Producing Tomorrow’s Producers

This story originally appeared in the Vilas Voice

Twenty-six years—and plenty of tv series, movies and scripts—later, Jill Soloway (B.A.’87) still remembers the profound influence of her semester in the capstone production course, Comm Arts 659. “It was a revelation to me. It made me want to be an artist. It made me look at film through the lens of art. And it made me look at myself through the lens of creating art,” the Six Feet Under writer and Afternoon Delight writer/director says.

Helmed by Professor J.J. Murphy, the course emphasizes the collaborative aspect of filmmaking. Murphy leads students through the production process as they create 30-minute films, from casting to cutting to the premieres. The scripts are written by students in Murphy’s screenwriting course. Divided into two groups of seven or eight, the students are assigned positions based upon their strengths and interests in the field. Throughout the semester, they learn their individual roles such as director, cinematographer, and editor, as well as how to work as a crew. “The philosophy of the class is to learn by doing,” Murphy says. “The students who take it are dying to make films. They’re willing to work long hours outside of class for the experience. It’s really like getting thrown into deep water.”

The experiences gained during those long hours have stuck with alumni like accomplished filmmaker and producer Soloway, who calls Murphy “one of those seminal people in my life who made me want to try harder,” and editor Andrew Dickler (B.A.’90). “The most memorable learning experiences are the ones that take place outside of the lecture hall. This class, a challenging hands-on workshop … it’s just that,” says Dickler, editor of Family Tree, Christopher Guest’s new show for HBO. Current student Kaitlyn Boss concurs. Boss, a senior who is creating films for Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta, calls the class “the most meaningful and challenging course that I have taken at UW.”

Read more about the influence of Comm Arts 659 on former students’ careers and everyday lives through their comments and testimonials:

Jill Soloway (class of ’87) was a writer for HBO’s Six Feet Under and recently won the Sundance Dramatic Directing Award for her film, Afternoon Delight. She was in one of the first sections of what is now CA 659. She is currently producing and directing a pilot for Amazon ( ).

Vilas Voice: In JJ’s course, you produced a film called Ring of Fire. How do you remember that process working?

JS: We had to tell him what roles we wanted, I think. I think everybody wrote a screenplay, and whoever had the best screenplay became the writer. And then I think we all pitched what we would do if we would direct, and JJ chose his favorite to be director. And I think from there he gave out the rest of the jobs. And I was A.D. (assistant director) I was a little bit pissed. she laughs I was just a little bit mad. All of this has been to get back at J.J.

VV: Ha! Well, success is the best revenge, I suppose.

JS: Exactly. It only took about 25 years.

VV: What did you think about that class?

JS: Oh my god, I loved it. It was just sort of a revelation to me it was, “Oh, this is what I want to do with my life!”  It was so much fun, and we were all collaborating, and it was my first real group process when it came to filmmaking. It introduced me to the camaraderie of a film set. And I was just in, it transformed me. It literally transformed me from someone who wanted to be popular or a sorority girl or whatever I thought college was, into somebody who wanted to be an artist that year.

VV: How did that class compare with the “real world” in your experience?

JS: The camaraderie was always the same, and it always is. I mean I think you always get to a film set and always feel like you’re falling in love with everybody around because you are making art collaboratively which is like an incredibly beautiful, almost idyllic metaphor for sort of an idealized society. Everybody has their roles and there’s a lot of boundaries around roles but yet all the roles are really meant to fit together in a way that actually works.

VV: Did you take anything with you from the process of the class?

JS: All I wanted to do was recreate it … I think my first phase in Chicago was recreating that vibe around theater, I got involved in theater first. That sort of group thing: Let’s put on a show; it’s fun because we’re all doing it; it doesn’t really matter what happens with it, what really matters is that we’re making it. That kind of process-oriented way of making products – it’s better product-oriented and that still is with me today, as I move into making this pilot, or when I was directing my movie. That was something I was really claiming anytime I could – would gather people in a meeting – you can’t really be focused on the perfect product or the marketability of it, you have to focus on the process – group respect, collaboration, investment in each other and out of that comes I think a better product.

VV: J.J. suggested to me that the class isn’t shy about giving harsh criticism in preparation for the realities of the industry …

JS: I actually found the class a little bit harsher than real life. I did better out in the world than in film school, but I was just starting, so I was just finding my voice. So that’s probably why … I think the class just makes you. He has a respect for experimental film.  I remember starting with JJ’s respect for experimental film as this sort of lightbulb. That he came from a place of art, really informed what we’re all doing there, which is challenging ourselves, exciting ourselves, doing things that have never been done before, asking questions that have never been asked before – he always came to it from that world of art. And so I think that was “revelation”

I think the fact that it prepares you for the real world … yeah … I guess a little bit. But I think it’s more about a little adding up of who JJ is and where he comes from which is really that he’s not the guy out there trying to make all the money. He’s not the failed Hollywood director who took up teaching at USC and is taking it out on his students. He just comes at it as an artist, he’s a real artist who loves film and who loves sharing his love of film and that as a sort of starting place for collaboration is the most important thing. We wanted to please JJ not because we felt like he knew Spielberg, or not because we felt like he knew a way into the business, but we felt like he knew what good art was … what real art was.

