It’s exciting and encouraging to see so many filmmakers coming to Michigan for their location shoots. Michigan needs all the economic boosts it can muster. And in-state film production has been good for young people starting up careers in the entertainment industry. It has meant increased opportunity for finding employment here rather than abandoning Michigan for California or New York. Our graduates and current students in Screen Arts and Cultures are thrilled to be able to “stay home” and work with top Hollywood and indie professionals like David Schwimmer, Drew Barrymore, Rob Reiner and Miguel Arteta.
This alliance with the movie business is new, but I’m reminded of just how far-reaching has been the University of Michigan’s creative and corporate associations with American motion pictures. U-M alums have distinguished themselves in every facet of this big business medium that is also an art form. For this article I’d like to concentrate on professionals who have been behind-the-scenes rather than on-camera.
A couple years back I wrote a column about the screenwriter Dudley Nichols, a 1916 Michigan graduate who scripted several of John Ford’s classic films and who in my estimation was the first great writer for ‘talking pictures.’ Nichols’ screenplays for Ford included the submarine narrative “Men Without Women” (1930), the innovative adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s “The Informer” (1935) for which Nichols received an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and my favorite: the literate, archetypal western “Stagecoach” (1939). Altogether Nichols wrote eight screenplays for John Ford, and in 1938 was elected president of the Screen Writers Guild.
Class of 1927 graduate Valentine Davies adapted his own novel “Miracle on 34th Street” for film in 1947, winning two Oscars—one for Best Original Story and one for Best Screenplay. This film has become one of the most beloved of all holiday-themed movies.More recently, Angus Fletcher ’98, along with his writing partner, Vineet Dewan, was selected as a 2009 Nicholl Fellow by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Their script, “Sand Dogs,” about a red cross ambulance driver in war-torn Gaza City, was selected from a record 6,380 entries this year.John Briley ’51, won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” (1982). David Newman, U-M ’58, co-scripted the culturally explosive “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). Among other prominent writers and some of their films are…
- Josh Greenfield ’49: “Harry and Tonto” (1974)
- Kurt Luedke ’61-’62: “Absence of Malice” (1981) and “Out of Africa” (1985) for which Luedke received a Best Adapated Screenplay Oscar
- Lawrence Kasdan ’70-’72: “Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), “Body Heat” (1981), “The Big Chill” (1983), and with wife Meg Kasdan ’71, “Grand Canyon” (1991);
- Richard Friedenberg ’67: “A River Runs Through It” (1992);
- Jim Burnstein ’72: “Renaissance Man” (1994);
- Todd Langen ’81: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990);
- Mark Levin ’88: “Madeline” (1998);
- Adam Herz ’95: “American Pie” (1999);
- Eric Champnella and Keith Mitchell ’88: “Mr. 3000” (2004).
And one can’t overlook Arthur Miller ’38, and “The Misfits” (1960), an original script written expressly for the screen. Film adaptations of Miller’s stage plays include “All My Sons” (1948), “Death of a Salesman” (1951) and “The Crucible” (1996).An enormous influence on thousands of screenwriters is Robert McKee ’63. He created his famous Story Seminar in 1983, a 30-hour class aimed at teaching narrative techniques to film and television professionals and would-be professionals. Given around the world as often as 20 times a year, the class by the late 1990s had enrolled more than 30,000 students.
Producers and Executives
Two college roommates and U-M graduates of 1939, John H. Mitchell and Burton Benjamin, became top executives in film and television in New York City. Mitchell was vice president of Screen Gems NYC, and president of Columbia Pictures Television Division (1968-77). Burton “Bud” Benjamin was a writer-producer of documentary films at RKO-Pathe NYC (1946-55), afterwards becoming a senior executive producer of CBS News’ “Twentieth Century,” “The 21st Century” and “The Evening News with Walter Cronkite” spanning 1965-81. A producer-director of major note is John Rich ’48. Initially a feature-film director, Rich later became the director of the television shows “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “All in the Family.” Rich has served as president of the Directors Guild of America and in 1972 received the DGA “Director of the Year” Award.Bonny Dore ’69, ’75, has become an acclaimed writer and producer of HBO films and made-for-television movies that include Jackie Collins’ “Sins” (1986), “Glory, Glory” (1989), and “Reason for Living: The Jill Ireland Story” (1991). Dore has served as the president of Women In Film (1980-81) and in 1998 was the recipient of a Lucy Award, recognizing her outstanding contributions in media. Robert Shaye ’60, was the founder and CEO of the enormously successful New Line Cinema company, established in 1967. Initially New Line was a studio for independent productions, but eventually emerged as one of the industry’s major studios after the huge success of film franchises such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Austin Powers” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Shaye donated money to U-M for the establishment of the Donald Hall Media Library in Screen Arts and Cultures, one of the finest media-resource centers on any college campus.
Craftsmen and -women
Christine Lahti, ’72, multi-talented actor-director received the Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar in 1996 for “Lieberman in Love,” directed by Lahti.This year, alum Paul Debevec ’92 and his team at the Institute for Creative Technologies won an Oscar for their work in the technologies of special effects. Debevec spent ten years developing a system to capture and simulate digitally how people and objects appear under real-world illumination. His pioneering techniques made possible some of the astonishing effects of “Avatar” and were used to create the Academy Award-winning virtual backgrounds in the “bullet time” shots in “The Matrix.” Other alums with established careers in cinematography and special effects include
- Kyle Rudolph ’78: “Reign Over Me” (2007);
- Peter Mercurio ’84: “The Amityville Horror” (2005);
- Todd Schlopy ’88: “Crash” (2004);
- John Nelson ’76: winner of the Special Effects Oscar in 2000 for “Gladiator” and nominated for another for “Iron Man”;
- John DesJardin ’83: known for his special effects supervision on numerous films, including “Mission: Impossible” (2000).
Top film editors include Malcolm Campbell ’70, and Jay Cassidy ’71, each of whom has edited more than 30 major motion pictures. In addition to his film work (“Trading Places,” 1983) Campbell edited the landmark Michael Jackson video “Thriller.” Jay Cassidy received a Best Editing Oscar nomination for “Into the Wild” (2007). The above represents a mere sampling of the University of Michigan’s presence in behind-the-scenes Hollywood and New York. Along with the many actors who’ve appeared on camera (from James Earl Jones to Christine Lahti) it’s an impressive record.What do you think? Who are your favorite U-M film-makers and stars? Did we leave anyone off the list? Comment here.