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Behind the scenes of CA’s ambitious filmmaking program

 

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Harvey Burrell ’09 tests camera gear for Windy Films, a film production company he co-founded with Tripp Clemens ’09.

 

Alistair Wilson ’11 remembers the precise moment he got interested in making films. As a sophomore at Concord Academy, he read an email from longtime teacher Ben Stumpf ’88, who was recruiting students for a documentary about climate change and New England fishing. Wilson jumped at the chance to participate. He soon started taking classes with film teacher Justin Bull, who has been at CA since 2007. A little more than a year ago, Wilson and Jordan Beard ’11 founded the production company Weekend Studio in Boston. Both credit CA with inspiring their love of filmmaking. “We were constantly making stuff,” Beard says. “Justin put a camera in our hands on day one. The experience got us hooked.”

Weekend Studio shares a building with Windy Films, where Harvey Burrell ’09 and Tripp Clemens ’09 create short films that tell stories of social impact and innovation. Burrell admires Bull’s “commitment and energy for pushing the outer limits of what a high school film program can do.” Clemens studied film in college. Burrell didn’t. But they share a background in CA’s film program. “We can reach out to CA alums to work with and know that they have a base of common knowledge,” Clemens says. (Ben Glass ’16 interned at Windy Films this summer, Carter Kratkiewicz ’16 at Weekend Studio.)

Burrell and Clemens co-directed that documentary of Stumpf’s back in 2009. Cold Water won a production grant from WGBH, which Stumpf used to buy new gear and start a weekly film series called Dinner Docs. “When kids decide to take on documentary projects, they’re doing research and also working from their deepest passions,” he says. “So you might see student films about sports culture or the refugee crisis.” Two of his students, Gwen Sadie ’17 and Rafi Barron ’17, made what he considers “the best film on the internet about intersectional feminism.”

Stumpf, who teaches computer science, graphic design, and documentary and introductory narrative filmmaking, traces his passion for film to his own student days at CA in Chris Rowe’s animation course. Stumpf earned his master’s in filmmaking while teaching at CA and still considers Rowe a mentor.

For his part, Rowe, who once taught film and now teaches primarily drawing and architecture, has watched the film program’s trajectory since he came to CA in 1985. He calls Bull “the perfect blend of go-for-it and professionalism.” Students are using college-grade gear to make movies, and affordable digital equipment has encouraged experimentation and collaboration. “Digital technology has allowed the arts to bleed into each other,” Rowe says. “For schools that’s a challenge because we’re used to teaching discrete subjects. But the categories are frankly no longer relevant, especially to students who can now make sophisticated videos on their smartphones. What we’re seeing is a democratization and cross-pollination across media.”

Amy Spencer, head of performing arts and a dance teacher, agrees. “Video is how our students are exploring work from other dancers and finding outlets for their own,” she says. “We need to address changes in how people will be viewing the arts. We’re trying to explore synergy between art forms as much as possible.”

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Left: Jordan Beard ’11 and Alistair Wilson ’11 on a Weekend Studio shoot. Right: Filming students at CA.

 

The Collaborative Art of Film

The shift to digital technology has allowed Bull to dream up, and realize, big projects. He’s engaged in an “ongoing attempt to erode barriers,” he says, between performing and visual arts. Film is really both. It also requires creative writing, technical skills, and business acumen. “It’s a strange beast,” he says. “That’s why I like it.” Soon after Bull arrived at CA, Spencer and dance program director Richard Colton reached out to him. “I caught the bug and wanted to collaborate more,” he says. In 2011, a semester-long joint production brought his students to Maryland to shoot Dance Company’s Alice Underground and a related narrative short, Wonderland.

“Students come to understand the nature of large-scale, collaborative artmaking that is the heart of filmmaking.”

– Justin Bull

Impressed by the Dance Company and Theater Company models, Bull introduced yearlong Feature Film courses. The first result was an improvised minimalist character study, Extracurricular. “We learned a lot and put so much love into it,” Bull says, “but it didn’t cause a blip when I submitted it to festivals.” Later he coordinated with English teacher Laurence Vanleynseele on a course about collective consciousness. Kratkiewicz, now studying filmmaking at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, was in the class that made the related science fiction thriller Merge. “No one knew how we were going to pull it off on top of the rest of our schoolwork, but Justin made it happen,” he says. “Not only did we make a feature-length film, but we made something we could all be proud of.” Merge premiered in 2016 at the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival, followed by Sci-Fi-London, where Sight & Sound hailed it as one of the festival’s 10 highlights.

