Student Spotlight: Mark Schimmel’s short THE MUSICIAN

Current VCFA MFA in Film student Mark Schimmel is hard at work on his second semester project THE MUSICIAN. Mark is already getting tons of publicity for this film which he wrote and directed, and stars the amazing musician Anne Harris.  We are excited to share the most recent article from Reel Chicago in which he is featured:


View the trailer:

And the music video from the film is just gorgeous:

We can’t wait to see the completed film! Be sure to follow along on THE MUSICIAN’s facebook page to keep up-to-date on the project!

More about Mark:

Mark Schimmel has been directing award winning commercials, television, short and feature films for the past 18 years.  His work is conceptually driven and supported by images that communicate with emotion.  He’s directed notable actors such as Eric Roberts, Claudia Christian, Rene Auberjonois, Bill Ratner, Lance Barber and Academy Award nominee, Woody Harrelson.

Mark Schimmel was born in Chicago.  He studied drawing at The Art Institute of Chicago, photography at Columbia College, and completed his BFA at PRATT Institute, New York City.  Schimmel is scheduled to complete his MFA in the winter of 2019 with VCFA. Early in his career Schimmel designed movie posters for Miramax Films and was an Imagineer for Walt Disney Productions.

Student Spotlight: Rick Mitz on Norman Lear, Character Before Jokes, and Why to Get an MFA in Film

Current VCFA MFA in Film candidate, Rick Mitz, has worked in the industry for decades and teaches screenwriting. Here he discusses his incredible journey to VCFA and his thoughts on screenwriting and the act of expanding one’s art.

I got my first job in NY at GQ Magazine.  I showed up at the editor’s office and said, “I’m here about the writing job.”  He looked me over and said, “Well, you certainly aren’t here about the modeling job!”  He saw my confused  look and felt so bad he hired me on the spot. My first article was “How to Fold Your Pants,” and I wrote for GQ for years.

One day, quite by accident, I ran into an agent in a waiting room.  He had read some of my articles and suggested I should write a book.  Since my favorite thing was TV–watching it, not writing it, that is–I decided to write a proposal for a book on the history of TV sitcoms.  It sold and “The Great TV Sitcom Book” was published (1980). As luck would have it, one of the people who bought my book was TV producer/mogul Norman Lear, who flew me out to Hollywood and put me under contract. Keep in mind, I knew nothing about TV (except how to operate the remote) and less about writing (except how to fold your pants), but he mentored me and we created several shows together over the years.  It was a crash course in how to write and run a TV show and I learned a lot. One of the biggest lessons I learned from Lear was on set of one of our shows. We had just had a rehearsal run-through for the execs and network when, out of nowhere, the janitor came up and gave us a “fix” to a scene we thought was working perfectly. When he left, I remarked, “Oh, great, now the janitor is giving us notes.”  Lear turned to me sternly and said, “Don’t forget that janitor is who’s going to be watching our show at home. And more than that,  you have to listen to the note beneath the note. He’s probably wrong about how to fix the scene, but the real note is that there’s something wrong and we need to look at it.” And we did.  And we made it better. And I never rolled my eyes at another note since. As Lear would say, “it’s all part of the collaboration.”

I worked on many  TV shows– in Hollywood, in NY, in London–and soon had my own shows on the air.  I was doing a documentary series for AMC about Hollywood, and one of the subjects I was interviewing taught at a small boutique film school and wondered if I would ever be interested in teaching there.  So, I found myself teaching screenwriting–short films and TV writing. As a teacher, I channeled what I had learned from Lear (beyond “listen to janitors”), which was to always write from character–not plot, or jokes, or situation, but character. Figure out who the character is and, more importantly, how s/he became that way.

I was offered a full-time faculty position, the only catch being, I had to get my MFA.  I found out about VCFA, which has a low-residency film program. Frankly, I enrolled with a  real attitude that this was just a means to an end. Except it wasn’t that at all. For my first semester, I wrote a short film (something I’d taught, but had never done) about a serious subject (ditto). My professor, the very nurturing  and wise Michel Negroponte, gave me notes unlike any I had ever received before. He pushed me–no, pulled me–to get out of my comfort zone and go deeper, richer, to get out of the predictable and repetitive, and to immerse myself in the unexpected places of the world I had created. It was like I was learning how to write all over again, or perhaps write from the very beginning! And it worked.  I ended up writing a script that was unlike anything I had ever done, something I am more proud of than anything I’ve ever written. Most importantly, that work–and future work I do at VCFA–now informs the way I teach and write going forward.

