When you think about some of TV’s hottest and most anticipated shows, alumnus James Wong’s ‘83 credits are certainly on that list. The writer/producer just finished writing and directing a new episode for a limited series of The X-Files, which debuts in January, and his multiple Emmy-winning show American Horror Story premiered October 7 with the new season “Hotel,” featuring Lady Gaga among a slew of returning cast including Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe. James spoke to SFTV Communications Manager Julie Porter about his work, his inspiration and what he’s currently watching.
You recently completed the new The X-Files for FOX. The show was a huge phenomenon. How did working on this series shape your career? Up until The X-Files, I had been doing mainly dramatic shows like 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy and The Commish. The X-Files allowed me to work in a genre I had always been interested in. When the show began, there was a program called The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. that was supposed to be the big hit that season. There were no expectations that were placed on The X-Files and we had the ability to make the show we wanted. That gave us the freedom to tell different kinds of stories without a lot of pressure from the network. And in success, it gave me confidence to know what I wanted to do was also what the audience wanted to see. And being nominated for an Emmy for directing The X-Files made it possible for me to direct my first feature Final Destination.
What is it like to work on a series that has been on a 13-year hiatus? It felt like I was coming home again. We shot in Vancouver during the years I worked on the show, and we returned there this time. I saw a lot of crew that I had worked with for many years. Of course, working again with David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Chris Carter, Glen Morgan and Darin Morgan was a treat. Honestly it felt so familiar and comfortable; it was as if there wasn’t an interruption. Everybody looked older, which is startling because nobody felt that way. In terms of content, I don’t think The X-Files suffers by comparison to anything on the air today. It was a groundbreaking show back then, and the storytelling stands the test of time.
You wrote one of the most talked about The X-Files episodes, “Home,” which was the first episode to receive a viewer discretion warning for graphic content and was called “one of TV’s most disturbing hours” by Entertainment Weekly. Can you give us any tidbits about what to expect from the new season—will there be any recurring characters or themes? There will be characters coming back from the past. But this show doesn’t dwell on the past. It recognizes what had come before, but the stories we tell will move everything forward. Some of the issues left unresolved will be addressed. That’s pretty much all I can divulge. We are not shy about graphic content or subject matter, but The X-Files had never been about doing stories for the sake of shocking anyone.
The new season of American Horror Story “Hotel” is set around a series of brutal murders near the mysterious Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles. What is the process for deciding the story line behind each new series? The inspiration comes from writer/producer Ryan Murphy. Each season, Ryan and the writing staff will discuss possible arenas to set the new iteration of American Horror. Once an area is decided, then a lot of research will go into the specific topics we want to explore. Characters are created to populate the show. One of the advantages we have is the returning cast – we can write to specific actors knowing what their strengths are and how they want to be challenged. The next step is just the hard work of creating story and finding surprising ways to seduce our audience.
Many of the projects you work on have a pretty significant cult following. Can you share any fan stories? I am grateful for all the attention my work has gotten from fans. And genre fans are probably the most intelligent, and fervent fans out there. They are passionate about the work, and that can rub both ways – being loved and being hated. That kind of attention certainly keeps you on your toes. The beginning of The X-Files also coincided with the beginning of the popularity of chatting about the show after it aired. They were called newsgroups way back in the infancy of the Internet. I remember monitoring and talking with fans about the show and soon began to realize that a lot of fans were upset with Scully – the skeptical character on The X-Files. That feedback actually led us to write “Beyond the Sea,” the episode where Scully and Mulder change roles. For one episode, he became the skeptic and she the believer.
How did you become interested in working in the sci-fi/horror genre? I read a lot of sci-fi as a kid, not so much horror though who doesn’t love Stephen King. My interest in the genre is entirely related to telling great stories. You can’t watch The X-Files pilot without being intrigued and excited about the possibilities that show offered to tell unique stories. That was my entre into the genre. My inspiration comes from the mysteries that are all around us. Every day, things happen to people that are seemingly unexplainable, it just takes a little skewing of perspective to make that into a genre story.
