A Mentor Will Be There

By Derek Gurr

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t’s no secret that breaking into the film industry can be a daunting challenge—but it’s a challenge that the screenwriting program at BYU has eagerly accepted. The industry and natural talent of graduates and faculty is opening doors for students throughout the country.

Students don’t have to go anywhere to experience one of the greatest advantages of the screenwriting program: faculty mentorship. Through these mentored relationships, students are able to get hands-on experience doing what is necessary to master their craft and break into the film industry. Here are a few of their stories.

Student Screenwriter

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YU Media Arts student Hunter Phillips was relaxing during some downtime at his internship in Los Angeles when he struck up a conversation with a coworker about a shared passion: U.S. presidential history. While that might not seem very unusual, what made it memorable to Phillips was that the coworker was Conan O’Brien.

Although the Blackfoot, Idaho native had dreamed of working for O’Brien as a teenager, what struck him was how normal the stand-up comedian was.

“It’s the opposite of what I expected of show business,” Phillips recalled. “There’s something about that moment when the mystique of movie-making falls away.”

Working around O’Brien and his staff demystified the entertainment industry for Phillips. Seeing the staff of writers dressed in oversized t-shirts and watching the clock so they could get home to their families helped him realize that they were just ordinary people working a normal job.

I learned that I could do Hollywood,” Phillips said. “It really invigorated me on a creative level.”  

Hunter Phillips

The experience almost didn’t happen. Phillips was one of hundreds of people who applied in 2010 for an internship on Conan. He never heard back.A year later, he was talking about his future with Professor Brad Barber who headed up the Media Arts Nonfiction Production Area at BYU. Phillips mentioned that he wished he could work in a late-night talk show setting. Barber told him that his old TA Bri Borrup currently worked for Conan. Within a week after Barber gave him her contact information, Phillips had a job working on the show.

Phillips said that sort of mentorship is a common trait among the professors he’s worked with in the Theatre and Media Arts Department.

“Most of the faculty here really take a responsibility for their students,” Phillips said.

In line with the university’s mission to provide a “spiritually strengthening” experience for students, professors at BYU work to create an environment that is both academically challenging and faith promoting. Phillips keenly felt the spiritual influence of faculty mentors in the Theatre and Media Arts Department at BYU.

“A big part of this department’s mission is not just to make us better at watching movies but to make us better human beings,” Phillips said. “A lot of that falls within our faith.”

Unlike most students who choose to attend BYU, Phillips was not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he arrived in Provo. Drawn to BYU by its international relations program and competitive pricing, Phillips enrolled in Professor Thomas Russell’s introductory film class to fulfill a general education requirement during his first semester.

Hunter Phillips

“It was strange to me how they could so seamlessly blend spirituality with whatever they were talking about,” Phillips said.

 It was that class, combined with a Book of Mormon course that encouraged him to join the Church that semester. As Phillips wrestled with his faith, he often went to Russell with questions. He said that the film professor has been the biggest influence on his faith.

“Tom has always been there with a really nuanced and helpful perspective,” Phillips said. “He is terrific at turning big issues of faith into very digestible concepts.”

Phillips and Russell directed the film, Beyond, which was developed in Writer’s Room, a class designed to simulate the writer’s room of a TV series. The TV movie was released October 22, 2015.

This type of relationship isn’t unique to Phillips. Many students have benefited from the mentorship of professors, alumni, and their peers. Another example is the creator of the critically-acclaimed BYUtv series, Granite Flats.

Granite Flats Writer

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hat made the terrorist attacks on 9/11 so scary?” Professor Jeff Parkin asked his introductory screenwriting class several years ago.

Students provided a variety of answers: the attack was horrific, nothing like it had happened before, it was unexpected, people thought that no one would attack the U.S., etc. The conversation went on for several minutes as the class tried to pinpoint what made it so frightening. Parkin pointed out that what made it frightening was that it involved people that we know and can identify with. He taught the class that stories matter because of the people who drive them.

The lesson made an impact on James Shores, one of his students. Prior to enrolling in Parkin’s class, Shores had been preparing to become a director. During the course of the semester, however, his focus changed.

“It dawned on me how critical the writing process was,” Shores said. “After that class, I shifted my emphasis into screenwriting.”

Shores internalized what Parkin taught about character-driven storylines. It wasn’t long afterward that he enrolled in Writers’ Block, the predecessor to Writers Room. Writers’ Block was designed to help students create material for BYUtv. Due to the channel’s emphasis on showing material from within BYU or the Church, many students thought they’d have to create something boring in order for it to be produced by the channel. Shores was determined to buck that trend.

