On Monday, Oct. 31, students gathered in Science Center to meet with Lee Sternthal, the former bouncer and the accomplished screenwriter from “The Words” and Disney’s “Tron: Legacy.” The seminar was sponsored by the film and media studies department, and was advertised with many of Sternthal’s credentials, including working at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab,
The seminar was held in SCI 199, and it was heavily attended by students in the film and media studies department. Professor of German studies and film and media studies Sunka Simon hosted Sternthal. She described his potential to give insight to students investigating film studies.
“He was in the area and reached out,” Simon said. “He stressed that he had been helped by others at crucial points in his career and ‘wanted to give back.’”
Sternthal explained how he was helped and expanded on why he wanted to pass on his understanding to others.
“Throughout my career, but especially at the beginning, I was lucky enough to have the support of so many people and institutions, including the Sundance Lab, without whom I would have never been able to write/direct/make images,” he described.
His drive for giving advice and guidance is founded in passing the spirit of creativity on to the next set of young screenwriters, directors, and other film industry members.
“Speaking at Swarthmore, and more generally to young artists and students at the beginning of their journey, is a way for me to pay the help and inspiration I have received forward. My goal is to inspire those at the beginning of their careers to follow their passion for film and art, even though the path towards the life and work they want to make may at times seem more challenging and even treacherous than their friends and fellow students who may be choosing more ‘conventional’ careers.”
Ariana Hoshino ’20, a student in Simon’s Introduction to Film Studies course looking at the technical aspects of filmmaking, thought Sternthal gave more than enough back.
“As someone who is interested in going into the film industry, the talk was both inspirational and eye-opening. [Sternthal] has definitely struggled and succeeded, and one thing that he stressed was that those two things are deeply interconnected. I really enjoyed it,” Hoshino noted.
Sternthal encouraged the talk become a roundtable discussion and not a lecture. Hoshino was anxious going in, but she anticipated an exciting talk.
She confessed, “I guess my frame of mind was a combination of confusion and intrigue [going into the talk].”
Hoshino reflected on Sternthal as an accomplished and admirable figure because of his stature in the industry, but she recognized and appreciated his gravity during the seminar.
“Well, first of all, he’s made it, so it was just amazing listening to someone who has succeeded in the studio system. That’s not an easy task,” she added, impressed. “He was also an interested and engaged speaker, and he seemed just as honored to be speaking for us as I felt listening to him.”
Simon delved deeper into what other students learned from the seminar, highlighting that the start to a career and its path are not straightforward.
“Some students told me that it helped to hear that a successful career did not necessarily have to follow a linear or solitary path.”
Students in the seminar were particularly interested in hearing about becoming employed in the industry. Hoshino described how she saw Sternthal’s example.
“I think I’ve always seen the studio system as this unattainable money-filled heaven, but Sternthal definitely changed that image for me. The way he talked about working and his experience made it seem possible and fulfilling. I also had this idea that there was some magic way that people who are successful go about becoming successful, and he really emphasized that everyone has their own path,” stated Hoshino.
“Entering the industry in today’s convergent mediascape is much less streamlined than it used to be. There are as many entry points as combinations of intellectual, analytical, creative, [and] technological and communicative skills and interests — [and that’s] just to mention the changes in sound design and production that have created multiple new positions in studios, special sound labs and TV, where music, computer science and film majors could find a footing),” Simon said, continuing Hoshino’s thoughts.
“I prepared by living, working and making a lot of mistakes along the way in the last 15 years,” Sternthal said, sharing his thoughts on getting into the film industry.
One observation he made during his seminar was “the work has to be the reward.”
On that note, Simon and Hoshino each expanded on this maxim.
“As a teacher and scholar, I actually know that’s true — to have sustained energy towards a goal, one needs to believe in one’s work, endure and thrive on the daily practice of it, as well as the ups and downs that come with it — outside of one’s parents and closest friends, bosses and managers don’t tend to acknowledge or reward one’s work in a meaningful way,” Simon began.
Hoshino extrapolated, “Oh, absolutely. I’m no successful Hollywood filmmaker by any means, but I have made a few short films where I just gave 110 percent effort, and the final product either wasn’t widely viewed or wasn’t good. In those cases, you have to look at it as a learning experience and be thankful for that work you put in, even if the final reward isn’t what you expected. If not, you get disheartened and stop, and that’s not a healthy outlook. It’s definitely not the way that a filmmaker or a writer succeeds.”
Hoshino provided some final thoughts on the lessons she took away from Sternthal’s talk.
“I guess the most memorable lesson that I learned from [Sternthal] wasn’t something that he actually said, but more of the example that he set,” Hoshino said. “He was humble yet confident. [He] seemed very thankful for everything that happened but […] prideful and aware of the work that it took to achieve this goal.”
Sternthal followed, hoping that students feel empowered creatively now and going forward in their careers in film.
“My greatest hope would be that they would feel inspired to go forward pursuing their dreams of making moving images and stories with their true voice fearlessly, even though they may not be quite sure yet how to do it, or even what that will look like,” he started.
Sternthal expanded, saying he hopes that his talk, at least, imparted insight into what career students might want to enter into.
“I also hope they feel that they have a little more knowledge about the path that’s right for them to try and do so, and, most of all, that each of them should feel [that they can say,] ‘I can do this, too.’ I hope to share what little knowledge and experience I have to offer to help them make the strongest and smartest choices for themselves no matter what path they take, or what art they may create,” he wished. “I really enjoyed the conversation, hope my answers were helpful and I can only hope that they were as inspired by me as I was by their curiosity, energy, and passion for film.”
Sternthal’s work impressed students and Simon, but he surely left his audience with more than just his track record. He gave them the opportunity to understand how to marry the pride of one’s work with the industry one must work through.