Last year’s Much Ado About Nothing was CA’s first movie musical. With a screenplay co-written by Jared Green ’88 and original music by the Magnetic Fields (a band that includes Claudia Gonson ’86 and Sam Davol ’88), it was a multigenerational CA endeavor. It also involved four classes of students in music, dance, and film.

Having recently taught Dance, Music, and New Media with Bull and choral director Michael Bennett, Spencer describes a recent shift in educators’ roles. “Teachers are acting as facilitators, with students as content creators,” she says. “That changes the dynamic and means we need different sorts of spaces for different modes of working.” Bull, too, wants to “work in a space that breaks down barriers in a literal sense,” he says. He’s also considering collaborating with other filmmakers. “It would be amazing for students in the Feature Film course to work with a resident filmmaker,” he says, “maybe a recent alum who could come back to direct.”

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CA students in performance and production tracks of Justin Bull’s Feature Film course, filming Much Ado About Nothing.

 

A Balanced Approach to Filmmaking

As with any artistic discipline at Concord Academy, film teachers are practicing artists. Stumpf makes documentaries. Bull is a narrative filmmaker and a successful screenwriter. He holds the Katherine Carton Hammer ’68 Endowed Faculty Chair, which recognizes and supports gifted midcareer teaching. He’s using school-awarded funds to shoot a few short films and deepen his postproduction skills.

Bull ensures that new students learn by making and that advanced students communicate in teams to tell strong stories. Beginning students complete several short projects while learning the basics of shot composition, screenwriting, editing, continuity, lighting, set design, and audio. Stumpf, who collaborates with Bull on the introductory film curriculum, says, “Justin is always looking toward the next wave of filmmaking. I love to watch this art form evolve, to see kids engage.” As a capstone experience, advanced classes are split into two crews with specialized roles in Film Production Workshops. In the Feature Film courses, students “come to understand the nature of large-scale, collaborative artmaking that is the heart of filmmaking,” Bull says.

“CA was where I was first told I could be a filmmaker,” says Dani Girdwood ’11, who is getting her start assisting independent filmmakers and is also directing her own projects. “I credit Justin Bull with having brought to CA a really balanced approach between cultivating the craft to curate a portfolio and working on a big project with 30 or so others, which reflects the practical nature of the film industry.”

“CA was where I was first told I could be a filmmaker.”

– Dani Girdwood ’11

Not all CA film students become filmmakers, but the skills they learn are highly transferrable. Benjamin Bell ’93 went on to develop video games such as the Sims, Guitar Hero, Call of Duty, and EverQuest. Daniel Coppersmith ’11 studies anxiety in children at the National Institute of Mental Health. Directing Alice Underground at CA was “one of the most formative experiences” he had in high school, giving him a sense of “autonomy and empowerment,” he says. “Both filmmaking and research are very structured. You have to execute complex projects, collaborating with large groups and calling on many ways of thinking.”

Many students stumble into filmmaking at CA. When he arrived, Paolo Sanchez ’14 had not given much thought to film classes as an option. He didn’t think of himself as artistic. “I liked watching movies,” he said, “but I was blown away by the rich history of film and how much there was to learn.” He recalls campus speaking visits from alumnae/i such as journalist Sebastian Junger ’80 and cinematographer Rachel Morrison ’96 as “amazing opportunities to be in a room with CA people who kept going with their passions, to see where our work might take us.” Bull shared his love of films as well, and of teaching. Now applying to both MFA and doctoral programs in film, Sanchez envisions himself one day teaching, he says, “with the same energy and passion as Justin.”

Some alumnae/i are already shaping the next generation of filmmakers. Alex Fichera ’11 studied with Bull at CA and with Sally Rubin ’95, who teaches documentary filmmaking, at Chapman University. He praises Bull’s “keen sense of story” as a screenwriter. “He’s great at getting young people to ignore the temptation to overuse special effects and gimmicks, making sure you’re focused on the narrative, emotional core of the story,” he says. Rubin, he says, is a very different kind of filmmaker, from the boots-on-the-ground documentary world. Her lessons included how to work with documentary subjects, the ethical role of the filmmaker, and how editing transforms and shapes a story.

No matter the approach, CA student filmmakers gain skills for life. Of her own experience, Rubin says, “I’ve been making films about the underdog since I was at CA, where I was encouraged to find my passion, to have a voice in the world that can make a difference. That’s always been what’s rooted me. CA is an absolutely incredible place, and I’m so grateful to it.”
 

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Filming Quess Green ’16 during a Windy Films shoot at CA.

