Dan Sturman is a visiting professor currently teaching the Block 1 Screenwriting course. Sturman completed his undergraduate at Harvard University and went on to work in journalism for ABC, NBC, and Reuters. After moving to Los Angeles, he began a career in documentaries. Since then, he has received a wide range of accolades, including an Academy Award, an Emmy, and a Peabody. This week, The Catalyst sits down with Sturman to discuss his view of Colorado College and his time in the film industry.
The Catalyst: How long have you been visiting Colorado College to teach classes? What has changed for you over that time?
Dan Sturman: This is my fifth year as a visiting professor I guess. My hair has gotten gray dealing with all you students, haha. What has changed for me? The first year I was here was the first time I taught, as a guest lecturer, individual classes. But the opportunity to teach an entire block was pretty challenging at first. Dylan Nelson and Clay Haskell, who are sort of my point people at film and media, were really helpful in setting me up with an understanding of how the Block system worked and really sort of mentoring me through the process. But now that it’s my fifth year, I feel much more comfortable dealing with the super-intense packed schedule that the Block system creates.
TC: We have a fairly robust film department here — how do you think working on the Block Plan lends itself to working in the film industry?
DS: There’s a positive and a negative. The positive is that the film industry, much more than I think most professions, can get super intense, especially when you’re in production. You can work 14-, 16-, 18-hour days, and it’s day after day after day after day. So I think that that kind of super intense work ethic is something that obviously Colorado College excels at. Now with that said, the problem with the Block system when doing creative work — you know, I think there’s some amazingly brilliant things that the Block system enables. Unfortunately, when you’re creating something, a lot of times the creativity doesn’t happen just through sheer force of will and hours spent working on it. You make connections over time, things are marinating in your brain. While you’re asleep, your mind is doing things that you have no control over, and an idea that you think was brilliant on day one, might seem completely idiotic on day 84. Or the idea that you had on day one may transform into something completely different over time. And because of the intense schedule of the Block system, I think it really puts filmmakers at a disadvantage. Films just get better with age — they do. I mean, at some point you’ve worked on things for too long, but I think three and a half weeks is not too long under any definition.
TC: How would you compare the students at CC to the students at Harvard?
DS: Actually, it’s funny — the biggest difference to me is that there were about 1,600 kids in my class, and here I think there are about 1,600 in the school. To me, it feels like it’s a much smaller, more personal situation here. I think one of the reasons that I keep coming back here is that I find that the students I’ve had are incredibly engaged. I mean really uniformly. And it may just be that it’s the nature of the subject matter, that it’s self-selecting, but the students that I’m encountering are really, really interested and engaged in what they’re doing. Their work ethic is really, really impressive. I see very little difference frankly.
TC: What is one of your favorite projects to have worked on?
DS: Without talking too long, one of the interesting things about making films is that every film is like a startup company. Literally you’re starting from nothing, and you’re building it up to something that hopefully, eventually, will get released to the public. So each project is totally unique. The cool thing about documentary work is that it’s an opportunity to do these deep dives into subjects that you’re really interested in, to meet people that you would never ever otherwise meet, to go places that you would never otherwise in a million years find yourself going to. So when you’re up and running on a film, it’s super compelling each time in a very different way. As far as favorite projects go, honestly the project I’m working on at this moment is the most interesting thing I’ve ever worked on, and I’m doing it in partnership with Dylan Nelson, who teaches here. It’s basically about trying to locate a trove of priceless postage stamps that were stolen during the Holocaust that may still lie buried in Poland, and to try to dig it up. And hopefully, if we succeed in finding it, to potentially — 70 years after the stamps were stolen — to deliver them back to their families or the heirs.
TC: What film screening have you felt most proud of?
DS: 15 years ago today, actually, we screened a film at the White House about the World Trade Center. At that point George W. Bush was president. It was something where I’d never been, I’d never met the president. We didn’t really know what to expect, and what we found was actually this incredibly intimate, deeply moving screening where we were joined by all these figures: the secretary of state was there, the secretary of homeland security was there, the governor of New York was there, the fire chief of New York City was there, and then there were all these people who were family members of people who died who were also in the audience. It was in the White House theater, which holds like 60 or 80 people. I mean, the governor was sitting in front of me weeping during this. The subject matter was obviously deeply, deeply moving. It was in a moment in our history where it was still so incredibly raw, and to be in this theater experiencing this with all these people who were bawling, seeing them in this incredibly vulnerable moment. So that was something that was a very heavy experience for me.
TC: What is a topic you’ve been dying to make a documentary about?
DS: There’s so many topics. Honestly, there are a lot of things that I’m absolutely fascinated by. The challenge is looking for a point of entry to explore that thing. It’s not enough to find something interesting, you want to be able to find the interesting story to tell within that framework. The reason the stamp thing is so compelling is because it is an actual, honest-to-goodness mystery story. The challenge with documentaries often is that they are well-intentioned, they’re on important topics, topics that are meaningful to the filmmaker, but they’re kind of inert because there’s not actually a story being told. It’s just information. So how do you tell a story where it’s an actual story rather than a piece of information? So yes, there are many different topics I’d like to explore, but I’m always constantly searching for the entry point, the story. Ultimately the thing about documentaries — the test, I think for any documentary, is if you stop it at minute 60 and then the lights come up, is the audience going to be like, “What happens? What’s going to happen?” or they’re going to be like, “That’s been very interesting.” You want them clamoring to see how it ends.
TC: Who is one of your biggest sources of inspiration?
DS: It’s so embarrassing to say so. I’ve done two films about the civil rights movement, so it’s like so clichéd and hilariously pathetic to say this, but I think Martin Luther King is just an extraordinary human being. And I think one of the amazing things about having gone as deep as I have into the movement’s history in these two different projects, is I’ve come to appreciate King not simply as this extraordinary civil rights icon but really as a human being, as somebody who’s incredibly flawed in his own ways, and yet surmounted those flaws to face up to have incredible courage. And the fact that he is an actual human being makes what he did all the more extraordinary because it really is an example of what an actual human being is capable of rather than just some mythic figure.
TC: Do you think your experience with the Harvard Lampoon has impacted your work?
DS: I think it’s important to have a sense of humor about life. The films I’ve done, a lot of them have been incredibly dark — like about about the World Trade Center and about atrocities in Nanking. But I think obviously it’s important to try to keep perspective and to try to maintain some levity in everything that you do.
TC: What is one movie that you believe everyone should be required to watch?
DS: That is an impossible question to answer. There are so many great movies. If I had to pick one, I wouldn’t, I would refuse. I mean, I can list off all sorts of extraordinary inspiring movies, but I can’t narrow it down. Expand your horizons, don’t just watch Vines.
TC: Do you have any special advice for CC students looking for a big break in Hollywood?
DS: Be authentic, and be resilient.