By Marti Gillespie

Alison Guenther-Pal needed a chair. And although one would have been fine, 10 would have been even better. Guenther-Pal, Lawrence postdoctoral fellow of German and film studies, was preparing to teach Introduction to Film Studies when she learned that students interested in taking the course outnumbered the available seats in her Main Hall classroom. Guenther-Pal said she wasn’t at all surprised by the students’ interest in the course. “The medium they encounter these days is the moving image,” She said. “Students are enraptured by that image and often don’t yet have the critical tools that come from a liberal arts training. So when they’re taking film studies courses they’re learning the language of film, its history and how it creates its meanings, all of which they can then use in their personal lives to become more informed and critically literate readers.”

The Time Machine

Ask Guenther-Pal what first got her interested in film studies and she’ll answer with an enthusiastic smile, “It’s in my blood.” She is the granddaughter of George Pal, who directed and produced Hollywood science fiction films in the 1950s and ’60s, including the epics “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds.” Guenther-Pal grew up in Los Angeles, and, as a teenager, was hired by her grandfather to help organize his materials. “What was so fascinating about this to me was that all of these production stills that I was categorizing and organizing really revealed how carefully constructed film worlds are in a way that I had not experienced in the movie theatre. Film-going had been a vicarious kind of experience. These stills fascinated me with their artifice. I wanted to know more.”

A ride in George Pal’s time machine back to Lawrence in the late 1970s would reveal the occurrence of a similar type of epiphany. Students were expressing an interest in film that went beyond its entertainment value — they wanted to explore the medium more deeply — and in order to do so, they needed a course that could provide the roadmap. Their request caught the attention of Mark Dintenfass, now professor emeritus of English (and an avowed film buff), who eagerly took on the challenge, creating Lawrence’s first film studies course in 1981. “The Art of Film,” Dintenfass said, “was an introductory course created to give students who care about film a course where they can study film seriously.” What Dintenfass did in that inaugural class was to change the passive experience of watching a film into an experience that created an active response by prodding students to answer a simple question, “What did you see?”

“I made a big deal out of looking at film, actually seeing what film is and teaching students to ‘read’ a film,” Dintenfass said. “Once they are able to dissect the film they are able to look at it in terms of its cultural, historical or political importance. Just like there’s a language to literature, which is not the same as everyday language, so there’s a language to film.”

Coming of Age

Over the next quarter century, film-related courses continued to dot the Lawrence curriculum; however they were scattered throughout various departments — anthropology, art, art history, history, theatre arts, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, English and in the conservatory of music, among others. A student studying German, for example, was able to study German films along with courses focused on German literature and culture.

With the guidance of Brent Peterson, professor of German, the start of the 2007-08 academic year saw film studies offered as an interdisciplinary area (IA) at Lawrence. Peterson said the IA designation brought the various courses under one roof and made them more visible. “A student interested in film studies might not have thought to look in the German department or the history department. With those courses listed under film studies, it puts them out where students can see them, which allows students to think a little bit outside the box. It exposes them to disciplines that they maybe wouldn’t otherwise have considered.”

More than two dozen film studies courses are now being offered, covering an intriguing range of topics. Introduction to Film Studies provides a basic introduction and overview of historical, analytical and theoretical approaches to film. Fascism and Film examines films explicitly created as part of Nazi propaganda efforts. Vampires, Monsters and Man Eaters explores the ways that representations of monstrousness are employed to stage complex public and private anxieties. Tutorial, directed study and independent study projects in film studies are also in the mix.

Film studies, now in its third year, has roughly 30 students completing requirements for an IA, or in the true Lawrence tradition, using its elements to self-design their own film studies minor or major. Micah Paisner ’11 is among them. “My designed major is a fusion of film studies, English and theatre arts, which will culminate in the creation of an original screenplay,” he said. Paisner is currently taking a tutorial with Guenther-Pal and eight other students where they study film genre. “It’s a great experience,” he said. “It really makes one appreciate the specific film we’ve seen in a much deeper way.”

Emily Koenig ’11 is contemplating a self-designed major in film studies. “I’m really interested in critical analysis of things,” she said. “Learning how to engage critically with a film in a liberal arts context teaches you how to engage critically with the world and to not take things at face value … to understand them at a deeper level. It broadens your perspective and opens your mind.”

