Deep in the Heart of Texas: UT Austin’s Media Arts Program Thrives in a Thriving City
The University of Texas at Austin offered its first degree in broadcasting in 1939. In 1965, the university formed its Department of Radio-Television-Film, which today offers a broad range of courses in the media arts that lead to bachelor of science, master of fine arts and PhD degrees. The school claims to have been “consistently ranked as one of the top 10 programs in the country,” and proudly notes, “It is one of the few departments offering degrees in both media production and media studies.”
Filmmaker Paul Stekler came to Austin to head the RTF program in 1997. His documentaries have earned both Emmy and Peabody Awards, and his 2000 film, George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, took the IDA ABCNews Video Source Award that year, as well as a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and a WGA Documentary Award. His most recent film, Getting Back to Abnormal, which he made with longtime collaborators Peter Odabashian, Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez, aired on PBS' POV in July.
We sat down with Stekler, who had just been honored with the Variety magazine 2014 Mentor of the Year award, to talk about mentoring and how he's been “keeping it weird” in Austin.
“I didn't have any passion for films at all,” he says about himself when he was in school. “But I had met Ricky Leacock when I was graduate school in the mid-1970s. I don't even think I had seen any documentary films, let alone appreciated them then. But I was friends with a guy at MIT who was getting an MFA in sculpture, and he was taking out all this early video equipment. My friend told me about this crazy drunken guy who was telling stories about filming George Wallace and stuff down South, and that I'd probably like him. So I called Leacock up, went over one day, and he was hilarious—and a little tipsy—and we talked for a long time about his experience of filming down South and then asked if I wanted to see his film Crisis. It's kind of coincidental that 22 years later, I made a film called George Wallace: Setting the Woods on Fire, which used a few minutes of footage from Leacock's film.”
Stekler wound up getting a PhD in political science, ran some political campaigns and taught at Tulane University. “So there I was [in New Orleans] and somebody asked me what I wanted to do, and I made up a story on the spot that I wanted to make a film as my dissertation about Black politics in the Deep South. The local PBS station told me to go raise some money. So I wrote a proposal, got a development grant, and went out and shot a 10-minute piece on a congressional election in the Mississippi Delta in 1982. And that led to a little more money, then a little more money and eventually led to Hands That Picked Cotton, which got on national TV and got a New York Times review, and suddenly I was a filmmaker.”
“When I left Tulane in 1987, I was then out of teaching for 10 years, just making films. I never thought I would go back teaching at all,” he admits. “But Ruby Lerner, who at that time was the head of AIVF [Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers] in New York, told me there was a job at the University of Texas. We were getting done with Vote for Me and I was thinking it might be nice to have a job. I'd shot in Texas and had a really good time in Austin, so I applied for the job. When I first got here, I didn't think I had any particular talent for filmmaking. But what I had was a talent for organizing. They hired me to run and reorganize the program. We re-did the entire program—the whole faculty, the curriculum—and we figured out a way to get better equipment.”
His current faculty includes award-winning documentary filmmakers Andrew Garrison (Trash Dance), Ellen Spiro (Body of War) and Nancy Schiesari (Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer).
“One of the strengths of this program,” Stekler says, “is that it is a state university program, which has a very comparatively low tuition, but we get a really big bang for the buck. We're really able to use the money we have to be able to be very efficient with equipment, facilities and classes. The program is sufficiently small for the graduates, so they get a lot of connection with the technical staff and the faculty. They get the ability to have a lot of people pay attention to what they're doing. And they're able to do the sort of stuff they want to do. Remember also, it's under the context of a gigantic undergraduate program, because we have almost 1,000 undergraduate RTF majors, most of whom want to take production courses, and then maybe 200 graduate students, a third of whom are production students.”
Of the student body Stekler says, “I think today's kids, because of the digital technology, come in with an incredible amount of experience. And this program, in the 17 years I've been here, I've seen the students getting better and better in terms of their experience. To be able to get into this program now, you have to have a pretty kickass reel of material. So we have fewer and fewer people who come in here with no background, like it was when I started. Every now and then, we'll have somebody who is such an amazing person that you go, 'Yeah, this could be a very good filmmaker.' But you can't get into this program unless you have some expertise in filmmaking. So it's very different from what I did, but given the choice, I would have loved to have gone to a school like this when I was in my 20s, where I would have actually learned—we have core courses in cinematography, editing, writing, documentary and also narrative. I had to learn a lot of that from trial and error on my own.”