You have worked on feature films but you primarily work in television, and now with companies like Netflix there are a lot more opportunities in that realm. What advice would you give current film students on how they can use their education to prepare them for the new frontier of content creation? Originality has and will always be the key to being successful in the business of TV and film. The burgeoning opportunities afforded by the new outlets will only place a greater focus on original content. The education that Loyola Marymount University provides will become a foundation that you can draw from as you enter the business. It’s not just the technical aspect of filmmaking that is important, learning how to learn, being curious and fascinated by the world, and developing a point of view are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education – those are the keys to creating original content. Believe it or not, my Religions of the World class helped me craft stories and create characters. My Philosophy class taught me how to look at issues from different perspectives. That’s the preparation everyone in the film school can benefit from as they go into this fertile landscape of being content providers.
What are you currently watching? Anything my wife wants to watch. But we both love Game of Thrones. Homeland. Walking Dead. Modern Family. And though it hasn’t aired yet – American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson will be amazing.
Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television has appointed three new professors: Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies Carla Marcantonio, Assistant Professor of Production Shane Acker and Distinguished Professor of Film Arthur Dong.
Carla Marcantonio is a scholar of transnational/global cinema and joins SFTV’s Film and Television Studies Department as Associate Professor. Her articles and essays have appeared in collected editions as well as in journals such as Social Text, Women and Performance and Cineaste. Her book, Global Melodrama: Nation, Body, and History in Contemporary Cinema, is forthcoming this fall. The book investigates how contemporary film melodrama helps map new temporal, spatial and embodied territories in response to globalization. Professor Marcantonio’s scholarly work on Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has lead to her serving as his translator for the past decade. This work has taken diverse incarnations from interpreting during interviews at the New Yorker Festival, New York Times Talks and the AFI Fest as well as during development workshops for the adaptation of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to Broadway. She also translated the pre-production script of Broken Embraces. She was previously on the faculty at George Mason University where she was Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the English Department. Professor Marcantonio received her PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University in 2007.
Award-winning director, animator and designer Shane Acker joins the Production Department as Assistant Professor. He brings over 15 years experience working in the entertainment industry and has held academic positions at Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, Gnomon School for Visual Effects, American Intercontinental University and University of California, Los Angeles. As an MFA student at UCLA, Professor Acker wrote, directed and animated the 11-minute short 9, which premiered at Sundance in 2005, garnering numerous awards including a Student Academy Award, the “Best in Show” at the 2005 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater and a student Emmy. That film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 and was subsequently made into the Focus Features 2009 feature film of the same name, produced by Tim Burton and Timor Bekmambetov. It marked Professor Acker’s directorial debut. His additional credits include Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (animator), Total Recall (previs artist) and Oz the Great and Powerful (senior previs artist). Professor Acker received his MFA in Animation from UCLA in 2005, and a Master’s degree in Architecture from UCLA in 1999.
Arthur Dong has been appointed to the newly created position of Distinguished Professor of Film. He will draw upon his expertise to help create an MFA documentary filmmaking program. Professor Dong has taught documentary film at numerous institutions locally, nationally and internationally. His films have been theatrically distributed throughout America and featured in hundreds of festivals worldwide. His awards include an Oscar nomination, a George Foster Peabody Award, three Sundance Film Festival awards, the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award, Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award and five Emmy nominations. He has been selected as a Guggenheim Film Fellow, a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellow, and honored with the Pioneer Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans, with two consecutive GLAAD Media Awards (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and the OUT 100 Award from OUT magazine, which was presented to him “for waging a one-man anti-violence project with his documentary on convicted murderers of homosexuals, Licensed to Kill.” His critically acclaimed films include Coming Out Under Fire, Forbidden City, USA; Hollywood Chinese, and most recently, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor. Professor Dong’s book Forbidden City, USA, based on his film, won the 2015 American Book Award and the Independent Publisher’s IPPY Award. He has served on the boards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Film Independent, Outfest and the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress. Professor Dong earned his BA in Film from San Francisco State University and holds a Directing Fellow Certificate from AFI.
In Professor Tom Klein’s recent op-ed for The Huffington Post, “Docter Who? The Pixar Director You Need To Know,” Klein calls animation director Pete Docter, whose new Pixar film Inside Out opens June 19, “a rising force among American directors,” comparing Docter’s new animation flick to mind-bending films like The Matrix and Inception.