Maggie Waz ’11 said that in reading a film she “draws on her knowledge of art and composition, literature, history, psychology and music.” An English major with a film studies IA, Waz is interested in film politics and expanding the role the Internet plays in the distribution of foreign and independently funded films as a means to keep the industry healthy.

While soaking up the imagery and dissecting the screenwriting, film studies scholars also tap into the resources of the conservatory to hone their skills. “Music and all sound are elements often taken for granted,” said Julie McQuinn, assistant professor of music. “I’m fascinated by the interactive relationship between music and image. Knowledge about the ways that music functions within and outside the genre of film is imperative to gaining a deeper understanding of the ways films work and create meaning.” Spring Term McQuinn is supervising an independent study project with Katie Langenfeld ’10 on the use of pre-existing popular music in film. Students from the conservatory are also getting into the act in other ways by creating original music for student productions. Garth Neustadter ’09 has taken his music composition to the silver screen, creating original scores for Turner Classic Movies and PBS (see page 16).

Lights, Camera, Action

While Peterson and others are quick to point out that film studies at Lawrence is not about filmmaking, most said it’s easy to understand why students have taken the skills they’ve learned in the classroom and brought them to the big screen. “To become a good novelist, it’s important to read a lot of novels,” Peterson said. “Understanding how films work and having a knowledge of film history adds to their ability to become good filmmakers.” It’s important to note, however, that Lawrence doesn’t offer any pure video production courses. Students making use of the medium are all self-taught and self-directed.

Lawrence’s budding filmmakers also benefit from continuous advances in video production technology. Film cameras and complex editing systems, once extraordinarily expensive and cumbersome, have been replaced with affordable hand-held digital cameras and laptop editing software. Students now have the ability to shoot, edit and upload a video for the world to see in a relatively short period of time.

Students with an interest in video production can find an outlet for their creativity in Lawrence’s Department of Art and Art History. Through Digital Processes, Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, assistant professors of art, touch on video as one way to convey artistic concepts within a syllabus that also features digital photography, the Internet and performance.

The pair recently began teaching a new class called InterArts: New Media Projects that is cross-listed within film studies courses. “The course has enabled a diverse group of engaged students to come together to work on self-designed digital projects,” said Lindemann. “There are government and history majors making documentaries, English majors making experimental videos and composers making videos with improvised aural elements and performance. I think Lawrence is visionary to have a program like film studies to provide a foundation for exploration of ideas through video.”

Shimon and Lindemann, photographers who use 16mm film and video in their own art practice, have worked with a number of students on a variety of tutorials and independent studies such as the Art of the Documentary, in which students analyzed documentary films, then made a short documentary of their own, and Experimental Film, in which a student produced a short film using Super 8 film.

Students like Fariha Ali ’10, a studio art major, relish the chance to incorporate a video component into their class projects. Ali created a video for a poetic collaboration project and two others that presented her observations on American consumer culture and art and subculture. “Video opens up all of these doors for you to explore,” she said. “And with a liberal arts background, you are going into these projects in a more informed way because you’ve read so much in other classes, such interesting material. It’s definitely changed the way I look at the world in general. Having done these video projects and taken film studies classes has changed the way I interact with the world.”

This summer, Tom Coben ’12, an environmental studies major with an interest in filmmaking, will travel to the Philippines with Jodi Sedlock, associate professor of biology, to produce several short videos on bats. Coben’s videos will result in information critical for bat conservation. “Many issues in environmental science and conservation biology, particularly those endemic to remote places, are difficult to communicate well in a classroom setting,” said Sedlock. “Students may be more engaged in the topic if presented with videos produced by conservation correspondents who are their colleagues.” She added that Coben’s videos would help build a bridge between her field research in the Philippines and the courses she teaches at Lawrence.