When Stekler first arrived in Austin, both the school and the city itself hadn't yet gained its international reputation as one of the best-known creative hubs in America. “We've grown alongside South by Southwest and the Austin Film Society,” Stekler says. “Rick Linklater [Boyhood] was here and was really the father of a lot of this stuff. Louis Black, co-founder of The Austin Chronicle and South by Southwest, was bringing things in.
"So as the film community grew, more and more filmmakers started coming here," Stekler continues. "So now you have a generation of people like Andrew Bujalski [Computer Chess], Jeff Nichols [Mud] and David Gordon Green [Joe]. And I'm very proud to say we've had two UT MFA thesis films find a home on PBS' Independent Lens: Heather Courtney's Where Soldiers Come From and Diane Zander's Girl Wrestler. So, more and more production happened here in Austin, more and more directors—and part of that is also fueled by the program. We have over 1,000 undergraduates coming out of here every year and a lot of them want to stick around. So they start making films, and making them with their compatriots from UT, and a lot of the graduate students want to stick around here too."
Stekler takes some umbrage when he feels that his program has not always been considered as a go-to place to study documentary filmmaking because the film school focuses on both narrative and documentary studies. But he believes that by studying both, students and their films are enriched in a way that a documentary-only program can't offer.
"We have a really strong documentary bunch of students, but it's just not the only thing we do," Stekler explains. "But when I go to our thesis screenings, there's a guy like Alvaro Torres Crespo, who did his thesis film (The Undesired Place/El lugar indeseado) about gold miners in Costa Rica, which was just amazing. Every year we have two or three really wonderful documentary thesis films. We had Beth Chatelain's film My Sister, Sarah, which won the IDA David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award last year, about her sister's meth addiction. Ruth Ferdig won a Student Academy Award four years ago for her partly animated documentary about her grandmother's life during the Holocaust, Yizkor. And Ben Steinbauer had a really great festival run with Winnebago Man, which was an outgrowth of his thesis film."
Stekler is convinced that his students' films are that much better because they have to take core classes in both narrative and documentary. “Even if they're mostly documentary filmmakers," he says, "they're learning from collaborating on their cohorts' films and by taking classes in both media. And quite frankly, the best documentary films have something in common with a good narrative film: They have a story. And that story flows in a certain way. It doesn't have to always have a three-act structure, but it has to be something that's entertaining, with a structure that makes you want to watch it. So, yeah, it's not a documentary program, but it sure does produce some pretty strong documentary filmmakers."
He understands that not every student graduating with a degree in film, regardless of where they've studied, will wind up walking down a red carpet at Sundance. Life takes people in all sorts of directions, but, he believes, his students learn skills at UT that will help them regardless of what they do with their lives.
"If I thought our classes were not doing as good of a job teaching people how to think, how to tell stories, how to be able to understand the world around them, besides just making films—then I'd think we were not doing our job,” Stekler states. “And that's what I think our strength is. This program makes you better at filmmaking, but it also makes you better as a thinking individual."
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor at Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.
The Department of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin
Duration of Program
Graduate Program : 3+ years for Production, 2 years for Screenwriting, 4+ years PhD
Undergraduate Program: 4 years
MFA in Production and in Screenwriting
PhD and MA in Media Studies
BS for undergraduate majors
Components of Program
MFA covers documentary and narrative production training (including a new program in 3-D filmmaking), directing, producing, storytelling and writing.
PhD and MA covers theory and research in Media Studies. Undergraduate major covers all of the above.
Number of Students
40 MFA production
14 MFA screenwriting
40 MA Media Studies
900 undergraduate majors
Internship Placement Opportunities
The program offers a very wide variety of situations with production and post-production companies and related media makers, either in Austin or in nationally recognized media centers such as Los Angeles and New York.