In the spring of 1986, Sandra Luckow ’87 was a junior in Yale College. Like most second semester juniors, she had the senior thesis project on her mind. As an American Studies major, the 40-page paper was the only acceptable project. She chose to challenge that.
Just that year, Yale had introduced a new major, Film Studies, now known as Film and Media Studies. Luckow, an aspiring filmmaker, decided to take on Film Studies as her double major. When the time came, she wanted to create a film, or a documentary to be precise, for her thesis project. She was one of the first students to major in Film Studies; submitting a film as a thesis project was unprecedented. “It was not the Yale way,” Luckow said. For her project, Luckow had proposed to her professor, Michael Roemer, a documentary on homelessness in New Haven. When he asked her what she knew about the topic, she admitted she knew nothing. “He urged me to film what I know.”
Luckow grew up in Portland, Oregon, and had ice skated since childhood. In New Haven, she continued skating. Her passion for ice skating led her home in search of a subject. There she found a local figure skater with whom she had once shared the rink, a 15-year-old with more talent than Luckow had ever seen. In fact, she would one day become the first American female figure skater to land a triple axel in competition before controversy embroiled her career. At the time, though, the skater was headed to her first national championship. At 15, her age made this feat noteworthy, as did her background. “She came from the rougher side of town,” Luckow said. “It was the story of the underdog.” Luckow wanted to follow the skater on her journey to nationals.
With a new story, one that weaved both Luckow’s majors into one feature-length documentary, she approached the thesis committee. After some persistence and indeed rejection, the committee finally said yes.
Though the Film and Media Studies Program (FMS) was established in 1986 as Film Studies, courses in production and critical study had been available in the School of Art since the early 1940s. Currently, there are nearly 40 students in FMS. It is common, expected even, for senior theses to be films, though some students still choose the traditional 40-page paper.
Seniors in FMS choosing to create a film for the thesis are able to create a documentary or narrative style film. Every aspect of the project is the work of the student: its writing, shooting, directing and editing. Rebecca Shoptaw ’18, a senior FMS major, recently completed her thesis film. It began as just an idea almost a year ago. A narrative film, it centers on two young men in high school working on a “sad gay play.” The film deals with the representation of queer characters in the arts; the gay play prompts conversation about this issue within the film, just as the film itself prompts discourse among viewers.
While technical and production courses are available, the program differs greatly from the tech-heavy film degrees at specialized film schools like New York University and Savannah College of Art and Design. “It’s still a liberal arts degree,” Kristina Cuello ’19 said. Students in FMS don’t look to receive a comprehensive, structured education one may receive from film school. TJ Noel-Sullivan ’20 said that his technical skills, like those of most student filmmakers, are self-taught. “We are learning how to tell stories,” he added, “how to create stories worth telling.” There are eight courses that pertain to production in the program while over 30 focus on the history, theory and criticism of film.
The reason that FMS does not emphasize the technical bits behind filmmaking to the degree of other undergraduate film programs is due to the rate at which technology develops. It would not prove fruitful to teach a student how to operate one type of camera for four years if, upon graduation, that camera was deemed obsolete and the student had never learned how to craft a dynamic story. “The only piece of equipment that hasn’t changed entirely since my thesis project,” Luckow said, “is the microphone.”
Edward Columbia ’18 and Cyrus Duff ’18 plan to begin post-production on their feature length film “Plain Fiction” this summer. Columbia has worked on “Plain Fiction” for over five years, writing and developing it originally as a play. In the summer of 2016, the two began developing the story into a film, with Columbia writing the screenplay and Duff drafting the shotlist.
The movie follows a young novelist after his best selling debut novel inspires a gruesome murder as he hides in an enigmatic hotel, both from the public and the violent character he created. As a play, the entire narrative took place in the hotel. But, as a film, the story is able to inhabit more spaces — the real world.
“Because this is not a film school,” Columbia said, “students should not be passive about receiving inspiration, ideas, or training. It won’t come to you here.” Columbia added that Yale is a place to be active; the tools are here, the people eager, but the actual creation of art relies on one’s own initiative.