 

 

A Long History of Film at CA

 

A no-holds-barred spirit has animated CA’s film program since it began 50 years ago under then-English teacher Russell Mead, who later became headmaster. Super 8 cameras and editing equipment arrived for the first film class in 1967. In the early 1970s, adventurous filmmakers, including Gerry and Kit Laybourne, Chuck McVinney, Peter Simmons, and Todd Crocker taught animation, film history, and production. Jean Pierce Morrow took over in 1977.

The school’s rich filmmaking legacy matters to alumnae/i. David Kissinger ’79, president of Conaco, the television production company owned by comedian Conan O’Brien, says the film program had a “huge influence” on him, and he still clearly recalls his student films: a Beatles music video, shot in the Chapel, and a Buster Keaton homage, Ralph Goes to School. “It was my first time thinking about how to make a film,” he says. “We were running around with cameras, shooting scripts, and editing by hand. It was very tactile and satisfying.”

Chris Rowe began directing the film program in 1986 and joined a cohort of young filmmakers. Self-taught, he jumped into animation using a still camera. Though he describes the “creative chaos” of the 1990s as exhausting, he gave his students freedom to fail and fostered “a healthy recklessness” that served them well. He says, “I like to think that the spirit of what we were trying informs the program now.”

Rowe had a big influence on documentary archival producer Becca Bender ’95, who tackled an independent study with him. He later helped her land a job in Los Angeles. Independent filmmaker Emily Abt ’93 also links her career to Rowe and CA. “That’s where my passion ignited,” she says.


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Beyond Film Classes

Even outside the media lab, aspects of CA’s educational approach also influenced alumnae/i now working in media. Andrew Herwitz ’79, who runs the Film Sales Company, credits history, English, and art history teachers for preparing him for his career. “Endless chatting about matters both large and trivial with friends,” he says, taught him to appreciate good storytelling. Producer and director Caroline Suh ’89 says, “The education we got in high school gave us a strong idea that we could do something creative in life.” She remembers hearing author Susan Minot ’74 and producer Sarah Pillsbury ’69 speak. “Those experiences showed us we also could have jobs working in creative fields.”
 

Left: Former headmaster Russ Mead teaching one of the first film classes at CA. An early-era film student in the media lab.

Rowe’s successor, Marc Fields, brought a cinephile seriousness to the program when he arrived in 1999. An Emmy winner who had taught in the graduate film program at NYU and produced a weekly arts magazine for New Jersey Public Television, he appreciated CA’s seriousness about “artmaking as a legitimate subject for study,” he says. Fields developed a full spectrum of narrative and documentary film production and film studies courses. “I attach a lot of importance to the opportunity to accomplish something through making, not simply through academic evaluation,” Fields says. “My colleagues at CA were examples of that pedagogy working on all levels.”

Now director of the graduate film program at Emerson College, Fields was the first CA teacher to be recognized with the Katherine Carton Hammer ’68 Endowed Faculty Chair. “Talk about support,” he says. “I’m very grateful to the school.” The funds helped him develop Give Me the Banjo, which aired on PBS in 2011. Shaun Clarke ’03 was on the first shoot and continued on the project as associate producer. Now he teaches alongside Fields at Emerson. He came to CA for its film program. “Other schools had them,” he says, “but CA’s was more robust.”

“The education we got in high school gave us a strong idea that we could do something creative in life.”
– Caroline Suh ’89
Clarke describes the discipline required to shoot and edit in analog film as transformational. “Marc was extraordinarily knowledgeable about filmmaking across a variety of modes,” he says. “He was also patient, nice, and encouraging. That created a real community among us.” The film program likewise drew Sara’o Bery ’05. “Marc will always be the best film teacher I ever had,” he says. “The greatest testament to that education was what a leg up I had when I got to college. We were truly doing college-level film theory from freshman year on at Concord.”

Looking back, Fields says, “I wasn’t prepared for the students’ limitless hunger for learning and doing as much as possible. I couldn’t have asked for more motivated, intellectually curious young people. I just gave them the opportunities and the tools to know what they were capable of doing.”

CA’s former film students are eager to share what those opportunities have helped them achieve. When her documentary First Position came out, Bess Kargman ’00 says, she wanted CA students to see it “because of the love of art and making and creativity that is nourished at CA,” so she included the school in screenings.

The film curriculum may have changed over the years, but the spirit of the courses remains the same: rigorous, adventurous, collaborative. All in.
 

 

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: VIDEO

CA teacher Justin Bull talks about the film program and the most recent feature film made at CA, a movie musical of Much Ado About Nothing. Watch the video and a trailer here.
 

Photos by Ben Carmichael ’01 and courtesy of Windy Films, with Jordan Beard ’11, and Weekend Studio.

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