‘Breaking Bad’ Cinematographer To Speak at Annual ‘Behind the Screen’ Program

By Awije Bahrami, Contributing Writer

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Michael Slovis at the 2013 Montclair Film Festival Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org
Michael Slovis at the 2013 Montclair Film Festival
Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org

The Montclair Film Festival (MFF) and The Film Institute at Montclair State have collaborated once again to give Montclair State University students the opportunity to learn from film and television professionals at the annual Behind The Screen (BTS) program on Dec. 6th. The program invites students to participate in filmmaking workshops and panels.

At this year’s BTS, one of the speakers will be Michael Slovis, the cinematographer of most episodes of Breaking Bad . Slovis will be discussing his work as a cinematographer and how the composition of every shot in Breaking Bad that he directed had specific reasons, thought and detail behind them.

Other guest speakers on Sunday will include Joel Stillerman, President of Original Programming and Development for AMC and Sundance TV; Kahane Cooperman, executive producer and show runner for Amazon’s new docu-series The New Yorker Presents; Tim Squyers, the editor of renowned films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Syriana, Life of Pi, Rachel Getting Married, and Gosford Park  and Tom Hall, executive director of the MFF.

Susan Skoog, professor of screenwriting at Montclair State’s filmmaking program and one of the organizers and producers of BTS, said that this is the fifth time the MFF and The Film Institute have collaborated to make BTS a reality.

Susan Skoog talking to student moderator Jake Shapiro after a screenwriting class. Photo: Awije Bahrami
Susan Skoog talking to student moderator Jake Shapiro after a screenwriting class. Photo: Awije Bahrami

Upon asking what the goal of this event is, Skoog said that in order for students to learn, they need to be able to connect with professionals from the industry. That’s why it’s important for her and other organizers to collaborate with the MFF because they bring in a lot of talented professionals and artists into town that Montclair State normally wouldn’t get to come to campus. “It’s really exciting for students to get to meet professionals of such a high caliber and such high level in their career and it’s very exciting to meet the guy who shot most of the Breaking Bad episodes,” said Skoog.

This year the organizers of BTS decided to do something a little different. “Instead of just panels of professionals talking,” said Skoog, “we decided to make them more like master classes. The guest will come in and talk in more depths about a specific project, sort of like a case study.”

For example, Joel Stillerman, who has played an instrumental role in bringing The Walking Dead to AMC and making it one of the biggest shows ever on TV, will be talking about the development of the show. He will be discussing the process of how the narratives, stories and characters of The Walking Dead comic book shifted, evolved and changed to then become a TV show. A TV show has different needs than a comic book and not all characters and certain story points make it in the show, Skoog explained. “That’s a process a lot of students don’t know about. This is a conversation to unpack and explore a little more why these choices were made and [to tackle the question] ‘What are the needs of television versus the needs of a readership?” she said.

Another new aspect of BTS is the incorporation of student voices. Along with a professional moderator, Skoog lined up two senior film students for each panel to also interview the subject on stage. Skoog decided to have more students involved because they “have many questions that may not be apparent to adults and older people like us. Also, sometimes in the Q&A they don’t always get enough opportunity to voice their questions or bring out aspects of a conversation,” said Skoog.

Skoog has selected the student moderators based on their interest levels. “I have targeted students who strive to be like the guest [speakers],” said Skoog. For example, she gave the responsibility to students who strive to be cinematographers like Michael Slovis. There are also students who she knows want to be producers.

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Photo courtesy of Montclair.edu

Skoog hopes that particularly new students will get a clear understanding of the depths of the crafts of the guests and how much work it is and how involved they are in what they do. It often happens that students compose a shot because it looks cool, but there are many other layers to how films are made, Skoog explained.

“Every picture has to tell the story [as well as every] sound, effect, the acting and writing and it all comes together to communicate an idea, to create an emotional reaction in the audience.” Skoog said that part of being in film school is to learn how that happens and have the opportunity to ask professionals, “I want to be like you. How can I do that?”

The panels will be shot by students as well. Each conversation will be released as a podcast and will subsequently be excerpted.

Jake Shapiro, a senior filmmaking major, will be shooting the Michael Slovis panel and will act as one of the student moderators as well. “I’m incredibly excited,” he said.

As part of his preparation, Shapiro has done independent research so that he’ll be able to formulate questions on the day of the event. “[Michael Slovis] is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, which is something I aspire to become,” said Shapiro.

BTS will be taking place on Sunday, Dec. 6th in University Hall room 1070 from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free breakfast will be served before the event. To register, visit the official website.

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