Whether a student is interested in peeling back the layers of a classic film or conducting an interview for a documentary, they will find plenty of others willing to jump into the conversation or contribute to the final product. Lawrence prides itself in being a community of scholars, and the area of film studies and the offshoot interest in video production is no exception. A number of independent film series have been held in the Warch Campus Center Cinema and have given the campus and Appleton community a chance to come together to view and discuss films on a wide range of topics. Cinema patrons have enjoyed an International Relations Film Festival, the Kurosawa Film Series, a World Music Film Series, the Tournées French Film Festival, and offerings from GreenRoots™ and the Biology Club, among others. Lawrence also hosted the Wisconsin premiere of filmmaker Abby Disney’s award-winning documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” (see page 15). Lawrence’s student Film Club brings students together once a week to watch a film in a seminar setting. The Film Production Club, now it its second year, offers students the chance to make a video and have it critiqued by their peers. Langenfeld, one of the Film Production Club’s co-founders, said the club was created, in part, to make up for the limited amount of production resources on campus. The club brings in speakers and hosts at least one film festival each term, a popular event that fills the seats of the cinema. Stephen Anunson ’10, another Film Production Club co-founder, said he and Langenfeld had very little film experience when they started the club, but they knew the power of the medium and wanted to give students like themselves an opportunity to explore their interest in film. “I think the hands-on experience provides more than just learning the technical aspects of making film,” Anunson said. “It really teaches you how to present the world around you in a very thoughtful way, and I don’t think you can learn that solely from a theory class.”

Telling our Stories

Lawrence as a whole has also been able to benefit from the immediacy and popularity of video. Two years ago, the Office of Development sponsored a first-ever student video contest. Students were challenged to create a video to complement Lawrence’s More Light! capital campaign. “The quality of the student productions was amazing,” said Cal Husmann, vice president of development and alumni relations. “They captured perfectly the essence of the college, and the winning video became an effective tool for promoting it.”

The positive response to the More Light! video mushroomed from something that was focused on development to a project now focused on telling Lawrence’s many stories. “This is Lawrence” is a 90-second video produced weekly by students (including Anunson) that showcases an event or activity on campus. Alex Bunke ’09, Lawrence’s web and e-communications specialist (who as a student was on the winning More Light! video contest team) now supervises a crew of student videographer/producers.

“The greatest part of the ‘This is Lawrence’ video series is that it’s Lawrence kids being Lawrence kids.” Bunke said. “We have an authentic Lawrence voice that captures Lawrence as-is. It doesn’t need to be scripted. It doesn’t need to be polished. As long as it’s honest, people tend to respond to it.”

“This is Lawrence” is also having an impact on prospective students and has greatly enhanced Lawrence’s recruiting efforts. “We’re getting out of the way and letting them see and hear what life at Lawrence is like and what it can be for them,” said Ken Anselment, director of admissions. “The mere fact that we’re using video to show, rather than to tell, our story conveys the message that Lawrence is a creative, technically savvy place.”

Bunke also created a presence for Lawrence on YouTube ( “With instantaneous access to things happening at Lawrence,” Bunke said, “alumni are finding themselves more connected to the institution. It’s a good feeling.”

The Future

The ever-increasing popularity of film studies and explosion of students interested in video production has been a win-win for the college. “It’s a really exciting time to be here at Lawrence,” said Guenther-Pal. “I’m happy to be part of the growth of a program. To work so closely with the students is such a thrill.”

And what will the future bring?

Perhaps a ride in George Pal’s time machine could provide some insight. In the meantime, students and faculty are enjoying the buzz that film studies and student-produced videos are adding to the campus.

“I’m happy that things are coming together in this way,” said Anunson. “I believe Lawrence will continue combining all these different elements of film that are growing independently. But it’s important that it’s done in a responsible way — with the liberal arts education always in mind.

From Student to Spotlight

Maybe it was a film studies course that piqued their interest, or participating in a theatre production or just having a dream and the courage to pursue it. Whatever the reason, Lawrence alumni have utilized to the fullest extent the benefits of their liberal arts education. Several enjoy successful careers connected to film, television and entertainment.

Elizabeth Cole ‘63

Cole (whose professional name is Megan Cole) has had a 30-year acting career on the professional stage, appearing in more than 100 leading roles in theatres nationwide. She has also guest-starred on various popular television shows, including “Seinfeld,” “ER,” “Star Trek,” “The Practice,” “Judging Amy” and others.

