Stellar Alumni Reflect on UCLA’s Arts Program

Decades before the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television formally became one of the world’s top-ranking drama departments, the Southern California university’s arts program was synonymous with nurturing artists whose iconic work irrevocably transformed entertainment, and media itself, for the better.

Marking the first time a major university combined the three disciplines under one administration, UCLA TFT was established in 1990, simultaneously building on the history of the school’s storied curriculum, bolstering industry connections to reflect its impact and influence, and developing a network of facilities, instructors and experts to help prepare and accommodate students for a constantly changing entertainment landscape.

Even before 14-time Academy Awards telecast producer Gil Cates became its founding dean, UCLA’s fine arts departments were already part of a considerable legacy, with a list of famous alumni that included James Dean, Steve Martin, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Carroll Ballard, Rob Reiner, cinematographer Dean Cundey, Doors members Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, plus producer Harve Bennett. That has since expanded exponentially to new generations of storytellers such as screenwriters Dustin Lance Black and Laeta Kalogridis; Broadway directors Kristin Hanggi and John Rando; Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Mariska Hargitay and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Unsurprisingly, UCLA TFT is tremendously proud of the generations of movers and shakers its faculty has taught over the years, and protective of the work they have produced — especially while they were students. An expansion of the school’s Film & Television Archive that began in 1999 has evolved into a world-renowned repository for moving image material, encompassing — and frequently driven by — special ones such as the recent Ray Manzarek & Jim Morrison Preservation Project to restore the future Doors’ student films.

“For UCLA‘s 100th anniversary this year, we are planning a student film festival in November,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “In doing the research for the program, we discovered the Morrison and Manzarek films and thought they should be preserved. We are the second-largest moving image archive in USA and sixth-largest in the world.”

Even as TFT celebrates its past, dean Teri Schwartz not only has spearheaded efforts to look to the future of the industry, but also explore entertainment and performing-arts education on a multi-tiered front prioritizing technology, inclusivity and sociocultural responsibility. To broaden access to its faculty and facilities — and in the process, diversify the kinds of students learning how to tell their stories — Schwartz helped create a full-ride scholarship program to specifically facilitate master of fine arts graduate degrees in directing, screenwriting and producing for African American, Hispanic, Indian and Arab women. Subsequently, Schwartz enlisted former television writers including Neil Landau, now associate director of MFA screenwriting, writing for television, to help students tell stories passionately and authentically.

“We always push them to innovate,” says Landau, whose 284B drama pilot class has become a breeding ground for top-flight writers and showrunners. “It’s not that they have to come up with an idea that has never been done, because that’s really difficult. But if we’re going to do something familiar, they have to put a twist on it. Or, how does this reflect your voice and your sensibility? So I always ask them three questions: Why this particular idea? Why you as the writer-creator? And why is this relevant now?”

Landau counts Gaia Violo, who right out of school became co-creator of her show idea, “Absentia,” now in its second season on Amazon, and Steven Canals, whose “Pose” recently won a Peabody and is poised to sweep the upcoming Emmy nominations, as former students who successfully answered those questions.

“When Steven Canals first checked my 284B, he was interested in doing some kind of alien sci-fi thing,” Landau says. “I always say my job is to be evocative, not prescriptive, so I said, ‘I’m curious if there’s something that you really want to write, but that you’re kind of afraid to?’ And he said, ‘yes, but no one’s ever going to buy that.’ And I said, ‘I still think you should write it.’ ”

Landau solely credits Canals for ”Pose’s” success, not just honoring his creativity, but his fearlessness. “Pedagogically we never talk about the marketplace or agents or how to calculate and how to sell. It’s all about being authentic, writing the pilot only you could write, for whatever reason. I will always be his mentor, but all the props go to him because he had the courage to write it.”

While such instructors as Landau are helping storytellers stake a claim in territory that continues to expand into new platforms and permutations, UCLA enlists groundbreaking alums including Coppola to test the boundaries of what entertainment is and how it’s made. In 2016, on the stage of UCLA TFT’s Freud Playhouse, Coppola mounted a 25-minute production of what he calls live cinema, a hybrid of live theater, film and television performed and viewed in real time.

“Realizing that cinema had evolved into a totally electronic medium, I wondered what potential areas it might be able to enter,” Coppola says. “UCLA provided the place where we could do a ‘proof of concept’ experiment, plus a team of students who could man 50 cameras, and actors who could perform the script while going from frame to frame.”

Reflecting on a program that has produced hundreds of acclaimed and commercially successful artists by helping them find their voice and then the best platform to amplify it, Landau echoes Coppola’s sentiments about the interdisciplinary opportunities, both creative and vocational, that UCLA TFT offers.

“What we’re trying to do is really plant the flag in the space and say we’re not just a film school,” he says. “I think we’ve really distinguished ourselves now, and we continue to build and grow that program to be what I believe is the best storytelling institute in the world.”

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