Capturing Student Imagination for Filmmaking
Hardin Young: Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, the podcast from the University of Arkansas. My name is Hardin Young and I’m a writer here at the university. Today, I’d like to welcome Russell Leigh Sharman, assistant professor of practice in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Communication. Sharman teaches film studies and is also a writer, filmmaker and anthropologist. He’s worked as a writer for several studios and production companies and created several award-winning short films and documentaries, the most recent of which is titled Animal. Sherman also serves as executive director of the Fayetteville Film Festival. Russell, welcome to Short Talks.
Russell Sharman: Thanks so much for having me.
HY: Yeah, you betcha. Now, you’re teaching courses in the Department of Communication, but you actually have a PhD in anthropology. Can you talk a little bit about that? How’d that happened?
RS: Sure. (Laughs) I wish I knew how that happened! So, I studied film as an undergraduate at the University of Texas and certainly had every intention of embracing a career in film, like most young film students have, you know. I even went out to LA and worked on a terrible Civil War-zombie-vampire movie. And something about that experience sort of forced me to reconsider how much I really wanted to sacrifice for a tech career. And the idea of studying art, but more specifically, studying the people who make art, is what led me toward anthropology. And the more I looked into it, the more excited I got about this idea of sort of devoting my life to understanding how people think and act in the world. So, that’s how I stumbled into anthropology after being disillusioned by the film industry – by Hollywood. And I found that once I was in academia, I was still writing screenplays. Mostly out of a sense of creative catharsis and wanting to do something creative. And that tended to actually influence my academic writing, as well. So, it was a nice sort of symbiosis there. And it wasn’t until several years into my anthropology career at Brooklyn College in New York that I sold one of those screenplays to Warner Brothers – much to my surprise – and that started a whole second career that was on parallel tracks for a while, until I decided about six years ago that I wanted to try my hand at writing and filmmaking full time. That’s what I did. And eventually, with some stops in between, that led us here to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I realized even in that short time that I’ve been away – about a year since I quote unquote, retired at a young age from anthropology – I really missed the classroom. I missed teaching. So, I just called up the department of communication, and the chair of the department seemed keen on having me teach a few classes. One thing led to another and I found myself a professor of practice in the department. And I’m having a great time teaching film – both film studies but also starting to push towards some film production classes, which I’m pretty excited about. You know, I was really saddened to hear there was no film production track at the University of Arkansas because it was so important to me as an undergrad at the University of Texas. And there’s a lot of folks on campus – faculty – who are moving in that direction, as well. So, I’m looking forward to in the next several years, seeing if we can’t get something like that started.
HY: Now, you recently published an open source textbook, titled Moving Pictures, for your film lecture class. And in the introduction to that book, you mentioned that this book is going to have all the basic elements you would find in any introduction to film class – and it’s a big book, you put a lot of work into it. So, my question is, why would you go to the trouble of writing your own book just to give it away?
RS: Well, here’s the thing. As an academic, which I suppose I should still call myself an academic, since I found myself back in academia, you know, one of the great things about it is it provides a sort of stable, employed position from which to teach and think, and be creative. Let me be clear, too, this was funded by the University of Arkansas library system. They have a program for faculty to create open education resources. So, I don’t want to seem like I’m too altruistic. I did receive some grant money to write the book. But for me, you know, teaching a really large lecture class, you can’t get away from the big intro textbooks, and those tend to cost $80 to $100. I’m teaching 400 students a semester across two sections. That just seemed unconscionable to me. It’s hard enough getting students to actually read the textbook. But then, to add insult to injury, make them pay $100 for the privilege, I was never comfortable with it. Besides, these books tend to be bloated, filled with information that I don’t need the students to know. And so I was often frustrated that I wasn’t able to focus on the aspects of film studies that was most important to me. So, between the generous funding of the library, and the opportunity to write a book specifically for my students, but hopefully other faculty, not just here, at the University of Arkansas, but other institutions could use and also provide something free for their students. I will say the other real benefit is, unlike a traditional textbook, this is all online. So, every chapter is full of video examples and a lot of interactivity for students. And that’s super exciting to be able to actually talk about a concept and then show a clip so that they could see what I’m talking about before they come to the classroom.