While the two are both filmmakers, neither are exclusively just that, and neither are film majors. Columbia is studying East Asian Studies, and Duff Music. “This is not a vocational school for me,” Columbia said. “It is [a] place where I can learn various things that help me tell stories effectively.” Yale provides ample opportunities, through funding and resources, for students to explore film. In addition, courses in FMS are not restricted to only students in the major.
The permeability of FMS allows students from all majors to receive instruction in both theoretical and production film courses. Learning how to tell a story is applicable to any field. Lukas Cox ’19 is studying Literature and Comparative Cultures, a major in which he “reads film as literature.” Though he has not taken technical courses in filmmaking yet, the opportunity remains available.
Once Columbia and Duff returned to campus, they assembled a team to produce the film: a crew of roughly 40 and a cast of 20, an eclectic bunch of New Haven, New York and Los Angeles professionals. “It is not exaggerated to say that over a hundred people somehow put their hands in this to help,” Columbia said, “most of which are New Haven locals with no relation to the University.” Though the project is not a Yale project, Columbia and Duff have connected with the Yale film community through the alumni network and a few undergraduates.
What makes “Plain Fiction” different is its feature-length. This is why it required years to develop, as well as an expansive cast and crew. Noel-Sullivan found himself working the camera on the film. “[‘Plain Fiction’] was my first exposure to a bigger set,” he said. “That experience is what helped me get my internship this past summer.”
Cory Finley ’12 is now beginning his career as a filmmaker. His debut film, “Thoroughbreds,” recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and is slated for release on March 9. The movie follows two estranged childhood friends, Amanda and Lily, as they reconnect over a shared disdain for Lily’s stepfather. These characters belong to suburban Connecticut’s upper class, but the film’s plot grows thicker than the stepfather’s wallet.
Like many Yale undergraduates, Finley was heavily involved in theatre. While here, Finley acted, wrote and produced numerous plays. But, an inspiring class with English professor Anne Fadiman and the pressure to have a “capital ‘J’ Job” led him to journalistic work after graduation. “I really enjoyed it, but I missed playwriting,” Finley said, “So after that, I moved to New York to confront, head on, my fear of not having a more structured job.”
Finley spent the five years that followed writing plays, on his own time, and sending them around. He tutored students for the SAT to pay the bills. He produced numerous plays, too, Off-Off-Broadway shows, sometimes OFF-Off-Off-Broadway shows. Slowly but surely, Finley was building up a career as a playwright — until the theater ushered him to film.
“Thoroughbreds” began as a play, which developed over the two years he spent in New York. While writing it, he began to think pieces of the story would be better realized cinematically rather than theatrically. Around this time, he also made general rounds in Los Angeles, just getting his foot in the door. There he met a group of Hollywood professionals who were excited about “Thoroughbreds,” not as a play, but as a film.
Going forward, Finley says he will continue with film, but not without a deep love and appreciation for theatre. Yale gave him the opportunity to tell stories, though at the time his medium was the stage. The creative community here acted as a toolbox of sorts, giving him the time and space to create. Though he had no previous technical or vocational training, Yale still prepared him for his career as a filmmaker. “What is important,” he said, “it is that you know how to tell a story.”
Within film, a versatile medium, there are many ways to present stories. Most of Yale’s film community, much like the theatre community, has an affinity for narrative fiction. This creation of an alternate reality can explore broad themes, or tackle small, poignant points. That is its beauty.
Cox said narrative short films is what he loves creating. However, he has a technical background and the ability to create most all types of film, so he often works on other Yale student’s projects: commercial films, comedy shorts, music videos. “That’s how I fund my work,” he said, laughing after he rattled off an overwhelmingly long list of projects he is worked on.
Last winter, he completed his most recent narrative film, In Arms. Set in a bathroom, the film concerns two brothers hiding from the reality of their mother’s funeral. “It’s not that heavy,” he said. But this story is what pushed him to make a film — he always starts with a story.
Some stories are borrowed, adapted to create ones that are new. With funding from a Creative and Performing Arts grant, Shoptaw adapted George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch, into a gender-bent, vlog-style web series. While this major project and her senior thesis are both in narrative style, she often takes a more abstract approach with non-narrative structures. “They’re just characters feeling things,” she said. The story, though, exists beyond what scenes and vignettes present.
