NAME: Sam Zalutsky
JOB TITLE/OCCUPATION: Filmmaker, writer/director, screenwriting instructor
PROFESSION/INDUSTRY: Film and Television; Screenwriting instructor, low residency Writing M.F.A. program at Spalding University, Louisville, KY
EDUCATION: M.F.A. in Film, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University (2000); B.A. in Studio Art, Yale University (1992)
ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST: Photography –shooting and printing— and drawing.
What is your educational background, specific to your profession?
As an undergraduate I had a million interests and felt like I was in an educational cornucopia. I had a hard time choosing a major but always took studio art classes and knew that the arts would be a big part of my life, I just wasn’t sure how. My studio classes were the ones that were easy to get up early for – my drawing classes were always at 8:30 AM. And eventually I decided to major in art. I took drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and video. While I started with the more traditional drawing and painting, by the end of my four years I was more interested in film, video, and photography. But I also took a fair number of history and English classes as well.
After college, I wasn’t sure where I was going to go professionally, so I taught English in Changsha, China for one year through the Yale-China program. I traveled a great deal when I was younger, living in Israel for year, China, also teaching in Mexico for a summer, and I consider these experiences an essential part of my education, even if they weren’t part of my formal education. After China I worked in San Francisco for two years and tried to get work in the small film community there. But I eventually decided to go to film school. At NYU, we had classes in directing, writing, producing, editing, cinematography, sound, and aesthetics. I had some really spectacular and inspiring teachers in both schools.
What was your most valuable experience, that gave you the tools and insight to work as a filmmaker?
I always did well in school and learned really well in a formal academic environment, so going to film school felt like the right choice to become a writer/director. I think the greatest gift of film school was that it gave me the time to explore and experiment with the medium and to find my own voice. I didn’t have to worry about earning a living while I was there and could concentrate on my work. So writing and directing my own short films was an invaluable lesson, especially being able to see them through from rough idea to script to shoot to post production. I learned so much just going through that process. At NYU, we also worked on our classmates’ projects, so getting to work as a cinematographer or grip or sound recordist on other short films, to be on set but not in the director’s chair, to observe other director’s working with actors, learn about the value of the other crew members, was also very valuable.
At Yale, I had some great professors who really taught me about hard work and pushed me to be the best. Robert Reed, who I had for drawing and painting, was someone I will never forget. He always came to class in a suit and bow tie, he was incredibly serious about the work and he always inspired me to do work hard. And Erwin Hauer, who taught sculpture, was this towering gentle giant. He too had a way of revealing concepts and ideas to me that made me want to just keep going. At NYU, I had some really inspiring teachers as well, including Boris Frumin, who started out as a director. For his directing classes we did video exercises every week, about various concepts, themes, or stories. He was a strong minded and opinionated critic in class. But he also incredibly supportive of my work and despite his gruff demeanor, really cared about his students and our work. Carol Dysinger, who taught editing and writing, was another great mentor and role model. She’s incredibly smart and funny, a great filmmaker and writer, and always had insightful and incisive comments. And Gayle Segal, who taught aesthetics, opened my eyes to so many amazing filmmakers, including Kusturica, many Iranian filmmakers, the Taviani brothers. I couldn’t get enough of her class.
I also worked on a few indie films and documentary films in New York, but the most valuable job was reading scripts for Miramax Films for about four years as a freelance reader. I read hundreds of scripts and really learned the ins-and-outs of what makes a good script and how hard it is to write one. Teaching, which I’ve been doing for about the last ten years, primarily at the low residency MFA in writing at Spalding University, has also been an incredibly rewarding experience for me. I’m a much better writer, director, and thinker because of this experience, and I continue to get better (I hope) because of it.
As a working professional, what changes have you seen in your industry that have significantly affected how you work?
Obviously the change in technology from an analog film world to a digital world has created enormous changes in many fields, and film is no exception. When I first started at NYU, we were shooting on film, editing on film on flatbed Steenbecks, and finishing our projects on film. But that doesn’t really happen anymore. I just completed a residency at the MacDowell Colony and I learned that they still had a few Steenbecks in case any of the filmmakers wanted to edit with them. I don’t know anyone who works that way anymore.
