When senior Chandler Ryd chose to attend Hillsdale, his passion for filmmaking heightened. Despite the few opportunities to practice film on campus, he said he has learned something even more valuable to film than the technical craft.
“I’ve found that studying the seven classical liberal arts has made me a much better filmmaker because they’re all about taking these kind of philosophical ideas and putting them into a more tangible reality of language and images,” Ryd said.
Because knowledge of human nature is essential to storytelling and storytelling is essential to film, what makes an excellent movie, according to Ryd, is a creative synthesis of truth.
Ryd follows the footsteps of Hillsdale alumni like Faith Liu ’16 and former students like Josh Hamilton, both of whom moved out West to pursue film.
Hillsdale may seem a strange pick for students who would benefit from connections and technical training at a film school. But many of these students and alumni substitute that opportunity for another, opting for an unlikely school in rural Michigan to teach them a skill that film class cannot: storytelling.
Any good film begins with a compelling story. A strawberry blonde woman in a sapphire dress, following a somber melody, abandons the lonely sidewalk to enter a hole-in-the-wall bar and — you, the viewer, want to know what happens next. (She watches the source of the music, a handsome pianist, get fired. Yes, that’s a scene from “La La Land.”)
When movies draw us in and engage our thoughts, they do so by telling a good story.
In the “sublime adolescent squalor” of Simpson dormitory, Hamilton developed an idea: a documentary of his college home. This morphed into “Ecce Viri,” more coming-of-age story than documentary, which premiered at a film festival last year. The film’s screening allowed him to meet a producer, who offered him a job making movies in Austin.
Ryd, who filmed a few seconds of footage in “Ecce Viri,” plans to move to Los Angeles to pursue film after graduation. At Hillsdale, he has filmed videos for the college’s marketing department. He is majoring in English and minoring in education.
While Ryd acknowledged the “definite disadvantage” of attending a school with fewer connections in the industry, he said the understanding of how people operate, which he received at the college, is “sorely lacking” in modern cinema.
“I am fully convinced that Hillsdale has made me a better filmmaker,” Ryd said.
Distinguished Associate Professor of History Darryl Hart majored in film studies in college, but said taking the initiative to study the humanities outside of his major broadened his perspective.
For him, much of the training he learned has become obsolete, but a study of the humanities, and a study of the history of film, has remained with him. The best way to learn movie-making, he said, is simple.
“Watch a lot of movies,” Hart said. “And figure out the ones you like and think about the people who made them and how they came to do what they did.”
Technical skills you pick up on your own. Storytelling takes more background.
Senior Kayla Stetzel, who plans to attend law school for entertainment law, said she has found that narrative is the most important aspect of success in any creative field.
“In order to do that in a playful, creative, unusual way, you have to…know your heritage,” she said.
With the goal of bringing together film-interested students to share ideas about narrative and technical expertise, Stetzel and junior Jordyn Pair founded the Film and Production Club last semester. Stetzel said she was surprised by the amount of interest in the club; when it began, some 40 students signed up for the email list. Like Hart, Stetzel said the tools to make good film are not difficult to attain.
“If you consume mass media, if you watch movies, if you watch television, and you have an interest, I suggest: Pick up a camera, watch a couple of YouTube Videos online. Just Google ‘how to work a camera,’” Stetzel said. “In a short amount of time, you’ll have enough technical knowledge to be able to make a pretty good short film.”
A couple of years ago, she attended a film class at Boston University, with no prior experience in the technical elements of filmmaking. Most of her classmates, she said, assumed she had experience because of the way she shot her films.
“It looked like I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t,” she said. “I just watch a lot of movies.”
“Ecce Viri,” Hamilton’s film, is pleasant to watch, frame-by-frame. But it also draws from a diverse intellectual history — its philosophical influences, he said, include Eliot, Joyce, and Faulkner — and he describes the film with the language of a poet.
“‘Ecce Viri’ is a multifarious essay film. It is a small self-portrait and therefore a portrait of all young men,” Hamilton said in an email. “The film is bound by an essayist’s arch of ideas rather than narrative, and its simplicities aim to sweep you past the end and back to the beginning.”
At the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth, Texas, where “Ecce Viri” was shown, Hamilton attended a panel on the business of film. He introduced himself to a panelist, a producer, and offered to share a feature-length screenplay he had been writing. A month later, after the script landed a monthly top three list on the website Screenplay Coverage, Hamilton moved to Austin to work with the producer.
Today he’s “cutting on an independent film with triple-A talent,” the details of which he can’t disclose until closer to the film’s press release date. He continues to work on his own screenplays as well.
Hamilton left the college in 2015, before graduating, but he said he owes his career “to God foremost and Hillsdale.”
“Hillsdale’s liberality stirred my spirit to its proper task — to transmute truth into beautiful images,” Hamilton said. “I left before earning a diploma because it was superfluous to my work, but I left a Hillsdale man nevertheless.”