Yale is no stranger to the limelight. Given visits from film luminaries such as Spike Lee and Meryl Streep, Alexander Payne’s upcoming Master’s Tea may at first seem like just another instance of a Hollywood star sweeping through the Yale campus. Payne, who directed 1996’s “Citizen Ruth” and wrote and directed 1999’s “Election,” won a Golden Globe for best screenplay for 2002’s “About Schmidt”.
But Payne’s visit this coming weekend includes an unprecedented level of interaction with students and focus on the production aspect of film — frequently cited as a neglected area within the Film Studies department.
Besides giving a Master’s Tea and hosting a screening of “Election” at the Whitney Humanities Center on March 29, Payne will be leading a series of workshops for Film Studies majors and Yale Film Society members in screenwriting and directing the previous day. He will also critique a select few student films that have been preselected.
Esme von Hoffman ’06, chair of YFS guest relations, said she is excited about Payne’s visit. A history major, von Hoffman’s experience so far revolves around making 16 mm films, from which she will have to depart to use Sudler Fund money for her next film this year. While von Hoffman likes to work in actual film media, Yale only offers a digital media format at its new Digital Media Center for the Arts. Von Hoffman said she is not too bothered by the limitations of Yale’s program.
“The Film Studies department is wonderful, but it’s small,” von Hoffman said. “I think it is up and coming and [Payne’s visit] is an exciting event that will help improve film at Yale.”
Jonathan Smith ’04, the director of “Tri-State,” first started making films in high school. After making two films his sophomore year at Yale, Smith’s 35-minute short “One Room, Two Women” was a Student Academy Awards Regional Semifinalist his junior year.
While the majority of film studies majors are aspiring filmmakers, students complain that the department itself is more focused on film theory than the production aspect. A film studies major, Smith said he has noticed a lack of faculty support for student projects.
“It’s an ongoing battle here between filmmakers and professors,” Smith said. “I understand where the professors are coming from, but I don’t think the conflict is going to subside anytime soon.”
While Smith said he has only met two film students who study theory instead of pursuing production, he says there exists only a “loose community” amongst student filmmakers.
“It’s kind of hard to function as a filmmaker at Yale since it’s such an independent scene — you have to initiate your projects yourself,” Smith said. “The community that does exist here has been utterly satisfactory.”
Some students, however, are attempting to gain more cohesion within the Yale filmmaking community. After coming to Yale as a “wide-eyed” freshman looking to jump into film, Adam Davenport ’06 said he was disappointed by Yale’s offerings. University Pictures, known as UPix, a filmmaking club founded in 1983 by “Flashdance” actress Jennifer Beals ’83 and director George Hickenlooper ’86, was defunct. YFS was flourishing, but did not concentrate on the filmmaking Davenport wanted to pursue. So he decided to found his own production company, Bulldogs Productions.
“If you want to get into film, there hasn’t been really a venue for you to get hands-on and learn the ropes,” Davenport said.
Drawing a distinction between the loose network of film students and the tight, Dramat-based community of theater students, Davenport described Bulldogs Productions as a “collaborative effort” with the goal of producing one student work each semester. Bulldogs Productions’ current project, a 40-minute short film titled “The Davis Sisters” and directed by Davenport, is scheduled to premiere next weekend at the Whitney Humanities Center.
A literature major, Davenport said he plans to go to film school after Yale. He said the film program here is not attuned to his own interests in production and said its theory-based approach was “not very practical.” Nonetheless, he said he sees the program moving forward — slowly.
“I feel like there is a roadblock here, but we’re wildly ahead of where we were two years ago,” Davenport said. “It’s an uphill battle.”
Film Studies professor Michael Roemer said the filmmaking program has been “terrifically improved” in his time at Yale. When he first started teaching in 1966, there were no filmmaking classes at all.
“That students might feel that there isn’t enough attention paid to filmmaking is very understandable,” Roemer said. “But my perspective is different because I’ve seen such great improvement.”
With three professors teaching film production — not including classes in ancillaries such as screenwriting — Roemer said Yale’s film department has come a long way. Roemer himself teaches one introductory as well as one intermediate filmmaking class, in addition to classes in American documentary filmmaking and film comedy. Roemer said he found the Film Studies department open and encouraging of his filmmaking classes.
“I think that years ago there probably was some real reluctance, but now I don’t feel it at all,” Roemer said. “I feel totally endorsed by them. I think everybody is very supportive at this point.”
Greg Yolen ’04, who wrote “Tri-State” and took this past fall semester off to film it, said he plans to pursue screenwriting professionally after graduation. Originally interested in attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Yolen decided in favor of a broader education at Yale instead. He said he has not regretted that choice.
“Yale is not a film school, so it’s not a film school experience,” Yolen said. “But as a creative environment, Yale is unmatched.”