My first feature, You Belong to Me, which came out in 2008, was shot on HD on the Vericam. I had an awesome cinematographer, Jonathan Furmanski, and production designer, Tamar Gadish, who made the film look far more expensive than it was. I hope I get to work in film again, but digital makes certain things a lot easier and cheaper and can look fantastic. And now all my projects are edited digitally now.
And again, the relative costs of working in digital and the new cameras that make everything so much cheaper have really made it much easier to make films. So while I’m working on a bunch of more traditional indie and Hollywood projects in terms of budget and scope, I’m also developing a micro-budget film that I can do for a budget even smaller than You Belong to Me, which was already a really low budget project. I’m intending for it to be just me, a cinematographer, sound recordist, producer and then three actors. I want to shoot it at the Oregon Coast, where my parents have a house, and shoot it in about 12 days if possible. It’s really about using the resources I have at hand and it was inspired by some colleagues who made a great microbudget feature in a similar way called Small, Beautifully Moving Parts.
With regards to the new generation of talent working in film, what are the skill sets that you are seeing?
It’s hard for me to comment on this completely since usually I’m at home writing and working on my own projects. But I think what is most exciting about the new generation of filmmakers is their DIY attitude. Combined with the changes in technology which make filmmaking so much cheaper and easier, people are just going out and making their movies and less concerned about following the previously trod paths of other filmmakers, especially in the indie world. That is really exciting. People talk about a strong sense of entitlement and impatience amongst this generation to get to the next level but I don’t necessarily know if that’s a bad thing. Perhaps it is what it takes to be successful and make the work. At times I’ve been too reliant on other people to get my work made, so doing it yourself and not waiting for others is a great way to be.
What would your advice be to aspiring filmmaker &/or to the institutions and instructors that are providing them with the education & “tools” they need to work in the film industry?
I would advise everyone who wants to be a filmmaker to just do it. Go out and make films and find your voice through practice. Of course, it’s essential that all artists learn about the history of their medium and the films that have come before them. And also learn about the world. I don’t think it’s very new, but Hollywood filmmaking has always had a problem of telling solipsistic stories, rehashing the same stories again and again, about the same type of people, usually young, white wealthy men. So I would encourage people to learn about the world around them, to read and to study psychology, art, literature, history, etc. Learn how to see. That’s an incredible lesson that I learned, especially from my visual arts teachers all the way back to high school. And learn about people and what makes them tick. Filmed stories are about putting emotion on screen, about connecting one person’s experience with the audiences, so learning as much as possible about how and why people do what they do is essential. And find collaborators that you work well with. This is an industry that requires collaboration. It is essential on every level and I strongly believe that our work is made better because of it. So go out there and find people to make things with and just make the work.
In 2008, Sam was short-listed for the Independent Spirit Award’s Someone to Watch Award. His first feature film, You Belong to Me, which Varietycalled “A nifty little suspenser bordering on horror … a la Polanski’s ‘The Tenant’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’” is currently distributed in North America on DVD (Wolfe), Pay Per View (Warner), and Logo. It is also distributed in Australia, France, Germany, and the UK. The film premiered at Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, and screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, San Diego FilmOut (Audience Award, Best First Feature), NewFest (New York, Honorable Mention), and Outfest (LA), as well as numerous international film festivals. The script was a finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Richard Vague Award (NYU) and was nominated for Newfest’s Vito Russo Award in 2006.
Sam’s short films have screened at dozens of festivals and won many awards. SuperStore (starring Clea Lewis, Ellen) aired on Reel New York, WNET’s independent film showcase, and is distributed online by Cinequest.Stefan’s Silver Bell, nominated for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Wasserman Award, aired on Reel New York in 2004. Smear aired on the Independent Film Channel from 2000 to 2003 and can be seen in the shorts collection Boys Briefs (Picture This!). Sam currently teaches screenwriting at the low residency MFA in writing program at Spalding University (www.spalding.edu/mfa) in Louisville, Kentucky. He has also taught writing and directing workshops in New York, online, and at Tec de Monterey in Querétaro, Mexico. He received his BA in studio art from Yale University and his MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.