidate [interview] for the position who was deeply involved and talented in the more traditional aspects of media arts and she said, ‘You have a wonderful program here and it’s exciting what you’re working on, but this is not what I do,’” Murphy recalls. “She was right. That was one of the signs that we needed to embrace the moviemaking part of the program…I think Andrew’s hire is a really exciting addition. He provides an expertise that was very important.”

For his part, Andrew is “loathe to take on the mantel of some sort of transformative figure.” He’s just excited to be home.

After growing up in Potomac, he attended Hellgate High School. His mother, Annick, is a renowned author and filmmaker (she produced Heartland, an independent movie about homesteader Eleanor Stewart), and their father, David, who passed away in the early ’70s, taught literature at UM under Richard Hugo. His mother also co-edited the seminal western anthology The Last Best Place with William Kittredge, who was a major influence in the house while Andrew grew up.

“I think one of the few times I was on campus before my interview was when I was 14 and sitting in on one of Bill’s western movie classes,” Andrew says. “So, it’s good to be back in all the ways that you can be back home.”

Andrew is in a good position to help current students because he, like them, is still trying to get his films made. The Slaughter Rule, which was honored after Sundance with a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards and won prizes at festivals in Santa Fe and Stockholm, didn’t generate much action at the box office after its successful festival tour.

“In some ways it’s as difficult, if not more so, to make your second film, especially if your first film is not a huge commercial success,” Andrew says. “On the one hand, you get more access to producers and financers because they know you’ve done something. But on the other hand they’re very skeptical because they can see it didn’t make a lick of cash.”

Since The Slaughter Rule, Alex and Andrew, who collaborate on all their projects, proceeded to work on scripts for various other Hollywood studios. They wrote one script for Disney; were commissioned to write another for ESPN (the Smiths are also vying to direct the project); and worked on an adaptation of a French graphic novel for Fox Searchlight, a project Andrew describes as “Scarface meets Passion of the Christ.” While he is still pursuing his professional career, the opportunity to help grow an up-and-coming program in his hometown appealed to Andrew.

“It’s fortunate that my experiences matched their interests in who they wanted to hire,” he says, noting that Alex is also teaching at the collegiate level in Austin, Texas. “I’m not particularly a pedagogue. I don’t think of myself so much as a teacher, but also a working filmmaker who’s just a little bit further ahead than these students—someone who has some suggestions on how to avoid the pitfalls.”

Graduate student Long, who’s working on a thesis of 11 short visual essays on the topic of identity, says Andrew’s arrival signals the program’s newfound credibility. “It’s a strong affirmation of where Media Arts is going,” he says. “He’s done what many here want to do in the future, so in that sense he’s a perfect fit.”

Creative Differences
Public relations is big business in Hollywood, and the reason is that bad gossip can kill a movie before it even hits the screen. When it was discovered that Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan were secretly dating on the set of Proof of Life, and that their affair ended Ryan’s marriage to Dennis Quaid, the film arrived in theaters DOA, known more as a home wrecker than an action-thriller.

For Media Arts, there’s one fundamental—and somewhat controversial—question hanging over the creation of a graduate program focused on moviemaking: Is that really what a Media Arts department is supposed to be about?

A number of current and former graduate students, who preferred to speak off the record, feel that it’s not. In addition, they feel the program has been dishonest about what it offers and less than straightforward about its current direction. The bulk of such criticism is that web design, digital art and motion graphics have taken a backseat at the graduate level to what is now nothing more than a traditional film school with digital cameras; it should, therefore, be referred to as such and not Media Arts. Others are disappointed to see the original vision of the program—the Renaissance idea—scrapped for a more conventional and focused approach.

“The controversy is interesting to me and makes the program that much more interesting,” says Macasaet, who was recently hired to teach Media Arts at the University of Great Falls. “Controversy is at the heart of drama and the program’s evolution had a lot of controversy attached to it. But I felt that tension pushed each area of the program in new directions. It’s sad in a way to have that tension resolved by choosing stricter categories.”

Long says he’s enjoyed his time in the program and has no regrets, but adds that “The program is much different now than when I entered. When I started it was more experimental in digital design, and now it’s focused almost entirely like a traditional film school, but using digital media.”

Murphy counters that graduate students will, in fact, have access to traditional digital arts through the undergraduate program. Their focus may be in moviemaking, but that does not change their ability to work digital arts into the creative process.

“The walls of these areas are continuing to break down,” says Murphy. “I don’t ever want to be constrictive of the definition of what the media arts can be, but it is important that we’re clear with students that at the graduate level we will center on making digital movies.”

Opening Night
It’s Palmer West’s job as a producer to not only fund a project, but to get everyone involved in the making of the movie on the same page. That includes helping people see a vision of the film, imagining what it will all look like on the big screen. He’s not the sole producer in the Media Arts project, but he understands fully where it is in a still-developing process.

“It’s still not all there yet, not by any stretch,” he says. “It’s an imperfect system, and academia is a difficult system to change. But what the University of Montana has with Media Arts is really unique: It’s situated in such a student-friendly place, and it would be a great opportunity to take advantage of that atmosphere. It can be a film program that not only brings together different aspects of the college—the talent in creative writing and drama, and with directing and lighting and all of it—but also shares it with the community. It could be a great outlet for that entire part of Montana.”

But, for now, West’s vision is still just buzz. The program is still developing, the equivalent of a promising film greenlighted by UM administrators. Will UM’s program be an independent success like My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Could it surprise the Titanics of the film school world by competing for students with the likes of New York University or the University of Southern California? Will it be undercut by creative differences and go straight to video, like Ernest Goes to Camp? Or could it become what West envisions, another great feather in UM’s cap, much like the Creative Writing program, producing classics like A River Runs Through It?

There are enough questions to raise suspicions of a sequel. But consider this: chances are most current students at UM never read Maclean’s A River Runs Through It—they saw the movie instead.

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