Students learn from Oscar winner, film professionals

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lark University
students enjoyed the rare privilege of meeting an Academy Award-winning actress when Melissa Leo, who won the 2010 Oscar for her role as the mother of boxer Mickey Ward in “The Fighter,” visited campus as part of the first Mobile Media Workshop.

But this was no star trip. Leo was a hands-on participant in workshops, screenings and question-and-answer sessions, all of which received blanket video and photographic coverage from students in the Visual and Performing Arts Department. Joining her at the three-day event were L.M. Kit Carson (above, chatting with Prof. John Aylward), a legend in the independent movie scene; film producer Cynthia Hargrave; and Cristine Garde, executive director of Could You?, an organization battling poverty in Mozambique. Garde and Carson are working together on a TV series, “Africa Diary,” which will air this summer on the Sundance Channel.

The Mobile Media Workshop was sponsored by the Communication and Culture, Music and Screen Studies programs. Hugh Manon, associate professor of screen studies, and John Aylward, assistant professor of music, designed the workshop to allow students maximum interaction with the visitors. During one session, selected students met with the guests for a series of student-defined one-on-one tutorials. So, for instance, a screen studies student was able to have her video critiqued by Carson, and a theater major could receive independent vocal coaching from Leo.

“The Mobile Media workshop was designed to engage with all of Clark’s LEEP learning outcomes,” Manon said. “Our goal was above all bring together media theory — which we teach extensively in communications, music and screen studies — with socially conscious real-world practice. The workshop’s various screenings, classroom visits, and one-on-one student tutorials offered students the opportunity to interact with filmmakers and internationally-focused social activists, all of whose work is very much in process, with all the messiness and precariousness that media production entails.

The workshop made it possible for students to see beyond the slick façade of Hollywood, with Melissa Leo, Kit Carson, and Cynthia Hargrave offering the insider’s perspective on Hollywood production,” Manon continued. “In some cases, these insights were pointedly critical of mainstream Hollywood, and students gained real knowledge of the battles encountered in attempting maintain a socially relevant vision, while at the same time managing a budget, schedule, one’s personal life, and at the same time satisfying one’s investors.”

Leo and Hargrave shined in a Professor Gino DiIorio’s course on Oscar Wilde, fielding questions about their experiences, which ranged from the challenges of being a woman in the movie industry, to the secrets of good comedy, to the sausage-making ugliness of piecing together the funding for an independent movie.

Leo emphasized the art of collaboration, which is so vital in putting together a movie. She described the odyssey of bringing to the screen the 2008 movie “Frozen River,” which was shown in Razzo Hall on April 2 followed by a Q&A with Leo. “The miraculous little film” (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) already had a knock against it by being a woman-centric story — which made acquiring the necessary funding far more difficult.

Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo speaks with students in Prof. Hugh Manon’s screenwriting class. - Jasper Muse ’13

Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo speaks with students in Prof. Hugh Manon’s screenwriting class. – Jasper Muse ’13

“You have to know what kind of mountain you’re climbing [when making a movie]. And if it is true to your own intent, you will have the strength the stick with it,” she said.

Hargrave stressed that great rewards are the product of vision, persistence and a willingness to take risks.

“The only way to succeed in this business is to get hit by lightning, and the only way to get hit by lightning is to stand in the rain,” she said. “So you have to go out and get wet, and have to get cold, and have to get annoyed. It’s the only way to do it.”

Leo and Hargrave contended that things have not gotten better for women in the film industry over time. Leo told of playing roles that were insufficiently developed, as though the screenwriter and director — both typically male — had lost interest in the characters. Still, actresses must not allow themselves to be bullied or dissuaded, she said.

“You can say what a lot of female actors say around the time they’re 35 or 40 years old: ‘There are no parts for women.’ Or you can say: “I’m gonna make sure there are parts for women.’ It’s an uphill battle, but you can’t be bitter about it or let it keep you down.”

Hargrave said an unfortunate offshoot of the lack of opportunities for women in the film industry is that women rarely support one another.

“They will leave you on the ground bleeding, step over you and move on. It’s because there are only so many slots, and it’s weird and strange, psychotic and stupid, and depressing,” she said.

The Mobile Media Workshop focused on the hands-on aspect of media, encompassing smart phones, iPads, lightweight consumer-grade digital cameras — anything digital that was not old-fashioned moviemaking technology. L.M. Kit Carson’s television series “Africa Diary” tests the limits of new media. He gave Nokia cellphones to people in Mozambique and simply instructed them to tell stories.

“I didn’t have an agenda,” he said. “This is personal journalism about the politics, the economy, the spirit of the place. I didn’t want a lighting crew or a sound crew, or a regular camera, because once that camera goes on the veil comes up and you don’t get anything true.”

To get his series seen by a wider audience, Carson interested an old friend, Robert Redford, into airing it this summer on the Sundance Channel.

“I’ve done this before in Spain, where I handed out Nokias to students and said ‘Go find the story.’ This is a worldwide movement where people are telling their own stories. It’s the cellphone-ication of the globe.”

Carson also screened his groundbreaking mock documentary, 1967’s “David Holzman’s Diary,” and answered questions about shooting the film, and about his long career as a movie “hyphenate”: screenwriter-director-producer.

“In many ways, LEEP is about bridging the gap between critical thinking — which has long been a foundation of liberal arts education — and real-world skills, practices, and collaborative action,” Manon said. “During the workshop I was amazed to see, on the one hand, how eager students were to raise theories they had learned in class with our high-profile guests, and on the other hand, how our guests consistently represented their own day-to-day work projects as involving all manner of critical thinking. There was a true synergy in this workshop, and I think both our students and our guests were delighted with the interactions that took place.”

Aspiring filmmaker Skye Wingo ’16 said the workshop give him “a glimpse into a profession in film, and using film to connect other cultures together. What made this experience different from attending other college workshops was the ability to actually talk directly to the guests. Kit Carson explained different camera techniques to me, and Melissa Leo gave me such valuable advice about how I go about filmmaking.”

Sarah Harker ’14, a Screen Studies and Communication & Culture double major, said the workshop’s seminars and screenings tied directly into her interests and studies. “As a female looking to enter a male-dominated field, I talked to Melissa Leo about being a woman in the film industry and its implications. She had a lot to say on the matter, but what stuck with me was her advice about not being afraid to try the things that scare us, even if we are outnumbered.”

Alison Mayer ’14, one of the original LEEP Pioneers whose project involved making a documentary film about the changing West, said she was struck by the uncompromising attitudes of the Mobile Media Workshop guests.

Students today are constantly barraged with the idea that to succeed, one must give up some part of themselves, whether it be a dream, an idea, a belief, or a hobby,” Mayer said. “Melissa, Cynthia, and Kit rip that concept to shreds. They show students that if you love something enough, work hard, and trust your instincts, you will succeed. Not necessarily in a big way, not necessarily immediately, but you will succeed, and it is success achieved through honesty that brings us true satisfaction.”

At the conclusion of the three days, Leo was interviewed online by a Clark student, and confessed to being “completely exhausted and very, very happy.”

Leo lauded Clark students for their “willingness and openness to learn.”

“All of you know an awful lot,” she said. “You’re an amazingly varied bunch.”

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