Cole originated the leading role in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “WIT,” for which she won the L.A. Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Performance. She also tours with “The Wisdom of WIT,” her solo version of the play. Recent venues have included Johns Hopkins University, Mayo Clinic, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Georgetown University, University of Rochester (NY) and Oregon Health and Science University, among many others.

Cole is artist-in-residence at the University of Texas/Houston, where she conducts a series of workshops on physician/patient communication, as well as classes on literature and medicine. She also gives public talks on medicine and the arts for healthcare and end-of-life care organizations across the country.

Lee Dodds Shallat Chemel ’65
television Producer and Director

Chemel is a successful television producer and director and has recently directed episodes of “The Middle,” “Better Off Ted,” “Cougar Town,” “In the Motherhood,” “Samantha Who?” and “Ugly Betty.” She is well known for her role as the producer and director of the “Gilmore Girls” and “The Nanny.”

Her directing credits also include “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Arrested Development,” “Spin City,” “Mad About You,” “Murphy Brown,” “Head of the Class” and many more. Chemel has been nominated for three Emmy Awards (in the category of Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing for a Comedy Series). She was nominated in 1991 for “Murphy Brown,” in 1992 for “Mad About You” and in 1993 for “The Nanny.” Chemel also received an Emmy nomination in 1994 for the made-for-TV movie, “Other Mothers.”

Theodore (Ted) Katzoff ’65
fencing instructor and stage combat master

Katzoff was the swordplay choreographer for “Hook,” directed by Steven Spielberg in 1991. He choreographed and directed the opening scene for “Outrageous Fortune” with Shelly Long, choreographed swordplay for the 61st Academy Awards, wrote and directed the battle scene for the Beethoven Spectacular at the Hollywood Bowl and choreographed the sword fight for the Los Angeles Opera production of “Don Giovanni.” Katzoff has trained, among others, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest, Keanu Reeves and Geena Davis.

Karen Spangenberg ’70
motion picture sound editor

Spangenberg is a highly successful, award-winning sound editor with a prolific and impressive filmography.

Alan Berger ’72

Berger is an agent with Creative Artists Agency (CAA), an entertainment and sports agency based in Los Angeles. Berger works with news and public affairs personalities, as well as writers, producers, directors and production companies. Two of his top clients are Katie Couric and Simon Cowell. Previously, Berger served as executive vice president and agent with the television department of International Creative Management. He also ran the television side of the management business at Artists Management Group.

David Haugland ’73

Haugland is an internationally recognized and award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His work includes two Academy Award-nominated documentary feature fi lms, one of which is the 1993 feature “Changing our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker.” He has been a member of the Directors Guild of America, has served as president of the International Documentary Association and has served as an offi cer and board member of ITVS (Independent Television Service). Haugland and composer Steve Edwards ’85 are currently collaborating on a documentary film project, “Requiem for My Mother.”

Emmeline (Emmy) Davis ‘73
television producer

Davis began her career in New York City at WCBS, in budgeting and forecasting for the “Arsenio Hall Show” and “Entertainment Tonight” and was vice president of production for domestic television with Paramount Pictures. Later she became the executive in charge of production for “Extra,” an entertainment news series. Davis has served as the executive in charge of production for a variety of TV shows, including “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Let’s Make A Deal.”

Tom Neff ’75

Neff is a film executive, director and producer as well as the founder and chief creative officer of The Documentary Channel.

Danna Doyle ’79
writer and teacher

Doyle served as a staff writer and producer for the television series “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “Touched by an Angel” and “Promised Land.” She worked as a freelance writer for “Murder She Wrote,” “The Trials of Rosie O’Neil” and several other programs. She also taught high school drama for two years and has now returned to writing full time.

Kärin Simonson Kopischke ’80
costume designer

Kopischke has designed costumes for more than 25 years for award-winning directors Douglas Hughes, John Rando, Anna Deavere Smith, Eric Simonson, Joe Chaikin and Anna Shapiro. She has costumed noted actors Julie Harris, Laurie Metcalf, Benjamin Bratt, Martha Plimpton, James Denton and renowned singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Kopischke’s nearly 200 productions include costume designs for Harry Connick Jr.’s new children’s musical, “The Happy Elf,” the feature film “Feed the Fish” starring Tony Shalhoub and Barry Corbin, American Conservatory Theater, Chicago Shakespeare, Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Long Wharf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, Children’s Theatre Company, Crossroads Theatre and Cincinnati Playhouse. She has received the Joseph Jefferson Award, AriZoni Award and a Prague Quadrennial nomination for her designs.