“I knew that I had to hit BYUtv’s criteria, but it didn’t mean that I couldn’t make something that stands out,” Shores said.

Inspiration hit him one evening while he was helping his wife, who was a third-grade teacher in Pleasant Grove. At one point, he took a break from helping to organize the classroom and lay down underneath one of the tables. There, Shores envisioned a seven-year-old boy named Arthur who draws underneath his desk as he learns to cope with the death of his pilot father.

Shores developed the story into a 30-minute script and submitted it to BYUtv. He named the script Heaven Under a Table and BYUtv produced it. Later, BYUtv approached him and asked him if he would convert it into a TV series. Shores worked with several other talented writers to flesh out the storyline and Granite Flats was born.

Like many other screenwriting students, Shores said that he didn’t benefit from the experience of just one mentor.

“One of the best parts of the process was that there were all of the right people involved,” Shores said. “Collaborating with those people helped me to create the very best version of the project.”

 Throughout the process, Shores said he hoped to leave an impression on people that he influences through television. Although Granite Flats isn’t an LDS show, he hopes it will be a vehicle to communicate eternal truths that will apply to a broad audience.

“We have a responsibility to communicate these eternal truths to everyone,” Shores said. “If we’re making something that only communicates to the LDS community, we’re excluding the majority of Heavenly Father’s children, which is everyone else.”

The show headed into its third season in April 2015 as one of BYUtv’s most popular programs. Although Writers’ Block, Writers Room, and other resources have been great developments for students like Shores and Phillips in the past few years, they are certainly not the first to benefit from the instruction of thoughtful media arts professors. More than a decade ago, students mentored in the screenwriting program produced a “pretty sweet” movie that won the hearts of American teens across the country.

Comedians

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lot of students dive into the film program with their hearts set on making the next action-adventure thriller. For Jared and Jerusha Hess, however, the focus was always on comedy. Years later, they remember Professor Darl Larsen was key in helping them make that vision happen.

“The first step of any good film is to write a good script,” said Jared Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite with his wife. “Darl facilitated an environment where people could be creative. He helped us discover our voices as screenwriters.”

Jerusha, who defected from the English major to study film at the encouragement of her husband, said that Larsen was a very practical man.

“He told us to write a script that we, as students, could actually make,” Jerusha said.

With that charge, Jared and Jerusha wrote a nine-minute short film called Peluca (the Spanish word for wig). The story featured a tall, curly-haired teenage boy with thick, large-framed glasses. At his side was a mustached friend named Pedro who spoke with a heavy Spanish accent. Although not named Napoleon Dynamite, the main character played by Jon Heder is the clear predecessor for what would turn into an American cult phenomenon.

Before submitting Peluca to the Slamdance Film Festival in 2003, Jared and Jerusha began expanding the script into a feature-length film.

“That script was autobiographical for both of us,” Jared said. “We both come from big Mormon families and had a lot of really ridiculous material and real-life experience to draw on.”

The duo received the funding they needed and the film came together quickly after Slamdance. Collaborating with the same students that helped them make Peluca, the Hesses filmed Napoleon Dynamite during the summer of 2003. They filmed on-site at Jared’s old high school in Preston, Idaho.

Napoleon Dynamite

Overall, the cost of production was $400,000. The film was released on a limited basis in June 2004 after debuting in Sundance earlier that year. The movie was so successful that it was released on a wider scale a few months later, raking in more than $46 million worldwide.

The Hesses have since collaborated on several different movies, including Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. In 2013, Jerusha cowrote and directed Austenland, based on the book by Shannon Hale. Jared recently directed Masterminds, which is slated to come out later in 2015.

The Hesses credit much of their success to their experience at BYU. The moviemaking duo stays connected to the university through the film program’s annual writer’s conference in Aspen Grove, which they regularly attend as guest lecturers. Today, they encourage their young friends interested in film to attend BYU “whether they’re Mormon or not.”

“Just having faculty that see what your strengths are as a filmmaker and encourage those strengths is valuable,” Jared said.

These three stories are only a sampling of the mentorships that have been forged in the screenwriting program. As the film industry continues to see the value of graduates armed with a BYU education, more mentoring opportunities will be created with talented guides to help students find their niche in screenwriting.

And as Jared Hess emphasized, “There is a mentor for you if you need one.”

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