This essay was previously published at Script Mag.

More about Rick:

Rick Mitz is a screen and television writer as well as the author of several books. Mitz has been teaching screenwriting at Columbia College Hollywood since 2001 and is now “lead faculty” and head of the Screenwriting Department. In addition to his work as a writer, Mitz has been a programming consultant to both the UK’s Channel 4 and ITV since 1994. Before that, he worked extensively with television producer Norman Lear on several pilots, specials and series.

Mitz has written original screenplays for Universal, Embassy, Warner Bros. and Paramount. He has created and executive produced the TV series “aka Pablo” (ABC), “Hi Honey, I’m Home” (ABC) and “The Lot” (AMC), as well as episodes for such comedies as “You Again,” “Valerie” and “Square Pegs.” In addition, he has written 100 episodes of “The Spin-Offs” web-series, as well as the feature screenplay, “She Started It,” for his own production company It’s Mitz Productions. Mitz was also head-writer of ABC’s “TV Guide’s 50 All-Time Greatest Shows” special and wrote and produced “Hollywood’s Best-Kept Secrets” for AMC.

His book, “The Great TV Sitcom Book,” was the first book written on television situation comedies, was a best-seller. In addition, he wrote “The Apartment Book,” as well as several career books for young adults.

 

Writing is Writing: An Interview with Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson

Current VCFA MFA in Film faculty member, Annie Howell, along with her co-writer and co-director Lisa Robinson, discuss their film CLAIRE IN MOTION (now available to stream on Showtime), their co-writing process, character development, and how film can be vehicle for change.

Aja Zoecklein: How did you first meet and when did you begin your collaborative teamwork?

Lisa Robinson: We met at NYU grad school, but didn’t actually make any films together there. After we finished school we had both written our own features and were trying to get them made but financing was taking a while…we had a conversation about an idea and decided we should make a web series together. It was called SPARKS and was eventually syndicated by the Sundance Channel, which was great. We had fun with it. We would each write an episode and kind of piggyback off each other. From there, it kind of naturally evolved into making a feature, SMALL, BEAUTIFUL MOVING PARTS, which was partly based off the series.

Annie Howell: When we made CLAIRE IN MOTION, I was living in Athens, Ohio and teaching film full time at Ohio University. As soon as I landed I was like “oh, this could be a really interesting place to make a film.” Lisa visited, and I would send her pictures, and that was one of the jumping off points, just thinking about this interesting town that is not as often seen on screen.

 AZ: What is your writing process like? How do you structure your writing as collaborators—together in a room, separate, both?

AH: We typically write independently, swapping and sharing ideas. For the two features, for example, we would have this really long running text/blast email conversation that never stopped! (laughs) Which is great because it’s what the writer’s brain does anyway, but you are just sending it off to another person. We both like having our assignments, agreeing on what that is, and then coming back together with the results. We had a couple of times when we would sit in front a whiteboard together to figure out whatever challenge was in front of us.

AZ: Do you write differently knowing that you will be directing the work?

LR: I don’t think we write differently because we’re directing. The script has to communicate to not just us, but to our actors and to the rest of the crew. It needs to be just as transparent in terms of what we’re trying to do as it would be otherwise. The prep is actually the really important partwhere the writing is changingbecause you are starting to manifest the stuff, physically: you’re picking locations, costumes, actors… It’s such a crucial part of the translation; it’s at that moment the writing gets pulled into the directing space.

AH: I agree, the writing doesn’t deferwriting is writing. We probably have our producer’s hat on a bit: Is this possible? Can we write for a location that we already have? But, consistently, the writing has to work first.

AZ: The characters in CLAIRE IN MOTION are so well-fleshed out. I never felt like anyone was behaving inauthentically or outside of their spectrum of responses. As writers you get the fun task of people-ing your world, how do you go about writing your supporting characters?