Eric Simonson ’82
writer and director

Simonson is a writer and director in film, theatre and opera. His film, “A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin,” won the 2006 Academy Award for short subject documentary. He has been an ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago since 1993, where his production of Steppenwolf’s “The Song of Jacob Zulu” received six Tony Award nominations, including one for best direction.

Rob Brackenridge ’83

Brackenridge is a comedian based in Los Angeles. His television credits include Comedy Central’s “Make Me Laugh,” “Comcast Comedy Spotlight” and “The Best of Bob and Tom” on WGN. He has performed in well-known comedy clubs including the Improv in Los Angeles, the Comedy Store in London and Catch a Rising Star in New York and Las Vegas. He tours regularly for U.S. troops and has performed in 10 different countries (including Afghanistan) and most of the 50 states. His two CDs, “Are Ya Comin’ With, Er No?” and “Bits ’n’ Pieces” are available on his Web site:

Campbell Scott ’83
actor, director, producer and voice artist

Scott’s recent work has included roles on the FX television series “Damages” and “Royal Pains” on the USA network. His directing credits include the sci-fi thriller “Final” and the drama “Off the Map.” In addition, Scott served as writer and director for the film “Company Retreat.”

Mary-Terese Cozzola ’84
writer and filmmaker

Cozzola is a writer and fi lmmaker based in Chicago. She is a published author, and her films have been screened at several Midwestern venues including The Gene Siskel Film Center, the Chicago Short Video & Film Festival and the Midwest Independent Film Festival.

Steve Edwards ’85

Edwards is a prolific composer and has scored more than 60 movies, from comedy to action and martial arts to documentaries. He is the founder and artistic director of “Source in Sync,” an independent music library that licenses music to NBC, CBS, Fox, Paramount, Miramax and others.

Christopher Oakley ’85

Oakley has had a very successful career as an animator with Walt Disney Feature Animation, Dreamworks and Electronic Arts (EA) Games. His work includes character animation for the films “Dinosaur,” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” “Scooby Doo,” “Stuart Little 2” and “Men In Black II.” While at EA Games, Oakley led a team of animators working on the popular “Medal of Honor” series. He may be best known for directing and animating two

seasons of the “Penny” cartoons on the television series “Pee- Wee’s Playhouse.” Most recently he animated characters based on Keith Haring designs for the “Into the Groove” number for Madonna’s “Sticky and Sweet” world tour.

After many years in New York City and Los Angeles, Oakley moved to Asheville, North Carolina to pursue his love of painting. He is currently working on a two-year funded project called “Faces of Change” — a series of portraits in oil celebrating leaders in the LGBT struggle for equality. He also teaches animation at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Erik Moe ’86
writer and director

Moe is a Los Angeles-based writer and director. Since 1998, Moe has been involved in a series of television development projects. Currently, he is writing a pilot with NBC Studios and Conan O’Brien’s Conaco Productions. He has also written for Fox, Studios USA, Paramount Television, Universal Television, Brillstein Grey Entertainment, Comedy Central and Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video. Moe has written four feature film scripts including “No Sleep ’til Madison,” winner of the Sundance Channel Emerging Filmmaker Award. His short films have been featured at the Tribeca Film Festival, the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Young Directors Night.

Mark Green ’90

Green is the senior vice president of operations and business development for National Geographic Channels International. He oversees operations, production services, syndication and manages the global programming budget.

Dominic Fumusa ’91

Fumusa is an actor and has worked extensively in theater in New York and London. He made his Broadway debut in 1998 opposite Quentin Tarantino in the suspense drama “Wait Until Dark.” In 2005-06, he starred in the national tour of the Mitch Albom play “Tuesdays with Morrie.” He has worked with many Lawrence theatre alumni, including Eric Simonson ’82 and Campbell Scott ’83. Fumusa has made appearances in television shows such as “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos,” “Law & Order” and “As the World Turns.” He is currently a series regular on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.”