Shoptaw’s work, which can be found on her Youtube channel, emphasizes LGBTQ representation. This issue of representation is important to her, for it brought her into film. “I originally thought about representation in relation to my own experience,” she said, “how it helped me express my own sexuality, sort of recreating that for other people.” But as she develops as a filmmaker, she is exploring all the different narratives there are to tell, searching for new perspectives, and using film and its various forms to voice unheard stories.
Perhaps the most evocative style which Yale filmmakers take advantage of is non-fiction, the documentary. Matt Nadel ’21, who has yet to declare his major, is currently working on a documentary for the Yale Politic. Last year, The Politic began a series of annual documentaries highlighting social injustice or another local quandary. Nadel is joined by Keerthana Annamaneni ’20, Mehr Nadeem ’19 and Cox.
This year, the publication’s documentary follows the story of Scott Lewis, a New Haven resident who was recently released after spending 20 years in prison for double murder. He was found, in the end, not guilty of his crimes. But, the film as well as Lewis, does not dwell on the time missed. Instead, it centers on the vibrancy of his work and his newly restored family.
Nadel is keen on is the creative aspect of a nonfiction film. The best way to tell a real story, Nadel argued, is by taking advantage of storytelling techniques, as his documentary for The Politic demonstrates. The documentary emphasizes the way in which the story is presented. It works to make interviews narrative, giving a story to every shot. “Using visuals as figurative tools, nuance, layering,” he explained, “is not restricted to fiction films.”
Luckow’s documentary film, Sharp Edges, was a success and won Yale’s Louis Sudler Prize in the Performing and Creative Arts. Not only had she broken precedent by submitting a film for her thesis project, but she had garnered the University’s respect for film as an art form.
She was interested in sharing the story itself, as well as her storytelling abilities. However, the skater and her family didn’t want the public to know of her impoverished upbringing. “The sport is like a pageant,” Luckow said, “and they didn’t want any more disadvantage.” Luckow was disappointed. She moved to New York City to earn a MFA from New York University and live as a “starving artist.”
Eight years later, the humble skater was no longer just some poor girl from Portland. She was Tonya Harding, Olympic athlete and the center of one of the biggest scandals in figure skating history. Tabloids and news outlets spewed false information and speculation from any source they could find, searching for the answer to the question everyone was asking: Who is Tonya Harding?
Luckow knew the answer; in fact, Luckow’s senior thesis was the only existing non-tabloid depiction of Harding. “I thought ‘Maybe we should get this out?’” Luckow said. “So I reached out.” This time, whether out of hope or desperation, Harding said yes.
Luckow contacted Don Hewitt, an executive producer of “60 Minutes” who she had met years ago at a Yale dinner. She asked if he remembered the film, he said yes, and recalled it was about “some skater.” She said, “Yeah, some skater named Tonya Harding.” Now, Luckow instigated a bidding war between ABC and CBS. Twenty-four hours later, a huge deal came from “60 Minutes,” and she took it.
That Sunday, “60 Minutes” aired the entirety of Luckow’s film, which became one of the most-watched segments in “60 Minutes” history.
This solidified Luckow’s rising career in film. She said, “After this, I had Harvey Weinstein come to me and ask, ‘What do you want to make?’” Michael Roemer’s words echoed in her mind: Film what you know. So she made a film about ventriloquism.
Luckow has made a career, both in the film industry and as a professor, by sticking with what she knows. Though she attended film school after college, she credits storytelling for her success. “Explore the world you are interested in,” she said. “Find a story to tell, come to film with stories rather than techniques.” Beginning with a passion is key, a passion strong enough to pull an aspiring filmmaker through the technical learning process. You will learn with intent, with the story pressing on your mind, begging to be told.
“It is a hell of a lot of work to make a movie. You very damn well be interested in what you’re saying.”
Dustin Dunaway | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Mar 31: This article has been revised to more accurately reflect Sandra Luckow’s major at the time of her graduation, the timeline of her thesis proposal, and Edward Columbia and Cyrus Duff’s comments on the Film and Media Studies Program.