Another rising filmmaker with a chance to take home an Oscar will make a virtual visit to the UO and offer cinema studies students and the campus community an inside look at how big-screen movies are made.
The 2021 Visiting Filmmaker Series will feature Mollye Asher, producer of Golden Globe winner and current Oscar contender “Nomadland.” The film has racked up six Academy Award nominations, for best picture; best actress, for Frances McDormand; best cinematography, for Joshua James Richards; best director, for Chloé Zhao, who was the 2017-18 Strauss visiting filmmaker; best adapted screenplay; and best film editing, also for Zhao.
Asher’s credits also include “Swallow” (2019), “The Rider” (2017), “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015), “Fort Tilden” (2014) and “She’s Lost Control” (2014).
The Visiting Filmmaker Series runs May 14-26. Although all events are free and open to the public, advance registration is required.
Assistant professor of cinema studies Masami Kawai said her criteria for selecting filmmakers is based on their body of work and whether they push the edge of film, which fits perfectly with Asher’s philosophy on the film industry.
“I like to push the limits of what gatekeepers deem ‘commercial’ because I think it will enrich the cultural conversation and broaden the lens by which audiences see the world,” she said.
Zhao and Asher also joined forces for the 2015 film “Songs my Brothers Taught Me,” with Zhao making her directorial debut and Asher producing. According to Asher, collaboration is what she enjoys most about being a film producer.
“I love the process of collaborating,” she said. “I love that filmmaking is not a solitary venture but in fact relies on creative collaboration to reach its true potential.”
While attracting Oscar-caliber filmmakers is exciting, Kawai said, “I think it was lucky that it all fell into place the way it did, but when I’m curating and selecting the filmmaker, we will continue our vision of reaching out to new voices and people that are approaching cinema in a fresh way.”
Before COVID-19, the guest filmmaker came to campus for a two-week residency to mentor students, teach workshops and hold public conversations. But even with the change to remote teaching, students still have ample opportunities to learn and engage with the filmmaker through podcasts, Q&A sessions and other remote events.
Asher will host virtual screenings of “Swallow” and “Nomadland,” as well as guest-teach four classes in the program’s CINE 408: The Art of Producing.
This nuts-and-bolts cinema studies course, which Kawai has taught since the program’s inception, examines the ways in which a producer serves as an essential force behind shaping a film, from scriptwriting and budget decisions, such as hiring a cast and crew, to the logistical implications of shooting locations, all the way through post-production. Essentially, through practical projects and an analysis of Asher’s body of work, students will learn how to transform a project from script to screen.
In the six years since Harlan J. Strauss, who earned a doctorate at the UO in 1974, generously funded the annual Visiting Filmmaker Endowment, the Department of Cinema Studies has played host to talented, up-and-coming producers, directors and filmmakers, including producer Neil Kopp, director Athina Rachel Tsangari, filmmaker Kent Jones, and producer Ryan Zacharias, in addition to Zhao.
According to Kawai, access to a working filmmaker has proven to be an invaluable experience for students hoping to expand on concepts they’ve learned in class and apply them to real-world applications.
“It’s eye-opening for undergrad students to begin to see themselves as venturing into a career,” she said. “A lot of students who have taken this class have gone on to enter the film industry in different areas. They may not start out producing or directing immediately, but they are assistants in a TV writer’s room or working in post-production or casting.”
Hannah Mason, a senior double majoring in cinema studies and history, took the class last year with Ryan Zacharias and is back for a second time.
“I decided to take it again because I was really interested in learning from a female producer currently working in the industry who also works with a female director,” she said.
Mason’s dream job is to be a comedy writer on late-night TV.
“I love to write, so to be able to get feedback directly from a working producer is very cool,” she said. “The criticism is applicable to what someone would critique you in the actual film industry. I would a hundred percent recommend this class. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and it’s really great that the department is able to have filmmakers come to campus to work with students directly or on Zoom.”
Of course, not everyone who majors in cinema studies will become a major Hollywood producer or director and make an Oscar-winning film, but hopefully, everyone who participates in the visiting filmmaker program will walk away encouraged and inspired.
Keith Dearborn, a senior majoring in cinema studies, said he is ecstatic to have the opportunity to engage with a producer of Asher’s caliber.
“The quality of the films she produced, especially those while working with Chloé Zhao, are just simply incredible, so the opportunity to learn from her was something I couldn't pass up,” he said. “Learning from someone in the industry will hopefully provide insight into not just how to become a film producer but how to be a successful one.”
“I’d like the students at the University of Oregon to come away from my visit feeling empowered,” she said.
—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications