Tag Archive for Film Studies

Bronstein ’89, Selkow ’96 join Reza Aslan for CNN Documentary Series ‘Believer’

“We have to give a shout-out to Jeanine Basinger, who changed all of our lives with her incredible mind and teaching,” Bronstein adds. “Exactly—teaching the principles of story, the foundation of drama and cinema, which we were rigorous in trying to apply to the series.”—Selkow Adds Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies:  “I am really looking forward to seeing this show.  I’m very excited that two of my very best film students, Ben and Liz, are working together on this.  It’s a good example of the collaboration that all students who study film at Wesleyan learn.

Two film alumni, Liz Bronstein ’89 and Ben Selkow ’96 collaborated on the new CNN series, Believer. “We have to give a shout-out to Jeanine Basinger, who changed all of our lives with her incredible mind and teaching,” Bronstein notes.
Selkow concurs, adding “She taught us the principles of story, the foundation of drama and cinema, which we were rigorous in trying to apply to the series.”
For her part, Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies says she’s looking forward to the show. “I’m very excited that two of my very best film students, Ben and Liz, are working together on this. It’s a good example of the collaboration that all students who study film at Wesleyan learn.”

A new CNN original series, Believer with Reza Aslan, premieres Sunday, March 5, at 10 p.m. ET. Billed as a “spiritual adventure series,” in which Aslan, acclaimed author and religious scholar, will “immerse himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer.” The show employs the talents of two alumni who majored in film at Wesleyan: executive producer and show runner Liz Bronstein ’89 and director Ben Selkow ’96. Additionally, Professor of Religion Liza McAlister provided both academic scholarship and on-the-ground connections when the crew traveled to Haiti for the segment on Vodou, which will air as third in the series.

Bronstein joined the project soon after a close friend sold Believer to CNN. “He told me, ‘This is the show you were born to run—and he was right.” Growing up with a “spiritually curious mother” who’d often invite different gurus to their home—and with a sister who’d left to join what the family viewed as a cult—Bronstein welcomed this opportunity “to tell the stories that I’d always wanted to tell.”

She began searching for a nonfiction television director who was also a filmmaker. Selkow fit the bill, and, like Bronstein, came with a unique backstory: he had spent most of his youth living with his mother on a religious commune. Both envisioned the show as an immersive experience. The team formed a tight bond, which became crucial in what Selkow calls “dicey situations.”

In one of these (see the trailer), Aslan is seated on the sand next to a cannibalistic tribe member, whose gestures and mood turn threatening. Aslan calls Selkow over from off-camera for assistance.

“The adage in filmmaking is that when you stop rolling, that’s when the action gets good—so we kept rolling,” Selkow recalls. “And It’s amazing to watch the scene unfold, with Reza slowly realizing that he’s in a perhaps dangerous situation and figuring out how to handle it.”

The new CNN series, Believer with Reza Aslan takes viewers on an immersive tour with the noted scholar, with Liz Bronstein ’89 as executive producer and Ben Selkow ’96 as director.

The new CNN series, Believer with Reza Aslan takes viewers on an immersive tour with the noted scholar, with Liz Bronstein ’89 as executive producer and Ben Selkow ’96 as director. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

One of the biggest challenges in filming the show was gaining access to religious communities that were often closed off and wary of outsiders. Bronstein found that working with academic scholars who had done extensive field research often opened a lot of doors in local communities.

For the episode exploring Vodou in Haiti, she researched foremost scholars: “Everybody we talked to said, ‘Liza McAlister is the one.’”

In the episode, McAlister provides Aslan with both the historical and cultural perspective on Vodou. “But more than that, she acted as an incredible ambassador and helped us get access to people we wouldn’t have known,” said Bronstein.

“You could see her years of work in the community,” said Selkow. “She was deeply trusted—and Reza would mine her for as much info as he could off-camera.”

More than gaining access, integrating cultural knowledge, and immersing themselves in the experience, the filmmakers had a further challenge:

“How are we going to tell stories about religion in a way that’s visually and emotionally exciting?” asks Bronstein. “In hour-long episodes, how will Reza participate? Scenes of people praying and mediating don’t make for the best TV. So figuring out what Reza would be doing was paramount.”

The team worked with a thesis statement for each episode, often finding the dramatic structure through a conflict. “Most episodes look at a religion that’s under siege or at least highly misunderstood for a variety of reasons,” Selkow says.

Bronstein gives an example: “For Scientology, we asked, ‘Is this what a religious reformation looks like?’ We focus on people who have left the Church of Scientology but still believe that L. Ron Hubbard is their prophet. We compare it to the Protestant reformation. The true believers featured in the series feel like, ‘The church may be corrupt, but we’re taking back the religion and doing it our way.'”

