Alumni Speak on Careers in Film

As momentum builds across the language, literature, anthropology, performing arts, and art departments for a possible film studies program at Reed, three recent alumni of Reed’s language and literature departments, who have gone on to work in film, came to the Performing Arts Building on the evening of Friday, February 8, to discuss their respective career paths and experiences within the field.

Roland Dahwen Wu ‘13, in addition to serving as the Spanish House Advisor and a Spanish tutor during his time at Reed, also worked for both Audio Visual (AV) and the Instructional Media Center (IMC) and pursued photography as a hobby. During a gap year between his sophomore and junior year, he travelled to the Canary Islands and, “without knowing anything,” made a short documentary about a whistling language spoken there, used to communicate across mountaintops for distances of up to three kilometers.

After graduating, he worked for five years at a Portland-based documentary company, exploring experimental work on the side. That experimental work brought him back to Reed when, in 2017, he collaborated with Professor of Creative Writing Samiya Bashir on videos based on her most recent poetry collection, Field Theories.

Wu’s resulting series has been shown at film festivals across the world, from Portland to Amsterdam. He shot his first feature film, which he’d been working on since his graduation, last summer in Hillsboro and Portland. It was his first work of narrative fiction, and his first project to have a cast, crew, script, and “actual funding.” The narrative drama’s cast, all non-professional actors, was made up of his friends and their relatives, and Wu’s boss at Reed’s AV department served as the director of photography. The actors never saw the script, with Wu instead sending them audio recordings of him reading the scenes, which they would then adjust together. He kept them from reading the script because “there’s a tone of voice that comes when people are reading anything which [he] can’t stand” and he wanted “to circumvent that.” He’s currently working on the film’s sound design.

Carmen Garcia ‘11 was determined to have a job after graduation. Two days after commencement, she flew to New York City and started working at The Nation. It was an entry-level fact-checking internship, and after finding that the media industry matched her skill set to a passion for telling journalistic stories, she soon found herself “running around Manhattan in an ill-fitting pencil skirt” looking for yet another job in the industry. She ended up at Salon, again entry-level, where her responsibilities included sitting in front of a computer all day doing brand management and social media monitoring — a situation that left her “bored to tears.” She stuck with the job, and did fact checking on the side for the New Yorker.

A coworker who had worked with her at The Nation and New Yorker approached her about serving as a researcher for a long-form documentary about climate change for a “well-known director.” In their second or third meeting, by which point she was invested in the project, she belatedly learned that the “well-known director” was in fact James Cameron. The series,Years of Living Dangerously, went on to win an Emmy.

Garcia discovered film as a medium of journalistic stories. She saw film as using the same “analytical and communication skills” as journalism, but traded sitting at a desk for being on set and in helicopters — thus employing these skills in a manner that is “active and connecting to people all the time.” At the heart of her work are her relationships and trust with the people she was asking to appear in front of a camera. Whatever her subject was, her job was to become a “mini expert” on that world –– a skill she credits to her Reed education. Her objective was to be prepared with regards to information and perceptions and, as an interviewer, not have the interviewee surprise her at all. Garcia has produced projects for CNN, A&E, and NBC, and she is in the midst of developing a documentary feature for Netflix.

Maya Scherr-Willson ‘13 studied abroad in Ecuador during her sophomore year, and endeavored to return to the country immediately upon graduating. She began by working at an experiential education program for American students who were not equipped for living in the remote and rural location. From there, she transitioned to teaching fourth grade which was “crazy” because she was “not a (trained) teacher.” After three years, Ecuador began to feel small. Scherr-Wilson decided to move to Mexico City, the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. She had no job, no plans, no visa, no friends, and no residence. And then she got “extremely lucky,” as she puts it. She arranged to meet a “friend of somebody who knows my parents” who worked often in Mexico City, but was based in New York. He turned out to be one of Jim Jarmusch’s early producers with long career in film. He took a look at her CV and told her it was “bullshit,” but he saw in the intro section that she’d listed an interest in documentary film and said “well, maybe I can help you there.”

He put her in touch with the boss of Pimienta Films, who got her a job as a producer. When Scherr-Wilson got the job, she didn’t know what it meant to be a producer; she had to Google, “What does a producer do?”. Pimienta Films was an amateur-driven independent filmmaking company, focused on Mexican directors who want to stay in Mexico, helping create the conditions for them to work in Mexico and support the film industry there. Right when she got her job, “not knowing anything about anything,” her boss was brought on to produce Roma, which became the first film she ever worked on. Roma is Alfonso Cuaron’s critically-extolled semi-autobiographical drama, and current frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, among ten other categories.

Scherr-Wilson characterizes producing as problem solving: a process of “putting out fires all the time” that is both highly dynamic and bureaucratic. While many producers actively exert a creative influence on their films, Pimienta’s focus on producing for auteurs makes her role that of making space, and providing tools for the realization of the director’s vision. Her responsibilities include the logistics — financial, legal, and practical — of her films’ shooting and distribution. Pimienta aims to produce films that bring awareness to social issues in ways more artful than didactic and have the power to inspire societal change. Roma has motivated the passing of legislation in Mexico protecting the rights of domestic workers and sparked a national conversation on the status of Mexico’s indigenous people. A documentary that Scherr-Wilson produced about female survivors of state-sponsored violence was screened at the Mexican Senate and provoked debate. Scherr-Wilson has also worked on minority co-productions including Birds of Passage, the Columbian film which opened Director’s Fortnight at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

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