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Variety’s Mentor of the Year: Paul Stekler Champions Cinematic Risk-Taking

Forget “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Paul Stekler, Variety’s 2014 Mentor of the Year, can, does and teaches. While chairing University of Texas at Austin’s RTF (radio-television-film) department, the Emmy and Peabody winner continues to expand his own politically oriented nonfiction oeuvre and serve as a guiding light to Austin at large.

Local mainstay Richard Linklater says, “Paul’s standing in the documentary community brought up everybody’s game, in and around UT.”

While the chairman’s rep attracts aspiring documentarians, UT caters to narrative enthusiasms of all types.

“Students don’t make cookie-cutter work, but develop their own unique voice as filmmakers,” says graduate Kyle Henry.

“It’s all about what do you want to do?,” Stekler says. “We set out to have really excellent teachers, expand our offerings in editing and screenwriting, and now animation and f/x and a new videogame program that’s starting up. You hope the students will leave skilled enough to do the work they want to do, as well as they can.”

To Louis Black, Austin Chronicle editor and SXSW fest senior director, Stekler is “an amazing communal force” who singlehandedly tore down university-townie barriers.

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“The lines are so completely fluid here, with so many local film people who teach or lecture at the university, so many who met as UT students and were mentored here,” Black says. “That’s all Stekler.”

Unlike industry pros who land in academe only when security beckons or powers wane, Stekler began with a Harvard doctorate in government and a Tulane teaching job. “New Orleans is a magically loose place where you bump into people,” he chuckles, and someone he bumped into suggested he take up the documentary trade. “I decided I liked making films more than teaching political science.”

He and his producing partners have copped prizes for, among others, the epic overview of American politics “Vote for Me,” and magisterial bio “George Wallace.” (PBS will air the “Vote for Me” team’s rollicking look at New Orleans racial attitudes post-Katrina, “Getting Back to Abnormal,” in July.)

Austin pulled Stekler back into academia, where Linklater thinks his ongoing creativity benefits students. “A mentor is there to share his perspective and experience. With one story or insight you can save someone years of having to figure out one little thing on their own.”
Advisee Ben Steinbauer, for instance, was shown how to shape his filmmaking assignments to crescendo with what would become acclaimed doc “Winnebago Man.” “It was practical, distilled advice from a mentor that made all the difference,” Steinbauer says.

The prof’s personal style inspires universal praise. “Supportive and incredibly patient,” says filmmaker Heather Courtney. “Every decision he makes is always with the student’s best interest at heart,” adds UT colleague Kat Candler.

“Paul can be occasionally a little prickly, but that makes him even a better cheerleader,” Black says. “If Paul’s enthusiastic, nothing’s more genuine than that.”

Stekler calls his team “Yes, and” people, rather than “Yes, but” reactors who instantly seek to carp and warn.

“I see myself as someone working with students, rather than throwing out the Ten Commandments from the top of the mountain.”

Descend from the mountaintop he does, once to a public park to observe Annie Silverstein manage a chaotic early Sunday shoot on her thesis film.

“He jumped up and began directing traffic, intercepting anyone that was coming towards us. This made an impression on all of us: a successful documentary filmmaker and the department chair … sweating in the Texas sun on his day off so we could get through the scene. But that’s the kind of guy Paul is: He’ll help you in whatever way he can.”

Even, occasionally, out of pocket. Steinbauer received a personal $2,000 check during post-production on “Winnebago Man.” “‘I believe in you and in this piece,’ Paul said, ‘and I don’t know if you need this or what you’re going to do with it, but take it.’” It made possible a startling poster design that helped book the film into key festivals.

“It was a gift, but also a shot in the arm,” Steinbauer remembers, his voice steady. “I just hope I’m able to do that for young filmmakers someday. He really sets that level of example.”

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