This year, Visual and Media Arts students at Emerson will learn from four new faculty members: two award-winning women directors, a producer of critically acclaimed indie films, and a versatile writer of popular TV shows.
Mike S. Ryan
Ryan is the producer of 29 films, including 2005’s Junebug, which earned actress Amy Adams her first Oscar and SAG Award nominations, and a Film Independent Spirit Award and Gotham Award Breakthrough Artist nod. Ryan himself was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for the film about a Chicago “outsider” art dealer who travels to North Carolina to meet her new in-laws. In total, it racked up 21 wins and 27 nominations.
Ryan, who started out in the field directing and location managing, specializes in producing low-budget independent films that attract known actors; Junebug was one of the lowest budget films to ever get an Oscar nomination. His Free In Deed (2015), which The New York Times called a “quiet, unsettling story of faith found and tragically lost,” and which opens in theaters five cities in September, was one of the lowest budget films (and the only film with an African American cast) ever to win an award from the Venice Biennale.
Ryan has taught in Sacred Heart College’s master’s program and is a regular faculty member at the Venice Biennale College, and has guest lectured at Yale, New York, and Columbia universities.
Why Emerson?: “I was attracted to Emerson because it has a very unique combination of practical, hands-on instruction about filmmaking and mediamaking combined with a very good, balanced curriculum that exposes the students to all types of films and media, from experimental to commercial. That, combined with what seemed to be a really strong vision of the social impact of media, [drew me].”
What do film students need to come out of film school knowing?: “I think that the most important thing that an undergraduate can get a sense of is all the options that are out there in the media space, and to be open to all different career paths one can find….You never know what path your life will take.”
What are you most excited about?: “We’re in a very exciting time, in terms of the explosion of new mediums for communication. I’m very excited to be at a great school like Emerson where there are a lot of great ideas and energy…[and] a lot of very talented students and professors that have their finger on this changing landscape.”
McCleave, director of the 2015 documentary The Blind Boys of Alabama, will teach two intermediate-level production courses: one digital, one using 16mm film.
She has six festival awards to her name, including a Special Jury Recognition for Short Feature from Sundance (1994) and a Competition Award for Narrative Short Feature from SXSW (1995) for her dramatic short, Avenue X (1994).
Prior to coming to Emerson, McCleave taught at Queen’s College, CUNY, and The New School.
Why Emerson?: “Every place is different, so I think the attraction at Emerson is really a robust, competitive film school, both in terms of the faculty that are here and the students….It just seemed like a really vibrant community; that’s what drew me to Emerson.”
On teaching intermediate students to shoot on film: “Most programs don’t do that anymore; there’s a lot of introductory-level shooting on film….I just think it’s a great skill set to have, and I’m glad Emerson gives students that opportunity [beyond introductory courses]…. Professionally, people still do shoot film for various reasons.”
What do film students need to learn?: “I think it’s all the various ways to access digital storytelling. That can be so many things now….This generation has a real facility for it, but it’s always a challenge for all of us because in film, a lot of times we’re trying to make internal things physically visual, so it’s ‘How do I shoot that?’”
Documentary or narrative?: “My background was always fiction. And now, having done documentary work, I like them both, [as well as] hybrid forms. That’s the nice thing about artists working in an academic environment, is being able to try out new forms that interest you.”
Lee has written for a variety of television shows and specials, including The Drew Carey Show; the animated series GI Joe: Renegades and Class of 3000, created by Outkast’s André Benjamin; and the 2016 Writers Guild Awards show. He’s currently working on two animated series for Hasbro: Hanazuki: Full of Treasures and Littlest Pet Shop.
Lee, who will teach TV writing, will eventually join the Comedic Arts program as well. He has taught at University of Southern California; California State University, Long Beach; the American Film Institute; and UCLA Extension School.
Why Emerson?: The fact that Emerson has an LA campus, that I would still have a foot in LA. [And] the faculty here are very encouraging of creative pursuits, [which] all added up to a really great fit. I have a lot of friends who are Emerson alums….Everyone I met who was an Emerson graduate was smart, they were driven, they were funny, and had a great attitude. I knew it must be a great place if they [came from there].”
What have you gotten out of your teaching experience?: “I’ve learned how to become a better writer. I’ve learned how much I come back to the lessons I teach my students in my own writing, constantly going over the basics and the structure of it all. It’s really made it easier to write my own scripts….I always like to leave room for students to surprise me, because you never know where the best stories are going to come from.”
Is writing for a drama radically different from writing for a comedy?: “You do have to bring a different skill set to every specific job, I think. Just to learn the rhythms and style and tone of each show. At the same time, it’s all still contingent on telling a good story and making sure the audience has some kind of emotional reaction to your work.”
What do film schools need to teach students?: “I think film schools need to prepare their students for a changing medium. There’s no longer TV, there’s no longer movies, everything is becoming the same thing in terms of streaming. Students need to be prepared to tell stories in new formats that we don’t even know yet, but I think Emerson is well equipped to do that in terms of the comedy program, in terms of virtual reality, in terms of new media. This is a program I would have wanted to attend.”
Halperin, director of the award-winning films Now, Forager (2012), and this year’s Barracuda, will arrive at Emerson in the spring to teach production courses.
Barracuda, about a woman who comes to Texas after her father’s death to meet her half-sister and stake her claim in the family’s musical legacy, was nominated for two awards at SXSW and won the Grand Jury Prize from the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Texas. Now, Forager, about a married couple of mushroom hunters, won two awards from the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival and earned Halperin and her co-director, Jason Cortlund, a Breakthrough Director nomination from the Gotham Awards.
Halperin has experience teaching community college in Austin, Texas; art school in New York City; and a university summer program in Mexico.
Why Emerson?: “I just felt like the VMA Department has a lot of very smart, very passionate people [who] had a broad range of interests and personalities that all worked well together. It felt like an inspiring and supportive group of people to work with. The students seemed curious and hardworking; it just seemed like a good base community.”
What do you love about teaching?: “I just love exploring ideas. I love to think critically and creatively, and I love to help other people do that as well….It’s an exciting moment when students kind of realize or put together information that they may not have put together before. I just find that very fun and inspiring as an artist.”
On women and opportunity in the film industry: “I know that the proportion of women who are interested in directing at film schools are a lot higher than the proportion of women who are directing in the world. It’s not a lack of talent, it’s not a lack of passion [causing it].”
“I do feel like women need to come out of film school with a lot of confidence, because the professional film world is going to challenge them….They need to have the resilience to survive in the industry….I definitely believe women are equally qualified for the job, it’s just a question of ‘What do you need in terms of personality to get through the demands of the industry?’….I think that people of color of both genders are even more underrepresented than women are. I don’t want it to become a discussion where that issue gets lost.”