AH: For this film, again, it was really informed by this particular town, and also our shared knowledge of the world of academiaa lot of that world is the personal and the professional mixed togetherand so we brought those instincts, impressions, and experiences to the table. Often it’s so challenging and difficult to understand your protagonist and to keep searching for that thread or theme. Supporting characters can often come much quicker, which helps to build that confidence in the writing. In this case the place that she is in and the people around her are just such an important part of the story…

LR: Since Annie was teaching and living there she had a lot of interesting encounters and specifics to bring to it. Since I was further away, I brought a more abstract mental state to it, more along the lines of, what is Claire going through and what kinds of characters would trigger her or bring out parts of her psyche? Those two things combined helped create some of these character.

 AZ: While part mystery/thriller, CLAIRE IN MOTION really tells the story of a woman who is faced with the reality that, in truth, you never can know somebody entirely, and that, perhaps even more importantly, that lack of recognition extends to yourself as well. What prompted you to explore this subject matter in the way you did? Did you know going in that you wanted Claire’s evolution to start at x and end at y?

LR: We knew we wanted her to go through a tragedy and have to grapple with that uncertainty, and letting the viewer grapple with it as well. We weren’t quite sure how we were going to do it, or even what the tragedy was going to be,  but we were interested to see how that uncertainty shifted her identity. We set out to explore a character in a place in her life where she is comfortableshe’s a little bit older, not in her 20s anymore, has a sense of who she is and what her life is going to beand we wanted to upset that, let that run out, and see how she shifts and changes.

AH: We also had some time in the writing process to really chew on a number of different scenarioswe played quite a bit with it in terms of plot, running a lot of what-ifs. We have a strong shared value that we want our audience to have their own experience, so we weren’t going to wrap everything up neatly. The persistent interest in theme being: the not knowing of life and how that can surprise you; what you learn from it and how you might be damaged by it; and inevitably, how you have to just keep going.

AZ: In light of the current state of the world, how do you see filmmaking as an art form shaping and/or informing us as humans?

LR: There’s a lot of exciting films out there right now. GET OUT is a really amazing example of a film that is surprising and exciting in terms of genre, subtext, and choices…So, I’m still really excited about stuff I’m seeing every year. Film is such a powerful medium because it hits people on multiple levels at once. Unfortunately, that means film is related to propaganda, to Facebook, and to all this discussion about fake news. It is just such a powerful force that spreads out in all these different mediums, but, I still think it’s a great tool for change. We see films like MOONLIGHT or LADY BIRD, these are very particular voices that are getting widespread attention. It’s so great.

AH: A well-crafted visual story provides this opportunity for identification, empathy, complication of stereotypes, and personal introspection that’s unlike or dissimilar from the other other ways in which those things happenwhich is, through actual physical relationships with other human beings. When you have the ability to silently interact with othersby that I mean, the charactersit’s a totally different process of growth. These stories are important for any person who is interested in evolving, and I am glad we can do that in different types of waysthrough literature, through cinema, through just observing and watching.

AZ: Thank you Annie and Lisa!

 

Annie J. Howell is an award-winning screenwriter and director. Howell’s first film, co-written and co-directed with Lisa Robinson, was SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS, followed by the duos second feature, CLAIRE IN MOTION. In 2016, LITTLE BOXES, a film written by Howell and directed by Rob Meyer premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it sold to Netflix. The script for LITTLE BOXES is the recipient of an IFP Emerging Narrative Award for Best Feature and a San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant. Howell’s other credits include a short for the vanguard ITVS series FUTURESTATES, as well as the web series SPARKS, also created with Robinson and licensed to the Sundance Channel.She teaches in the MFA in Film program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as City College, and has also been a member of the faculty at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Ohio University’s MFA in Film, and at The New School, where she was the Founding Director of the Graduate Certificate in Documentary Media Studies Program.

