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Teri Schwartz looks to future at UCLA film school

The former producer is the new dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television

July 06, 2009|Rachel Abramowitz

Is humanism in film dead?

If you consult box-office wonder "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" -- with its crush of ultra-violent, heavy-metal robots -- maybe so. If you talk to Teri Schwartz, the new dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, the answer is hopefully not.

One of the producer-turned-educator's main goals in taking over the reins of one of the top film schools in the country is to promote entertainment that "nurtures and enlightens and entertains and hopefully inspires change for a better world," says Schwartz, defining humanistic storytelling. "The great film and theater institutions have to figure out how to embrace and marry together story, humanism, global diversity, civic responsibility and technology. A great school takes on the big questions of the time and builds stories around that. Technology is in the service of story, not the other way around.

"If we do our job right, then students will be mindful of ethical choices they make in storytelling," says Schwartz, though she adds, "I'm not here to dictate what somebody's values and morals are. If you have a humanistic point of view, you're just mindful of the world and are empathetic to others."

Schwartz, an energetic, 59-year-old woman appointed in June and who had her first official day on the job last week, replaced former Dean Robert Rosen. She tends to speak in staccato bullet points and insists that what's good for the world isn't inherently bad for the bottom line. She points to both "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Up" as recent examples of humanistic filmmaking that she applauds but also understands that replicating those offerings -- an out-of-left-field Oscar winner and the latest film from Pixar, practically Hollywood's gold standard for artistic yet remunerative filmmaking -- is no small task.

Indeed, Schwartz, who produced such films as "Sister Act" and "Nuts" and ran a production company with actress Goldie Hawn, is taking over UCLA at what portends to be a critical juncture in film education, as Hollywood is shaken daily by seismic changes in technology and profit models as well as the recent implosion of the art-house market and possibly even the adult studio film.

With an annual $24-million budget, UCLA's has long been considered one of the nation's premier film schools, with a list of alumni that includes such stalwarts as Francis Ford Coppola, Alexander Payne and "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski. But of late it's been lapped in a race for resources and the latest high-tech gadgetry by its crosstown rival, USC's School of Cinematic Arts, which in 2006 received a $175-million gift from alum George Lucas and his foundation to expand the film school with a new 137,000-square-foot facility. Studios like Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney Co. chipped in an additional $50 million to USC. While students at UCLA often labor on secondhand equipment from studios and networks, USC's students get to try out the latest cutting-edge technology in an immersive media lab and decide which of the 200 or so high-tech cameras they wish to sample.

Schwartz, who ran Loyola Marymount University's film program for six years, does plan to upgrade UCLA's physical plant. Schwartz intends "to remodel these facilities and bring them not only into contemporary production work-flow practices but to position ourselves for the future, where it's going. It should be cutting edge. It should be a great place you want to be 24/7," says Schwartz, who also plans a series of mediated discussions with faculty members, students and interested members of the community on how best to reimagine the curriculum.

Schwartz has long ties to UCLA, having not only grown up five minutes away but also having graduated from it in 1971.

She later attended film school at the University of London before starting as a gofer for $50 a week on a fly-by-night indie production. When the line producer -- who was also the property master and the craft service person -- bailed, Schwartz stepped in.

"I didn't know what [being a line producer] was, but I was going to do it," recalls Schwartz, who figured that "the makeup and hair guy will know everything I need to know. I locked him in the bathroom with me and I said, 'Everyone give me an hour.' " She later emerged, "grabbed a slate, and didn't stop working for the next 30 years."

She honed both her production and creative skills working in the Roger Corman low-budget empire on such films as "Big Bad Mama" with Angie Dickinson and Ron Howard's directorial debut, "Eat My Dust."

"I really learned how to build a movie from the ground up, both on the creative side and the production side," says Schwartz. "I wasn't just a deal maker, but I could actually make a film."

Even today, Schwartz believes ardently in the classic basics of film education -- namely, the ability to tell a coherent and moving story. "The way we're experiencing media now is very different from when film schools first started in the 1960s. We won't betray our classical roots, though. When you look at the great painters -- Picasso and Braque were classically trained. They invented Cubism, but they could still classically paint," she says. "Remember, the technology changes every other Tuesday. The education has to be anchored by a timeless, universal piece which is storytelling, humanistic storytelling."

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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