Interview with Bob Bassett
Find out how the dean of Chapman University's Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts has made his dreams come true.
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Most people would accuse Bob Bassett of being a dreamer. And they’d be absolutely right. Thing is, his dreams come true. Or, more to the point, he creates them, forcing them into reality through optimism, drive and a lot of hard work. And there’s no better, or grander, evidence of this than Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, which calls a state-of-the art, 76,000-square-foot, $42 million facility home. It boasts a 500-seat movie theater, the latest in digital filmmaking equipment and a faculty that could fill any mantel with Oscars, Emmys and Clios. In addition, there’s the Filmmakers-in-Residence program, in which iconic filmmakers spend 15 weeks working intimately with 10 selected students.
Filmmakers have included William Friedkin, Arthur Hiller and John Badham, to name a few. Robert Zemeckis, Garry Marshall and Paul Mazursky have also taught classes at Chapman. Next year, Martha Coolidge, the only woman to ever hold the position of Directors Guild president, will be full-time faculty. The move marks Bassett’s and the film school’s commitment to championing women in film, a vision clearly articulated every April with their free-to-the-public Women in Focus Conference, which brings the most successful women in Hollywood to speak about the difficulties – and triumphs – of breaking into a business that is a self-admitted boys club.
But in 1981, when Bassett was hired to teach a few film classes, Chapman had none of this. There were zero facilities, one camera and a handful of half-committed students. Then, like most great filmmakers, Bassett started dreaming.
Were you into movies as a kid?
Yes, but for entertainment purposes only. I grew up in Whittier when it was similar to a small, rural, midwestern town. This was the 1940s and ’50s, when you went to the matinee every Saturday and watched serials and Western movies. Westerns were the coin of the realm for the studios. They were double features with an A film and a B film. There was no TV, and so movies were something you went out of the house for. It was a big deal.
So when did you get serious about film?
First, I got interested in literature in high school and college and that evolved into philosophy. But in the early ’60s there was an art house circuit in the U.S. for films that really doesn’t exist anymore. Every town had an art house and films from Europe and Japan and other countries would make the rounds. So suddenly I saw movies by Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut... one of the first films I remember in that vein was The Seventh Seal, which questions the existence of God. That movie, and many others of the time, were just like literature. There was a lot of new excitement in filmmaking, so that’s when I became seriously interested in film.
When and why did you come to Chapman?
I came to Chapman in 1981 and I was making films and had taught literature and philosophy. But I was having trouble making ends meet. So I thought [teaching at Chapman] would be a nice, steady job and I [could] continue making films while I taught a little. Remember, I came from very prestigious schools: Pomona College and the University of Chicago. But Chapman was a sleepy little school back then with only about 1,500 students. It was more like a community college, which I should hasten to add, is utterly different than it is today. Today, it’s a well-respected university.
But you stayed, so you must have liked the place.
I loved the place. The people were nice, there was a lot of freedom and flexibility and I could teach what I wanted. I came in as part of a typical communications department, with speech and drama and public relations. I was the first film professor. It’s hard to imagine now since film programs are sprouting all over the country, but in 1981, it was rare.
How have film schools evolved?
Film education really started in the 1960s. Then, in the ’70s, a film school generation took over and changed the [Hollywood] industry, so that by the ’80s people were starting to think, “Who are these guys – Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg?” These guys totally changed things and suddenly, instead of wanting to be rock stars or great novelists, young people wanted to be [film] directors. So I was in the right place at the right time when this phenomenon of film school graduates doing well in the studio system happened.
You started Chapman’s film school. What was it like at first?
The entire film school was my office. I had one lighting kit, one camera and one sound package, which I personally checked out to the kids. And because I was really interested in what they were working on, I usually went out with them on their shoots. There were no resources, no classrooms, no traditions, no screenings, nothing. On the plus side, there was no tenured faculty telling me that they had tried something and it didn’t work, so don’t think about it. I had carte blanche in a way. So I took a bunch of kids to Death Valley and we made a film and it was the most wonderful experience. In fact, I’m still in touch with some of those people, who are now in the industry. The next semester more students joined because we had so much fun. And that really marked the start of the film school.
You still needed more resources, though. How did that come about?
A fortuitous thing happened: I became friends with Marion Knott in the early ’80s. She was a trustee of the university and she made a gift of $25,000 to [the film school] for equipment. That’s when it hit me that I didn’t have to rely on the university, that there were individuals who have resources and want to help young people. I thought, “This is the way you build a program.” It seems obvious now, but then it was a new idea to me. And that led to more serious fundraising in the ’90s.
One of the beliefs of the film school is that: “Film is the literature of this century.” Explain that.