Jill Lover ’93

Lover has made appearances on popular television programs including “Close to Home” (2007), “Sex, Love and Secrets” (2005), “Half & Half“ (2005), “My Wife and Kids” (2004), “All About the Andersons” (2003 and 2004), “American Dreams” (2003), “John Doe” (2002), “The Pretender” (1999), and “Nash Bridges” (1998). Most recently, she appeared in J. J. Abrams’ television pilot “Anatomy of Hope” (2009) and “Star Trek XI.” She has also had acting roles in the films “Dear God” (1996) and “The Twilight of the Golds” (1997). She has done dozens of regional and national television commercials. In addition, she recently wrote, directed, produced and starred in a film short called “Happy Crackers,” produced through her production company, Goober Sasquatch Productions.

Joshua Sawyer ’98
game designer

Sawyer is a lead designer and project director with Obsidian Entertainment. He has worked on many popular video games, including the “Icewind Dale” series and “Fallout: New Vegas.”

If you’re working in the entertainment industry and are not on this list, let us know! Send an e-mail to or update your alumni profile in Voyager.

Filmmaker Abby Disney Receives Honorary Degree

Saying she was “honored and humbled,” award-winning filmmaker, activist and philanthropist Abigail Disney accepted an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Lawrence University President Jill Beck during a January Convocation in Memorial Chapel.

Disney was selected for the distinguished honor because the work she’s done throughout her career parallels many of the college’s ideals. “She’s interested in women’s issues and Lawrence is one of the oldest colleges in the country as far as women’s education,” said Dena Skran, associate professor of government and Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Social Science. “She has a strong interest in Africa and we have students going to Africa on a regular basis. And her work in film touches a cord with our film studies program and a lot of other things we have going on in the arts.”

Disney’s 2008 documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” chronicles the inspirational story of the courageous women of Liberia, who came together across religious and socio-economic lines to end a bloody civil war in their country. Disney, the grandniece of Walt Disney, said that despite her family’s Hollywood legacy, a career as a filmmaker wasn’t something she was initially interested in. “I didn’t want to go into film because it’s a little hard to make your mark when the mark is so big. But when I heard the story (of the Liberian women), I honestly felt like there was only one way to serve what I knew in the way it deserved to be served — and that was in film.” Disney’s film has garnered international attention and more than a dozen awards.

The filmmaker’s convocation remarks, titled “Peace is Loud,” mirrored the story told in her film. “It grew out of something one of the women in our film said, which is ‘peace is a process, it’s not an event,’” Disney said. “I think we all have this image, when we think of the word ‘peace.’ Well, what you understand when you go to a place like Liberia is that peace is made of strong communities; and communities are made of a thousand acts that people decide on every single day. Peace is something you can’t take for granted, it’s a verb, it’s something we have to do. Peace is loud.”

Following convocation, Disney lunched with students and participated in a question and answer session that followed a showing of her film in the Warch Campus Center. Her openness and accessibility left a very positive impression with students, faculty and members of the Appleton community.

“I thought the film was great,” said Sam Lewin ’12. “I didn’t really know about the issue before and it really opened my eyes. When you read about things like that in the newspaper, it’s not quite the same and you’re not really able to relate with the people involved in the event, as I was with the film.”

“I think it’s wonderful that Abby is here,” said Maggie Schmidt ’12. “She provided a really interesting view on African issues, taking a social movement and showing how it really shaped politics, as opposed to warring factions and ethnic issues.”

“There are so many things that she is bringing to campus,” said Will Meadows ’13. “To listen to her is fascinating. To know she is interested in listening to students — and to be able to ask her questions — it’s just amazing.”

Disney’s convocation address can be viewed on Lawrence’s YouTube channel:

On Location: LU Fingerprints All Over PBS Documentary

By Rick Peterson

Talk about your high-profile debuts.

Neither Mark Hirsch ’11 nor Professor of Anthropology Peter Peregrine had ever so much as acted in a grade school play before finding themselves in front of Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Catherine Tatge’s ’72 cameras. They are among the cast members in “John Muir in the New World,” an upcoming film biography of noted conservationist John Muir for the acclaimed series “American Masters” on National Public Television.