Despite preparation, the team found surprises: “With our Wesleyan film background, Liz and I know that you go into each documentary super prepared—and the outline goes out the window the first day your feet hit the ground. We’d watch Reza starting every time with ‘All right; this is what I can expect to happen,’ and then there would be a great revelation and we’d watch him go through that—and it was extraordinary.”

While the show was filmed a year ago, the two agree that the series is even more relevant today. “It demonstrates compassion for others, domestically and globally,” says Selkow.

Bronstein concurs. “During the filming of each segment we had different people on the set look at the camera and finish this sentence: ‘I believe…’. I thought it might be a cool way to end each episode. It was just an experiment we thought we’d try and it ended up working pretty well. Now CNN is doing a campaign where users can send in their own ‘I believe’ videos. In these crazy times there’s so much need for tolerance and respect for others who don’t share your beliefs.”

The production crew of Believer joined Reza Aslan in Mexico for ceremonies celebrating Santa Muerte. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

The production crew of Believer joined Reza Aslan in Mexico for ceremonies honoring Santa Muerte. (Photo © Ben Selkow)

Jasper ’98 Writes/Directs Sundance Hit Patti Cake$

The cast of Patti Cake$: Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, director Geremy Jasper, Danielle Macdonald, and Bridget Everett, which was a Sundance hit. (Photo by Daniel Bergeron)

The cast of Patti Cake$: Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, director Geremy Jasper, Danielle Macdonald, and Bridget Everett, which was a Sundance hit. (Photo by Daniel Bergeron)

Patti Cake$, the debut film from writer-director Geremy Jasper ’98, has earned the second-highest deal of Sundance so far this year, with a bid of $9.5 million for distribution rights from Fox Searchlight. Producers are Dan Janvey ’06 and Michael Gottwald ’06; Matthew Greenfield ’90 is senior vice-president of production at Fox Searchlight—all Wesleyan film majors.

Jasper’s film tells the story of Patricia Dombrowski, (played by Danielle Macdonald)—also known as Killa P and Patti Cake$—an aspiring rapper in New Jersey. In his review, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn called the film the “best hip-hop movie since Hustle & Flow.”

The film premiered at Sundance’s Eccles Theater on Monday afternoon, receiving two standing ovations, rave reviews—and the Fox Searchlight deal.

Indiewire’s Chris O’Falt ’99, who was also a film major, interviewed Jasper for “How Patti Cake$ Director Geremy Jasper Went from Indie Rocker to Breakout Filmmaker” and Jasper told him, “It’s probably about as autobiographical a story as I’m capable of telling.” O’Falt described Patti Cake$ as “one of the most-anticipated films hitting Sundance this year, ” which” has put Jasper on Hollywood’s director watchlists.”

In tracing Jasper’s biography, from boyhood in a New Jersey suburb, O’Falt notes the similarity to that of the fictional Patricia Dombrowski.

Jasper, who was an American Studies major, had returned to his parents’ home after college. After touring with his band, Fever, Jasper was introduced to Benh Zeitlin ’06—a Wesleyan film major—through a mutual friend. Zeitlin, who was headed to New Orleans to make his first short film, Glory at Sea, invited Jasper to star in the 2008 project. (Zeitlin’s first feature film, four years later, was Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012, which won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, at that year’s Sundance Film Festival—among numerous other awards.)

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 again brought Jasper back to parents’ house—this time to help with cleanup—and he began writing rap lyrics, along with the initial version of the Patti Cake$ screenplay. Accepted into the Sundance Writing Lab, with Quentin Tarantino as his first advisor, Jasper wrote nearly a dozen more drafts of his screenplay and was invited back to their Directors Lab.

Reflecting on the process, Jasper told O’Falt, “This has been the most fun, intoxicating and rewarding year of my life making this film….I’m so thankful for the winding path that got me here, but there’s something about it that feels so right about it.”

Film By Kaplan ’10 to Premiere at Slamdance Festival

Henry Kaplan '10

Henry Kaplan ’10

We Together, a short film by Henry Kaplan ’10, has been accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival and will be playing in Park City, Utah, later this month. Slamdance Film Festival runs alongside Sundance Film Festival every year, and is self-described as “a showcase for raw and innovative filmmaking,” with a focus on new and emerging artists, filmmakers, and storytellers.