Lisa Robinson is an award-winning screenwriter and director. Her credits include the feature films CLAIRE IN MOTION and SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS, both written and directed with Annie Howell. Robinson has directed several episodes of television, including the Emmy award-winning A CRIME TO REMEMBER and the series FUTURESTATES, that had its series premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Robinson has written and directed several award-winning short films. She also works as a screenwriter and wrote MIND BLAST, an IMAX film for the Blue Man Group. She is the recipient of the Martin E. Segal Prize, the Mitsubishi Digital Media Lab Award for Excellence, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. Robinson is currently  Associate Professor of Film at LIU. www.lisarobinsonfilm.com

Student Spotlight: Lex Lybrand’s thesis film, MAYBE SHOWER

Current MFA in Film student, Lex Lybrand, just dropped the trailer for his thesis film project, MAYBE SHOWER. Written and directed by Lybrand, MAYBE SHOWER stars Kelsey Thomas (SUMMER LEAGUE), Rachel DeRouen (GLASS), and Megan Simon (INDOOR CAT). With Carlos O’Leary (THE TROLLS), Jeff Pearson (HOME REMEDY), Nathan Ehrmann (THE TROLLS), and Caitlin French.

Ash, Shannon, and Wendy are all late. You know… LATE. As their collective anxiety grows, they band together to face their fears, confront the potential fathers, and egg a car or two. All part of the world’s first MAYBE SHOWER.

On October 26th, 2016, Lybrand wrote the following on the “Maybe Shower” blog, and we just had to share it here because, well, it brings us great pride:

I’m sitting in a dorm room in Montpelier, Vermont just a couple of days before Halloween. There’s snow on the ground, I can see my breath in my room, and I’m almost out of coffee. I haven’t been this happy in a very long time. 

This is the last day of my first week at VCFA’s MFA in Film residency. I entered this program with no idea what I would work on while I’m here… but now I know. I’m excited to announce that I have begun work on my next feature screenplay, and I plan to take it from conception to reality during this 2 year program… This is gonna be fun.

MAYBE SHOWER will screen this April at our spring residency and will be hitting the festival circuit soon. Visit the MAYBE SHOWER site to learn more. We can’t wait to see this one! Congrats Lex!

Check out the trailer below. (See if you can spot another one of our talented students in the film, Mr. Kris Atkinson. We love to see our people crewing for each other!)

(Lybrand photo courtesy of George Nicholas)

Faculty member Annie Howell’s film, CLAIRE IN MOTION, now on Showtime. Howell’s LITTLE BOXES also available to stream on Netflix.

Annie Howell’s 2016 film CLAIRE IN MOTION, co-written and co-directed with Lisa Robinson and starring Betsy Brandt (of Breaking Bad), is currently available to stream on Showtime. The film premiered at SXSW. Annie Howell is a faculty member of the VCFA MFA in film program.

CLAIRE IN MOTION is the second feature film from filmmaking team Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell. Exploring a short period of time inside one woman’s life-altering crisis, the story begins three weeks after math professor Claire Hunger’s husband has mysteriously disappeared, the police have ended their investigation and her son is beginning to grieve. The only person who hasn’t given up is Claire. Soon she discovers his troubling secrets, including an alluring yet manipulative graduate student with whom he had formed a close bond. As she digs deeper, Claire begins to lose her grip on how well she truly knew her husband and questions her own identity in the process. Claire in Motion twists the missing person thriller into an emotional take on uncertainty and loss.

Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell have crafted a transfixing, thoughtful thriller — where the directors’ deft maneuvering around the intimate performance of Betsy Brandt keeps you glued to the screen.
— Oakley Anderson-Moore, No Film School

What can one say about a film as perfect as Claire in Motion? With a script that subtly explores the realm of emotional conflict, and powerful performances from its ensemble of actors, the movie is a gentle tour-de-force about trauma and healing …. One emerges after its brief 80 minutes as if from an intense, cathartic dream, haunted and challenged by its raw truths, perhaps, but made all the stronger for them.
— Christopher Llewellyn Reed, Hammer to Nail

Howell also wrote the screenplay for LITTLE BOXES (2016), starring the late Nelsan Ellis and Melanie Lynskey. LITTLE BOXES can be viewed world-wide on Netflix. The film premiered at Tribeca and was the largest sale out of the festival in 2016.