Both were involved in an on-location shoot last fall on the actual site of Muir’s boyhood home near Portage, Wis. Hirsch played the young Muir during his college years at the University of Wisconsin, while Peregrine was cast as Muir’s stern, Bible-reading father.

Stephen Anunson ’10, who first worked with Tatge’s production company, Global Village Media, in the summer of 2008, served as the location manager for the Wisconsin scenes in the documentary and recruited Peregrine and Hirsch for their respective roles.

“When Stephen first asked me about it, I didn’t know that it was a professional film,” said Peregrine. “Then he sent me some storyboards for it and I realized this was the real deal.”

Peregrine said he accepted the offer both because one of his students asked and because it fits with his field as an anthropologist.

“I see this as historic preservation work and that’s what I do,” said Peregrine, whose youngest daughter also landed a role in the film as Muir’s sister, Sarah.

The fact that he teaches the anthropology course American Indians on Film also made the offer intriguing.

“The experience turned out to be very enlightening,” said Peregrine, who spent much of the down time between takes talking shop with the sound and lighting crews. “Now when I teach my class, I can speak with some first-hand knowledge on the subject.”

Cast in part for his physical resemblance to the young Muir, Hirsch enjoyed his acting debut. “It was very interesting to see the process of filmmaking in the context of something historically relevant,” said the guitar performance major from Peoria, Ill.

Hirsch, Peregrine and Anunson weren’t the only Lawrentians involved in the film. Anunson also enlisted the help of Katie Langenfeld ’10 and Ali Scattergood ’12 as production assistants, while Katy Harth ’11 and Naomi Waxman ’11 assisted with costumes for the Wisconsin shoot.

Tatge recalled some of her own experiences at Lawrence when considering incorporating current students in the filmmaking process.

“I remembered how many talented people I met while I was at Lawrence, and when Stephen came to work with us as an intern, a light bulb went off,” said Tatge, who was recognized with an honorary doctorate from Lawrence in 2006. “I said to myself, ‘Here’s a group of people that I could tap into and I could probably get as good, if not better work.’ I just thought this would be a great opportunity for students to be involved in the documentary, and then they’d leave Lawrence with a pretty substantial credit to start off their lives. They didn’t disappoint me.”

In addition to having students assist on the Wisconsin location shoot, Tatge reached out to the talents in the conservatory of music as well.

Garth Neustadter ’09 is in the process of writing a score for the film based on some preliminary footage he has seen. In 2008, Neustadter wrote a score for the 1923 silent film “The White Sister” at the request of Turner Classic Movies. He hopes to finish composing the music for the Muir film this spring and record it on campus using student and faculty musicians before the end of the academic year.

“I got in touch with Brian Pertl ’86, the dean of the conservatory, and asked him if he had any composition students who might consider working on the documentary with me. He suggested Garth,” Tatge said. “Both of them really got what I was trying to do. I wanted a rich score, but I also wanted a contemporary feel. I wanted a mixture of different things. The first piece of music I got from Garth was fabulous.”

“For an undergraduate institution to be involved in a scoring project for a film premiering on the American Masters series is unheard of,” said Pertl. “Opportunities like this rarely even present themselves to film scoring departments at America’s largest graduate schools.”

The inspiration for a biography of Muir came after Tatge took a trip to Alaska with friends. His philosophy that humans can coexist with nature without destroying it struck a nerve while she was there. Supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from American Masters, the Muir film is tentatively scheduled to make its national broadcast debut the Wednesday before Earth Day 2011. But before it airs on PBS, Tatge would love to give Lawrence a sneak preview.

“I hope to have a premiere screening at Lawrence so we can generate some buzz and show off the students who worked on it,” said Tatge. “Some of them will have graduated by then, but maybe they can come back for the screening. I think it will be very exciting.”

Tatge previously has created film biographies on dancer/ choreographer Martha Graham, playwright Tennessee Williams, West Indian poet Derek Walcott, opera star Barbara Hendricks and famed Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler. Prior to tackling John Muir, she completed a biography of Walter Cronkite for American Masters.