We Together is a seven-minute long story of a zombie who comes to remember the person who he used to be, before he was a zombie. “The film premiered online this fall and garnered a lot of buzz from the online film community, like Vimeo Staff Pick, Fangoria, Gizmodo, among others,” explained Kaplan. “After getting into Slamdance, we’ve taken the film offline and it will have a ‘re-premiere’ at the festival.”

Kaplan explained the inspiration behind the film. “I liked the idea of going deep into the mind of a zombie, particularly one who is undergoing a transformation of sorts,” said Kaplan. “The film deals with a zombie who, under some odd circumstances, comes to remember little slices of what his life was like as a human. I think it’s a pretty universal experience, actually, such as when you smell or hear something that immediately (almost viscerally) puts you back in a time and place. My idea was to take this sort of visceral experience and adapt it to a fun zombie genre story.”

Additionally, several Los Angeles-based Wesleyan alumni were involved in the film, including Ben Kuller ’11, producer; Elizabeth Litvitskiy ’15, co-producer; Caillin Puente ’15, first assistant director; Matthew Wauhkonen ’08, digital VFX artist; Peter Cramer ’14, grip; and Jeffrey Kasanoff ’15 and Dan Fuchs ’15 as production assistants.

Kaplan, who was a film studies major, resides in Los Angeles and works as a director for music videos, commercials and short films.

We Together (Teaser) from American Painkillers on Vimeo.

Alumnus Slowik ’03 Returns to Wesleyan, Joins Film Studies Faculty

Michael Slowik '03

Michael Slowik ’03

As an undergraduate film studies major in the early 2000s, Michael Slowik admired how Wesleyan’s film faculty emphasized “their unabashed enthusiasm for movies,” the history of film and ways films impacted the audience. “These were things I closely connected with,” Slowik said.

Slowik, who graduated from Wesleyan in 2003 with a BA in film studies, was appointed assistant professor of film at Wesleyan this fall. His research interests include U.S. film history, film sound, film authorship and film’s relationship to music and theater.

“Nearly all of the film professors who were so influential to me are still at Wesleyan, so when I was offered a position in the department, I was happy and honored to accept it,” he said. “I feel privileged to be able to teach in our beautiful film building, and I also love the warm, almost family-like atmosphere of the department. It’s great to be back ‘home’ at Wesleyan.”

After graduating from Wesleyan, Slowik received a MA in humanities from The University of Chicago and a MA and PhD in film studies from the University of Iowa. His dissertation, After the Silents: Hollywood Film Music in the Early Sound Era, 1926-1934, was ultimately published by Columbia University Press in 2014.

Director MacLowry ’86 on the Making of PBS Documentary, “The Battle of Chosin”

battlexm_film_landing-dateOn Tuesday, Nov. 1, “The Battle of Chosin,” a documentary produced and directed by Randall MacLowry ’86, aired nationwide as part of the PBS American Experience series. In the film, MacLowry told the story of this pivotal 1950 Korean War battle—the first major military clash of the Cold War—through the eyewitness accounts and archival footage of heroic survival despite freezing temperatures and bloody battle.

A film major as an undergraduate who counts Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies Jeanine Basinger as a seminal mentor, MacLowry is an award-winning filmmaker whose work spans more than 25 years. His previous film for American Experience was “The Mine Wars,” which premiered in January 2016. When the producers approached him for the Chosin project last year, he accepted with alacrity, despite a fast timeline.

“It’s exciting to tell history through the eyes of witnesses,” he says. “The veterans are now in their mid-80s to early 90s; we started right away contacting them, casting a wide net. We were thrilled to find out how much the stories still resonated with them.” The team contacted about a hundred veterans and interviewed two dozen in on-camera conversations, each lasting several hours.

Randall MacLowry ’86 produced and directed the latest documentary in the PBS American Experience series, The Battle of Chosin.

Randall MacLowry ’86 produced and directed the latest documentary in the PBS American Experience series, “The Battle of Chosin.” He is co-founder of The Film Posse and an award-winning director.

“The interviews were emotional,” he recalls. “Their memories are so vivid for a battle that happened more than 60 years ago, and the time of year we contacted them—late November—seemed to heighten this; it was right around the anniversary. A huge part of this battle was the cold; most have some form of frostbite. It’s a testament to these men: not only were they outnumbered by the Chinese but they survived grueling conditions.”

MacLowry’s work involved a great deal of research. “The other side of the documentary process is providing the viewer with material to visualizing it,” MacLowry explains, “and we found we had a surprisingly rich visual palate in terms of telling the story.” Working primarily from the national archives (“A hugely valuable resource”) he was also able to draw from other military sources, including the U.S. Marine archives at Quantico, as well as journalists’ photos and newsreels.