As I said, I had always thought of film as being merely entertainment until the 1960s, when I saw films by Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, etc. Then I realized that filmmakers are probing the human condition not unlike Hemingway, Mailer and Camus. They’re no different. They were artists trying to understand how we’ve evolved to where we are and what’s going on in this moment and anticipating what it might be in the future. The difference with film is that it’s so accessible. There’s an immediacy to film; people seem to pick up its language intuitively and they understand its vocabulary more than if they, say, read a few books of philosophy. There’s also a universality to film, like dance or music. In fact, it also incorporates dance and music and movement and words and graphics and more, so in a sense, just as they used to say philosophy is the queen of the sciences, film is the queen of the arts. Finally, I would say that the things that affect us most deeply are our dreams. I think that’s also true of films, which are like dreamscapes in many ways. After a good film, we leave the theater and it becomes more compelling a day or two later. It sort of reverberates in us, like a dream does. That’s why I think of it as the literature of this century.
How did the idea of building a mini-studio originate?
Usually what happens is the faculty members just want to make their films, teach a little and have students help them. I started thinking that we could do something a lot bigger. I thought we should think more in terms of a program rather than just teaching classes. And more specifically, figuring out what the students want, rather than what the faculty wants. And what the students wanted was to get into the mainstream motion picture and television business, so we needed to focus on that, not on esoteric experimental or documentary films. So we figured we needed to have a miniature version of a studio like Paramount or Sony. The thinking was that if you go to the University of Chicago’s Pritzker medical school, they have a teaching hospital and the [students] actually perform operations in residency and use all the tools that they’ll use when they go on to be surgeons.
But that meant money, which is usually a great sobering agent.
True, and in the early ’90s it seemed like a crazy dream, that it was too big, it would cost too much money. But we ended up raising $52 million and building a $42 million building that has been cutting edge since we opened in 2006. I bring guests from Hollywood here every week and they rave about this place, saying it’s better than where they work. They joke that the kids will be disappointed when they actually get into the business.
And you’re not done dreaming.
No. We’re getting ready to launch a second campaign and build another $50 million building adjacent to this one. It will be just as cutting edge and have a backlot, like real studios. It’s tentatively named Millennial Studios, which is named after the millennial students, who are so different than the students from before 2000.
First, they’ve grown up with the Internet; that’s probably the defining characteristic of the millennial student. They’re used to instant 24/7 communication, prefer to personalize all their communication and to communicate in image and sound. They also think very internationally and want to make a difference in the world. Their parents have persuaded them that, unlike students in the ’90s, who really wanted to make money, that it’s more fulfilling to find something you’re passionate about and the money will follow.
Why has Chapman’s film school, which is relatively young, been able to be so cutting edge?
Digital technology is totally transforming the television and film arts. It started in the late ’80s, when I was [designing] the film program. And there’s a paradox in that if you don’t have anything, sometimes that’s an advantage. We had no equipment, so we could simply say that we will only buy digital equipment, whereas for a film school like NYU, that had 50 steam decks that cost $50,000-plus each, it’s very difficult for them to suddenly turn on a dime.
Does orienting the film school toward Hollywood filmmaking lessen its importance in any way?
No, quite the contrary. We’re oriented toward mainstream or Hollywood filmmaking because, let’s face it, Hollywood tells the stories that fascinate the world. It’s a multi-billion dollar export business with no real competition anyplace in the world because Hollywood has figured out a way to tell stories that are very archetypal. It’s really about the hero’s journey. So [America] totally dominates the world’s cinemas to the point that most countries have quotas that theaters can show no more than 50% American movies and have to show at least 50% indigenous movies. Otherwise, there would only be American movies, because that’s what people want to see.
Why did you establish a campus in Singapore?
I mentioned that the millennial student is very interested in international issues and sees everything, including our own country, from an international perspective. The reason for Singapore is I saw Asia as the most interesting place. Lots of people have been to Europe and in many ways it’s not too different than the U.S., especially the English-speaking countries like England. Singapore is 70% Chinese and also extremely multicultural. It’s very prosperous and extraordinarily safe. And everybody speaks English, but usually as a second language, which is ideal. We also have programs with Korea and Taiwan, in which we send students there to make films and they send students here to make films.
April 2010 sees your 10th annual Women in Focus Conference. What’s its goal?
The idea was to have a conversation between accomplished women in the business and our students, because, though the business is difficult for everybody, it’s especially difficult for women. We focus on different disciplines, from editing to writing, etc. and invite accomplished women in the industry. This year our focus is on women in television and at the moment the moderator will be Nina Tassler, who is the president of CBS Television, highly respected and very successful. The conference is open to the public and I guarantee anyone interested in television or film will find the afternoon fascinating.
Why is the film business so particularly tough for women?
Because it’s a boys’ club. There’s this perception that the equipment is too heavy for women and they don’t know how to deal with the material in the same way as the men do. As directors, they’re seen as too nurturing and that somebody who’s going to be the leader needs to be harder, tougher. Only about 8% of the films that are made are directed by women. That’s how small it is. But it is changing, albeit slowly. The perfect example of that change is the Oscar race this year. Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to receive an Oscar for Best Director [for The Hurt Locker], as well as the Directors Guild Award. So this is the first year ever that a woman has won the Oscar for directing.
What amazes you the most at the film school?
That we’ve been able to accomplish so much. It’s easy to say you’ll do a lot of great things. But it’s another to actually accomplish those goals. We have.