The best advice Hillsdale alumna Faith Liu ’16 shared with aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers was to learn to connect with a world that is “vastly different from your own.”
“Most Hillsdale students I knew, and probably the ones you know, will go into conservative politics, teach at a classical school, get married to another Hillsdale student, et cetera,” Liu told a group of students Wednesday afternoon, at a talk titled “Hillsdale to Hollywood: Liberal Arts in The Business of Screenwriting.”
“It’s great,” she continued. “Most of my friends have done that, and I think it’s a really wonderful way to live. But for those of us who choose to move farther from home, for those of us who choose to go into academia, into law, into entertainment, it’s a really liberal world out there — how do you connect with those people who haven’t also done Great Books with you?”
Liu’s talk centered on the importance of ethos as an artist, both in how you create your artwork and in how you present yourself to the world.
“It’s the heart. It’s not about Great Books, it’s not about the shared religious values or the 2 a.m. discussions about Catholicism versus — anything. It’s not about discussing what we had at Saga,” she said. “It’s heart — the shared human experience that allows us to engage with the world at large. There’s a really trite phrase that ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’ and that’s what people want to see in you when you become an artist out there in the world.”
Though an English and music double-major while at Hillsdale, Liu also spent much of her time in the theatre department, taking elective classes or performing in plays or the theatre department’s annual Opera Workshop. She said much of this experience came in handy when, on a whim and encouraged by some friends from home, she decided to apply for the University of Southern California’s graduate school for screenwriting in the middle of fall finals week during her senior year.
Liu said she forgot about the application until the morning of the Classical School Job Fair in the spring, when she got an email from USC.
“I thought, ‘Ah. These [classical school] interviews are going to be weird now,’” she said, laughing. “That was really the sign from God that pushed me out the door.”
Liu was accepted into the masters’ program at USC because, she shared, the professor who sponsored her before the selection board noticed she had “something to say.”
“He almost repeated ‘good, true, beautiful,’ word-for-word,” Liu said. “I think he substituted one of them. But he was saying that not all the people who apply to USC come in with something to say. And that’s what USC and schools like it tend to be looking for.”
Her education at Hillsdale gave her not just tools, but also ideas.
“The point being that we don’t write papers to be clever, and we don’t make art just to express ourselves,” Liu said. “We do it because we have something to say. And funnily enough, Hollywood is looking for that. They can sense that you have something worthwhile to say.”
Since graduating from Hillsdale, she interned with the companies that did the Jason Bourne movies, with the BBC, and was a writers’ assistant on Cinemax’s “Warrior,” before signing with an agent and beginning to write on assignment.
Liu emphasized the importance of getting to know as wide a variety of people as possible — from the Christian bookstore owners in Southern California to the South African man who has technically died twice — in order to tell real stories that resonate with your audience.
“All of these people add to my memory bank and my ability to write characters,” Liu explained. “Diversity is a very intentional part of the USC program. Just as in the liberal arts you need a wide variety of studies to be well-rounded person, you need a wide variety of people to become a well-rounded artist, to become a citizen of the world.”
Sophomore Jane O’Connor, who is interested in a career in filmmaking, said she found the talk interesting because of Liu’s Hillsdale perspective.
“It’s something I’ve wondered about a lot, the difference between going to film school and going to a liberal-arts school and then doing film,” O’Connor said. “I don’t know if I was just convincing myself to make myself feel better, but I’ve always thought it’s better — even if you don’t have all the techniques — to have story. I watched a lot of really boring short films that are beautifully shot, and then crappily-shot ones that are really interesting. I think you get more of the latter from a liberal-arts education. It was nice to hear that there was merit to that, that we do bring something more to the table.”
Senior Gabriel Listro said he concurred with O’Connor. He added that he empathized with Liu’s reluctance to go into the world of Hollywood.
“Her story about almost going into classical ed — I’m going to the classical ed job fair in the spring, and I’m going to want to get one of those jobs,” Listro said. “But I’m also probably going to want to do this as well. And that’s a scary decision. It was nice to hear that, I’m glad God figured that one out for her. I hope he does for me too.”
At the end of the day, it always comes down to hard work, Liu said. She shared a quote from a mentor of hers, which added to the old cliche that “when one door closes another one opens.”
“That’s true,” Liu said. “But it’s always hell in the hallways.”