The story was also an international one. “This was the first time that the U.N. intervened in any sort of way, militarily,” he says. “It wasn’t just the United States forces, although those were the majority of the troops; it was a multinational force.” He was pleased they were able to include an interview with a South Korean veteran who was part of the South Korean Army, attached to the U.S. Marines as an interpreter who participated in this battle.

Initially not a documentarian, MacLowry said that after Wesleyan he “headed off to New York” planning to work in narrative films. After a year-long gig working on a 13-part series on American poets he found that the project “opened up my eyes to this kind of storytelling; I wanted to go down the editing path.”

He moved back to his hometown—Washington, D.C.—and began working with the late documentarian Charles Guggenheim. “Documentary film-making has been a constant learning experience for me; It’s the intersection of my film major and my exploration of a potential CSS major in my sophomore year.

“I’ve been blessed with several wonderful mentors,” he says. “From the start, being mentored by Jeanine Basinger and having her support—it really shaped my career. I feel honored to be part of the Wesleyan film community. And having Jessie Napier ’14 as our production assistant is an important part of continuing this Wesleyan experience.”

Jessie Napier ’14, who majored in film studies at Wesleyan, served as production assistant for "The Battle of Chosin."

Jessie Napier ’14, who majored in film studies at Wesleyan, served as production assistant for “The Battle of Chosin.”

Napier, also a Wesleyan film major, adds, “”The process of working on this film has really opened my eyes to the fascinating world of historical documentaries. There’s something extremely rewarding about digging through thousands of archival images and piecing together moments from more than 60 years ago. It’s a unique experience being able to immerse yourself in a specific moment in history. It was amazing to be part of a creative team committed to sharing the stories of these veterans who have lived through such a harrowing experience.”

“I feel it’s an important group of people whose story we’ve told,” MacLowry concurs. “So often called a ‘forgotten war,’ the Korean War actually shaped our national policies. When the Chinese entered the conflict full force, it shifted the American stance toward becoming the’ police of the world’—rightly or wrongly—dedicating much more money into defense build up, with military bases across the globe. America’s containment policy began with this war, in 1950.

“When I watch the film now, there are still several moments with the men, the emotions they share with us about their experiences, I still get choked up. We’re in a sense reliving it with them. There’s a real dignity in the way each man shares his story—an appreciation for what he did, of his survival despite the horrors of war that he endured. They feel proud of what they did, and also deeply aware of what they lost—on a personal level—by being engaged in the war. To be able to do right by them, that was my goal.”

Higgins Delivers Keynote at International Film Conference

Scott Higgins

Scott Higgins

Scott Higgins, chair and professor of film studies, delivered the keynote address during the 2016 SERCIA Conference, held Sept. 8-10 in Paris, France. The topic of his talk was “Benefits of Incoherence: Seriality in the Studio Era,” largely based on book, Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial (Rutgers, 2016).

SERCIA, an organization established in France in 1993, encourages teaching and research in English-speaking cinema.

During the 22nd annual conference, Higgins joined film scholars from all over the world to explore links between the filmic form and seriality.

“I argued that American sound-serials in the 1930s and 1940s, with incoherent plots, nonetheless offered certain kinds of artistic refinement,” Higgins explained. His main example was the 1944 version of Captain America. Higgins shares similar ideas in his video-blog on the sound-serial fight sequence.

This was Higgins’ second international talk in the past six months. In June, he was the respondent to a conference hosted at the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University in Berlin, Germany titled “Seriality Seriality Seriality: The Many Lives of the Field that Isn’t One.” Higgins shares his thoughts about the conference online here.

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, admires her colleague for his recent international efforts.

“I think it’s a reflection on how important a young scholar he is,” Basinger said. “I feel happy that the future of Film Studies at Wesleyan is in such good hands because he is also a great teacher and colleague.”

At Wesleyan, Higgins teaches courses about film history, genre and aesthetics. His other books include Harnessing the Rainbow: Technicolor Aesthetics in the 1930s and Arnheim for Film and Media Studies. He offered the first ever Massive Open Online Course in film on Coursera, and maintains the blog Thinking Cinematically.

McGill ’16 Screens Short Film at Princeton Film Festival

Adam_McGill

Adam McGill ’16

Film studies major Adam McGill ’16 screened his short film Punked! at the Princeton Student Film Festival this summer. McGill’s comedy is about a punk rock singer and guitarist named Dale, whose allegiance to his music is challenged when a new romance enters his life.

