Daniel Junge, 1992. Marc Webb, 1996. Kaui Hemmings, 1998. Those are just a few of the folks who've been doing my alma mater proud at an even, steady pace.
Yet neither Colorado College professors nor their former students will say that the college has had, or even now has, a headline-grabbing, competitive and technologically advanced film-specific program. In short, no one on campus wakes up in the morning intent on graduating more future Oscar nominees than, say, NYU or UCLA.
So what is it about CC that helps students someday walk the red carpet? It all seems to come back to two things that the small, liberal arts environment is known for: opportunity, and critical-thinking skills.
'Free in your design'
In recent years, the campus has been graced with some resources and program advocates like film studies professor Tom Sanny, now retired. But 20 years ago, Junge says, few resources welcomed students interested in film.
"There was just in Armstrong Hall, down in the cage, a couple of 16-millimeter films and lights and stuff that you could take out," says Junge, who in February won an Academy Award for his documentary Saving Face. "Those of us that did film, probably from about the class of the late '90s ... we'd do it as a corollary to a project for an English class. But we always did it on our own.
"I think maybe that's why some of us who came out of those early years are maybe — maybe that has something to do with how intrepid we are, because there was no program."
What there was, however, was flexibility. Junge and others could design and self-declare a major, which he did with film.
Hemmings majored in English. But it was hardly a standard-issue, cookie-cutter major at CC, says the author of The Descendants, the book that went on to become a 2012 Oscar award-winning George Clooney flick.
"I completely credit my time here and my education here," she says, "and the way the professors just sort of embraced you as an individual and let you custom-design the kind of education you wanted, the kind of focus you wanted to take, the kind of projects you wanted to create. My thesis was basically a book of stories, with my own photography, and I don't think all colleges allow you to be as free in your design."
Fellow English major Webb — who's directing this summer's most-anticipated blockbuster, The Amazing Spider-Man — says he started considering film "a real career path" when he interned for a block on an HBO film. A full semester spent at NYU opened his eyes even further to the possibility. But CC English and film studies professor George Butte remembers this about Webb's spring in New York: "He loved all the toys they had, but Marc told me, 'I had to come back here to make it mean something. ... [The students there] were glorified technicians. They didn't know film history. They didn't know how to craft a story.'"
A certain sophistication
It's one of the reasons Junge says his film classes at CC were "superior" to ones he took at NYU. And it's why, even today, he dissuades high school students interested in the industry from just considering traditional film schools.
"The only advantage at NYU was that all the equipment was there, and they'd give it to you and say, 'Your next film is due on Monday,'" Junge says. "And that put a fire under your ass. It was helpful as a young filmmaker. But I would say that most of the skills that I used on a day-to-day basis — writing, storytelling, forming compelling arguments — those are all things that are established with a liberal arts education."
Junge sees another downside to more specialized film education. "Filmmakers who go to film schools," he says, "often their films are about other films. And films should be about life. I think at a liberal arts school, you learn about life in the pantheon of human experience."
You can certainly see that in a film like Bully, the documentary written and co-produced by 2001 graduate Cynthia Lowen, which played at Tinseltown in April and brought Lowen back for a discussion at her alma mater last weekend. But you can also see that in the works of someone like Doug Pray, a 1983 sociology graduate who went on to become an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.
"Some students make biology films," says John Simons, Butte's CC colleague in English and film. "There was a gorgeous film made about the flammulated owl. ...
"A lot of our students, they just go and do extraordinary things, partly because — and this sounds snobbish, but — they have a kind of sophistication about them, too. They can communicate with people with ideas, and they're not just mechanics, not just technicians."
Butte points out that they're not just academics, either.
"We're not seeking to produce Ph.D.s in film studies. And, you know, I don't think we have any," he says with a laugh. "Because that's not what we value or what we seek. We seek sophistication, but not in the academic sense."
Method to the madness
Due to the growth in interest, as well as the additional tech capabilities that Cornerstone Arts Center has allowed — a studio, two editing labs and a screening lab — CC staff are currently reviewing plans for a new "film and media studies" major. Up until now, film has found its place simply as both a major and minor track within the English Department.
Butte and Simons are equally excited about it, but also hesitant.
"Does it have enough reading? Enough drama? Enough of the breadth?" Butte asks rhetorically. "We feel all filmmakers ought to know Shakespeare. That's just a basic thing.
"Producing professionals isn't my idea of what the film program is about," he continues. "There will be a few people who make their — maybe quite a few, that make their — living at it, but the vast majority of kids making films, studying films, are going to go out and be doctors, and businessmen and mothers and fathers, and that broad literacy, that broad ability to understand film, is really our goal."
"While [the new program] will provide some greater linkage," Butte says, "I hope that we will continue to have this kind of confusing disarray of people doing things all over campus. It's the nature of creativity."
"Whatever technical skills you have," Simons adds, "[that's] less important than how you think."
Additional reporting by Matthew Schniper and Sara Michael.