HY: I think you know what my next question is going to be. Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
RS: (Laughs) Yes! Yes, I am!
HY: I suspected as much… Okay, your next film Animal recently premiered at the Oxford Film Festival. Can you talk a little bit about how Animal came together and what your plans are for it?
RS: Yeah, for sure. So, you know, one of the exciting things again about teaching at the University of Arkansas in communication, and specifically film studies, is capturing students’ attention and imagination for a career in film. I’ve already spoken a bit about how I hope to add more film production opportunities for students, not just in our department, but in other departments, as well. But I also saw a real opportunity to combine my passion for film. So, you know, I’ve continued to make films since I started as a screenwriter back when I was also teaching as an anthropologist and I was using a lot of the money I was earning as a screenwriter to fund my own films. So, I have a lot of experience with that kind of grassroots filmmaking kind of activity. And so I thought, well, if I do that here, that would be a great opportunity to include and involve students in the process and have them see what it’s like on a really professional set. So, have a professional cinematographer and first assistant director and producer… and have them learn by doing. Completely extracurricular, right? Not part of the auspices of the university. So, it was it was entirely self-funded. We did a crowdsourcing campaign to raise the funds and then Rock Hill Studios, which is a local production company here in Fayetteville, came in and matched those funds. So, we had a pretty decent budget. And I brought in about a dozen students, both graduate and undergraduate students, as I said, to shadow some of those crew members. And frankly, you know, if the film turned out to be watchable, that was almost a bonus. The idea of providing that kind of opportunity and igniting that fire for students was the most exciting thing. And that was a huge success. I was very pleased not only with their professionalism, but with how it seemed to inspire them to want to pursue this on their own. Out of that came a new club of students who want to make their own films led by some of the students who are on my set. Fortunately, the movie turned out pretty well, too. So, I’m very pleased with the quality of the film and then basically used that to leverage a much larger grant from the university. The chancellor funded these grants for arts and humanities starting last year, and myself and John Walch, who’s in the theatre department as a writer, we managed to nab one of those. So, basically, the university is going to pay for us to do that three more times over the next couple of years. Obviously with the pandemic, that sort of put the brakes on our plans for this summer, but I’m really looking forward to duplicating that same experience.
HY: When you say do it three more times, you mean you’re going to try to make three more short films?
RS: Correct. We will be making three more short films to be written by John and his students, and then directed by me and my students, using the same basic model to bring in professional cinematographers and other crew members, gaffers, grips, and then have students shadow those positions. Part of the impetus to do this, as well, was to try and breathe some life into the local filmmaking industry. It’s a fledgling industry, but it’s definitely alive and well, and we’re seeing more and more professional productions come to Northwest Arkansas. But one of the things that we lack is trained crew. So, it’s a great opportunity for us to train up grips, and gaffers, and sound technicians and so forth – who, you know, when these bigger productions come through town, they don’t have to bring in all of those key personnel from L.A. We can employ them right here in Arkansas.
HY: How can people see Animal and can we expect it at the Fayetteville Film Festival anytime soon?
RS: Well, let me just say it was slated to be in a whole slew of festivals this spring and summer. All of that was derailed by the global pandemic. We were meant to premiere at the Oxford Film Fest in March. We did just premiere in the Oxford Film Festival Virtual Film Festival. So that was pretty exciting, but not the same as having a film festival where you have an audience live, engaging with the work. We were also meant to screen in France and Amsterdam. So, none of that happened, unfortunately. So, Fayetteville Film Fest – I am the executive director. It is it is under consideration. I will make no claims about whether or not it will be accepted. My hands are clean of that process. But I certainly hope to be able to share it with the local audience at that film festival. And we’ll see what happens the rest of this year with other opportunities. Certainly, within the year, I plan to release it online so that everyone can get a sense of what we’re trying to do here, regardless of how things pan out with various festivals around the world.
HY: Russell Sherman, thanks for joining us today.
RS: It was my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Matt McGowan: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by local musician Ben Harris. For more information and additional podcasts, visit researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.