McGill filmed the short in the fall of 2015 as a senior thesis project at Wesleyan. During his time at Wesleyan, McGill was taught by Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, who said, “I’m happy to see his work recognized outside the classroom. He joins a long line of Wesleyan film majors who have gone on to great things after they leave Wesleyan. It’s lots of fun to watch this happen.”

Since graduating in May, McGill worked on small sets in the New York City area and he’s currently interning at Sony Pictures Classics, a film distributor, working with their marketing team.

Punked! also will be playing later this September at the Golden Door International Film Festival in Jersey City, N.J. View his film online here.

Model Composes Music for Silent Films

Ben Model

Ben Model

Ben Model, visiting assistant professor of film, is spending the summer months composing scores and arranging music with the Frederick Symphony Orchestra in Frederick, Maryland.

Model, a silent film accompanist, performs on both piano and theater organ. The orchestra will perform a concert on July 20 at Baker Park in Maryland, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant; Buster Keaton’s Cops; and Felix the Cat in Pedigreedy

Model also is performing live music this summer, including a Leo McCarry retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art; at a festival in South Korea in August; and a silent movie festival in Northern Norway in early September. Learn more about Model online here.

Model, who taught at Wesleyan in 2015-16, will return to campus next spring to teach a class on silent film.

Basinger Praised as Iconic Film Professor in The Hollywood Reporter

Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies

Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies (Photo credit: Smallz + Raskind)

Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, was recently featured in a Hollywood Reporter article “The Professor of Hollywood,” by film historian and best-selling author Sam Wasson ’03, who studied with Basinger at Wesleyan. The magazine brought together 33 of her former pupils who work prominently in the film industry for “an A-list class reunion” photo—and several of them talk about how Basinger inspired them, encouraging their self-expression while also sharing with them her love for the medium.

In the article, Basinger discusses how and why she came to devote her life to the study of film and how working as an usher in a movie theater, watching the same film over and over, helped her to understand the filmmaking process—and gave her the foundation for her future as a film scholar at a time when there were no film schools. In 1960 she began work in the advertising department at a scholastic publisher on the Wesleyan campus, but within a decade, she began teaching at the University some of first film study classes in America.

Hispanic Film Series Playing in Goldsmith Family Cinema

On Thursdays in September and October, Wesleyan is hosting a four-part Hispanic Film Series showcasing the power and artistry of contemporary Latin American and Spanish film. All films will be shown at 8 p.m. in the Goldsmith Family Cinema, and are free and open to the public. The series is sponsored by the Thomas and Catharine McMahon Fund, the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, and the Latin American Studies Program.

The films being shown are as follows:

Sept. 24–Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)

Oct. 1–Mosquita Y Mari

Oct. 8–La Isla Mínima (Marshland)

Oct. 15–Hotel Nueva Isla

More details on each film are available in the posters below. For more information, please contact Ana Perez-Girones at aperezgirone@wesleyan.edu.

Hispanic Film Graphic

Basinger Comments on Why Today’s TV is So Good

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, curator of the Cinema Archives, spoke with The Huffington Post about why today’s television is so good. TV has come a long way since 1961 when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow proclaimed television “a vast wasteland” in an address to the National Association of Broadcasters. The article explores how advances in technology and television production have vastly improved the experience for viewers.

One of the biggest changes was the introduction of DVR and streaming services, which mean we’re no longer slaves to the television schedule, required to sit on the couch for an hour when our favorite show airs.

“I think that’s a very ‘old people’ view, that we’re all just sitting around on our couch and eating cookies,” Basinger told The Huffington Post. “That’s very 1960s. I don’t think people do that anymore. We can control our viewing of TV, when we watch it and how we watch it.”

The writer also argues that “TV is now the definitive space for starting a dialogue around social issues.”

“TV has become a global forum of discussion, information, entertainment and intellectual stimulation,” Basinger agreed. “Watching TV doesn’t eliminate your intellectual life. It actually adds to it.”

Jimmy Stewart Stars in Free Summer Film Series

stewardfilmsThis July, Wesleyan’s 2015 Summer Film Series presents “Hollywood Icons: Jimmy Stewart,” a four-film series sponsored by Wesleyan’s College of Film and the Moving Image (CFILM). Films will be shown at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays in July at the Center for Film Studies.

All films are free and open to the public and will be preceded by an introduction by Marc Longenecker, CFILM’s programming and technical director. The “Hollywood Icons: Jimmy Stewart” film series includes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (July 7), Harvey (July 14), Rear Window (July 21), and Winchester ’73 (July 28).

See Wesleyan’s Summer Film Series website for more information.

stewartfilms2