VV: For you, what is the legacy of this experience and of the Comm Arts program? What endures?

JS: The class was a revelation to me. It made me want to be an artist. It made me look at film through the lens of art. And it made me look at myself through the lens of creating art. I don’t think about it as a really cool class where I learned a lot. I think about JJ as one of those seminal people in my life who made me want to try harder.

He asked us a question about the difference between Elephant Art and Termite Art: I quoted him in an episode of Six Feet Under where I had Claire’s art teacher talk about Elephant Art versus Termite Art. Termite Art sneaks in and surrounds you, and next thing you know you’re thinking about it days later and weeks later and months later and years later, and it just burrows a hole inside you and hides out. And Elephant Art just comes in and steps on you, like stamps on you and then walks out.

He made me want to make Termite Art. He began the journey of me wanting to understand what nuance meant in art. Anytime I meet high school seniors, I tell them to go find JJ. Go find that program because it gave my college experience meaning; it set me on track to be who I want to be and do what I want to do. When I won the directing award and I got a text from JJ it was a giant thrill. At Sundance, dancing and thinking, “I can’t believe I … won this thing,” and when I got a text from him I shed a tear.

Andrew Dickler was a 1990 graduate of Comm Arts with a double major in Psychology. This summer, he finished editing work on Christopher Guest’s HBO show, Family Tree. Dickler has worked on a number of Guest’s films including A Mighty Wind and Best in Show as well as editing the recent phallic documentary, The Final Member.

CA 659 is an important class for any student thinking about making movies professionally.  It was my first experience working as part of a film crew, and it introduced me to the concept of different people with different skills coming together to make one movie.  The most memorable learning experiences are the ones that take place outside of the lecture hall, or “learning by doing” as they say.  This class, a challenging hands-on workshop that ends with a rewarding screening of a completed film, is just that. Without 659, who knows, I might have been a toll booth operator.

Here are some things more recent graduates and current students had to say:

Kaitlyn Boss:

CA 659 definitely classifies as the most meaningful and challenging course that I have taken at UW.

Not only did advanced production develop my technical and creative filmmaking skills, but it pushed me to become a strong leader and team player.  Having developed both technical and professional skill sets, I feel that the ambitions I have had of making films are now more tangible goals.

Academically, you could not ask for a class that better synthesized the comprehensive coursework of the Comm Arts department.  In the Advanced Production Workshop I was able to apply the base of theory and analysis that I had learned and developed in the department’s film studies courses, and then synthesized the breadth of production knowledge that I had gleaned from the four previous production courses I had taken. Simply put, I could not have had a more fluid curriculum, and the rigor of CA 659 challenged my peers and I to apply all that we had learned.

I see CA 659 as providing me the with the tools and know-how for future projects and positions that I will take on as well. For example, this summer I have been working as an intern for Teach for America down in the Mississippi Delta, and because of my academic background in film, I was given the opportunity to create several videos throughout the course of the summer. These video projects ranged from informational to inspirational, and I was championed by my team for creating vision-centered, quality products. Most recently, I filmed and edited a video for the opening of a summer send-off event that 1,000 people attended. I see my success this summer as a direct result of the skills that I learned in the class.

Aaron Martinenko:

I consider this to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. While taking the class I learned more than I could have imagined. I was able to amplify my leadership abilities and dedication to my craft. All of this fails to mention the invaluable lessons I had in filmmaking. The Communication Arts Department at UW – Madison has an amazing array of resources and mentors that allowed me to flex my creative muscles and really take a hold of my education in the field. I was so humbled to be chosen as director of my group’s project and am so incredibly proud of our completed work.

Nicole Boss:

I’m CA 659’s biggest fan!

CA 659 was far more than just a class for me. It was an opportunity to “try on” the career I was looking forward about pursuing without many of the risks of a first job. The guidance provided by Professor JJ Murphy and TA Brandon Colvin and their strong belief that the students of CA 659 could create captivating and moving films not only inspired 15 beginning filmmakers to do their best and work their hardest in class, but also instilled a sense that our time in CA 659 was just the beginning. The immense amount of hard work and time dedicated by the students was unlike any undergraduate group project I have ever seen; it is truly amazing the number of hours we dedicated to our projects. Our drive to practice, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and eventually succeed was supported by a comprehensive Communication Arts program. CA 659 was a class that prepared us for the future by honing our craft, building our teamwork skills, and letting us experience failure and success in a safe environment. Without the opportunity to take CA 659, I would have felt a void in my education; I would not have felt half as trained, prepared, and practiced as I am today.

Photo credit: Logan Covelli.