Klein writes, “When Inside Out takes you on its mind-trip, think about how this same movie that passes for a kid’s film is as boundary-pushing as Inception. Think about what a useful model it can serve in bringing more challenging fare to mainstream movies. And finally you will never forget the name Pete Docter, a true visionary and a rising force among American directors.”
Read the entire piece here.
When Professor Howard Lavick retires to Southern Oregon this summer, we will be sad to see him go. But Lavick, who began teaching film courses at LMU in 1984, has left a legacy built on an uncommon foundation of wit, good humor and common sense.
It was Professor Don Zirpola who first recruited Lavick to teach three classes for a “short period of time” at the film program, then operating within LMU’s Communication Arts Department. “I needed someone to replace me on faculty,” said Zirpola, who was ascending to department chair. “I convinced him to come to the school even though he was fully engaged at SelecTV where he was in charge of interstitial programming.”
Fast-forward thirty-one years: Lavick has served the film program as associate professor, department chair, school director, acting dean, and most recently, interim associate dean. He is among a group of Founding Faculty who grew the film program from 250 students to a fully-fledged School of Film and Television with over 700 students. He was a guiding force behind the development of the SFTV International Documentary Program in Bonn, Germany. And he established the Ian Connor Student Cinematography Award to honor a cherished colleague and beloved teacher.
“Like our students now,” said Zirpola, “they loved him then as well. Students were always at the center of everything he did for the school.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Lavick is adept at guiding his students both academically and professionally. “Professor Lavick inspired us in and outside of the classroom through his wisdom on filmmaking, but most importantly in how to stay grounded and operate in our pursuits of a career in the entertainment business morally and ethically,” said Matthew Law-Phipps (Production – B.A. ’15), a recent thesis student. “There is no sense of superiority when Professor Lavick gives his input, only care to make the best possible future for each of us.”
Before earning an M.F.A. in Film Production from the USC School of Cinema in 1977, Lavick served in Vietnam as an Army combat photographer with the 25th Infantry Division and as a reporter with Pacific Stars and Stripes. For his reporting of the South Vietnamese combat mission into Laos in 1971, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
Before Professor Lavick ‘s final class, he took a moment to reflect on his tenure at the film school and to share with LogLines his future plans.
We are going to miss your sense of humor. What will you miss the most about the film school? My sense of humor. That, and Fig Newtons at our faculty meetings. Laughter can help deflate the tension of a meeting so that we can all breathe – and smile – again. So I will miss the laughter shared with many dear LMU friends during the past thirty years.
Of course, that makes total sense. What parting words of advice would you leave to your students, especially those on the verge of graduating? Work together in school. Your LMU friends will help you get your first job. Your skill, knowledge and integrity will help you to succeed and get the next one.
Is there a single accomplishment that you are most proud of achieving while at LMU? Two, actually: 1) Establishment and growing success of the SFTV Bonn program. I hope this will continue and perhaps serve as a unique model for future SFTV programs abroad as well. And 2) As Chair, helping to guide the then-Communication Arts Department through a period of stability, unprecedented growth and student accomplishments that led to our becoming a full-fledged School of Film and Television. This was due to the hard work and dedication of our faculty, staff and students. By demonstrating to the University that we were able to manage our own affairs well, we earned this opportunity. It was not handed to us.
Given the choice of the following retiree role models, which person most fits your idea of retirement and why: Jimmy Carter, Walter Cronkite, Bill Clinton, Phil Jackson, or David Burcham? Geez Louise! None of these old geezers! Well, actually Dave Burcham is taking a one year sabbatical and will spend half his time travelling in Europe, so that’s pretty cool. But I’d like to do what Henri Cartier-Bresson did – spend his life doing what he loved: photography, painting, drawing and traveling with his wife and friends. Bresson’s philosophy: “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life.”
In all seriousness, what do you plan to do with yourself now that you are free to follow your bliss? Do you have any film projects lined up? Do you have other interests you wish to develop? Well, right now my epitaph would read: “My life was a series of unfinished projects.” So, I plan to change that and get back to doing my own creative work, finish several documentary films and renew my love of still photography. Oh, and take the time to enjoy the wineries and new life with my wife, Michaela, and family in Southern Oregon.
Anything else you would like to share? Yes. Albert Einstein had a messy desk.