2010 Preservation and Scholarship Award--USC's Hidden Gem: Mark Jonathan Harris
By Laura Almo
This year's Preservation & Scholarship Award honoree, Mark Jonathan Harris, has taught filmmaking at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts since 1983. The award celebrates the impact Harris has made as a teacher and mentor--inspiring students, alumni and colleagues alike to make a difference in the documentary community. Harris, whose career has blended filmmaking, writing and teaching, is the first to maintain that he's more of a practitioner than a scholar. Indeed, when he graduated from Harvard, the last place he expected to land was academia. "I graduated from Harvard and fled academia," recalls Harris. "I wanted some experience with real life."
Harris' first foray into the real world was through journalism. He was fortunate enough to get a job at the famous--and now defunct--City News Service, a training ground for journalists in Chicago. His first job was covering crime in the South Side of Chicago from 5:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Harris then moved to the Associated Press, where he worked the night shift alongside Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist who now writes for The New Yorker. Then and there, he realized he wasn't cut out to be an investigative journalist. "Sy was incredibly competitive," reflects Harris. "I would write one story, Sy would write two. I would write two stories, Sy would go out and write three. He was driven in a way that I wasn't. I was less interested in exposing people and getting the dirt, and more interested in trying to understand what makes people tick."
However, Harris did discover his love of film. When he got off work at 2:00 a.m., instead of going to a bar to unwind, he would go to a theater in downtown Chicago that showed a different double feature every night. "I slowly began to realize that I had fallen in love with film when I was at Harvard, and I thought this is really what I want to do," he says.
Harris got a job at a KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon, one of three television stations in the northwest owned by King Broadcasting Co., which was producing documentaries. He started out as a researcher and writer with a documentary unit. A few years later he moved to Seattle, where King had formed a separate documentary company, King Screen Productions. There, Harris met editor Richard Chew, A.C.E. (The Conversation; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Star Wars), director/cinematographer Richard Pearce (cinematography credits: Food, Inc.; Hearts and Minds; Woodstock), editor Arthur Coburn, A.C.E. (Monster, A Simple Plan), cinematographer Don Lenzer (Woodstock; Say Amen, Somebody; Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse) and filmmaker Trevor Greenwood (The Medium Is the Massage, You Know; The Redwoods), with whom he would later work at USC.
By 1970, King Screen Productions met with hard times and the filmmakers dispersed. After a stint in Montreal, Harris moved to Los Angeles and got a teaching job at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). To his surprise, he really enjoyed teaching, because it was all project-based. "I wasn't lecturing, but I was supervising students while they were making films," he says.
In 1983, Harris was hired at USC as an adjunct instructor to teach an evening course in Informational Film; two years later, he was hired full-time. "If I'm deserving of this award, I think that part of my contribution is that when I came to USC 25 years ago, there was really no documentary emphasis," says Harris. "And I started the Advanced Documentary Production Class along with Trevor Greenwood. What I'm most proud of is the fact that it has sustained itself over all these years."
From its inception, the Advanced Documentary Production Class has been team-taught by instructors who are also working professionals. Harris teaches directing; other components of the course include producing, editing, cinematography and sound. While the faculty has changed over the years, it's still very similar to the original course in that it is team-taught, and outside filmmakers are regularly brought in to screen their work. This is a way for students to be exposed to different forms of documentary filmmaking and get a taste of how to pursue a documentary career.
The USC School of Cinematic Arts doesn't have a separate documentary program and, in the first year, everybody takes the same basic introductory courses; students can choose to make documentary or narrative films. In the second and third years, students can concentrate on documentary or fiction--and most people move back and forth between the two. As Harris sees it, it's all about telling cinematic stories with compelling characters and a narrative arc. Many of his students have gone on to successful, award-winning careers. Matt Weiner focused on documentary while at USC and then went on to create Mad Men. Jeff Blitz worked in both fiction and documentary, then made the hit documentary Spellbound. And Lance Gentile, formerly an emergency room doctor, made a personal documentary while at USC and then went on to become one of the chief writers for E.R., for which he won an Emmy.
The documentary emphasis has been called "the hidden gem at USC," according to Harris, referring to a book comparing different film schools. The new facilities at USC look very fancy and grandiose, observes Harris, and the image of USC is "this Hollywood school," with names like Lucas, Spielberg and Zemeckis prominently visible on the buildings. But the faculty represents a great diversity, with many coming from independent fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, as well as from major Hollywood studios. For many students, the documentary emphasis has been an appealing alternative to Hollywood production. "The documentary program gets students out into the world and allows people to make films with more authority," says Harris. "It exposes students to the real world, to really important issues, or introduces them to worlds they otherwise wouldn't have access to."
Harris says he has also learned a tremendous amount about Los Angeles and its sub-cultures through his students' projects. "It's a wonderful window into the world of Los Angeles," he says. "I've learned so much about this city from all the films that my students have made."
In 2006, Harris and fellow USC professor Marsha Kinder established the Global Exchange Workshop, a cross-cultural exchange program with the Communications University of China (CUC) in Beijing. Each summer, six students from CUC collaborate with six USC students to make short documentaries about Los Angeles and Beijing. The workshop alternates between China and Los Angeles. Not only has the program produced a number of prize-winning films, but it has fostered long-term collaborative relationships.
Harris' impact extends beyond academia. USC alumni and faculty alike comprise a large percentage of the documentary community in Los Angeles. Harris attributes this representation to a strong spirit of camaraderie and collaboration, and an ongoing effort to expose students to networking and work possibilities. Additionally, instructors in the documentary course are all working filmmakers and often hire current and former students to work for them. Harris says he makes it a practice to hire at least one current or former student on each production. And of course Doculink, the online and face-to-face community for documentary filmmakers, was started by USC alumni Robert Bahar and Antonia Kao, who wanted to find a way to continue supporting one another once out of school.
As a testament to the strength of the USC program, not only do alumni go back to screen films and/or works-in-progress for students, they also return to teach. Lisa Leeman (One Lucky Elephant, Who Needs Sleep?) teaches a producing component; Ted Braun (Darfur Now) teaches screenwriting and script analysis, and Bahar (Made in LA) returned recently as a guest lecturer and has also taught producing.
But Harris reflects on the power of the documentary courses for all students, not just those who have gone on to high-profile filmmaking careers. "I'm proud of the students who have passed through the course--whether they end up becoming successful filmmakers or not," he maintains. "It's an honor to receive this award. I think the experience has been meaningful to a lot of people, and it remains meaningful to me. And as long as I find meaning in it, I suspect my students will, too."
Laura Almo is a contributing editor at Documentary. She can be reached at email@example.com.