Alumni Spotlight | Courtney Hunt (Film '94)

Courtney HuntWas there a specific faculty member or peer that especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

I was in Bette Gordon’s first directing class and her instructions to us were simple but shocking: Make a movie this semester, she told us, write it, cast it, crew it, shoot it and edit the film and you will receive a passing grade. We all sort of giggled, it was such a ridiculous thing for her to ask, no one else had asked that. Filmmaking had been broken down for us into manageable courses. No one had dared to suggest that there was but one goal in film school; to make films. But there it was. Staring at us. And no matter how much we protested the impossibility of doing it, she remained convinced of the absolute possibility and, indeed, the necessity of doing it. Her confidence in us far surpassed any we possessed in ourselves. It allowed us to put our fear of failure aside and to try. We all made our films and passed the course. We screened them for each other and for Bette who defended them as we inevitably tore them apart. That class was worth the price of the tuition.

In recent years, the requirement that students make a film has become integral to the first year curriculum, which is great but worries me a bit. I hope the expectations put on the students are not overwhelming because there is a delicate balance between too much and not enough expectation. For me the magic was having Bette, this one voice embodied in a working female director tell me to dare to go forward.

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

Coming straight out of law school, I really had no idea of what it meant to be an artist and even now when I’m referred to as an artist it seems vague and misleading. What I needed was structure and confidence and SOA gave me both. The courses sounded substantive and seemed to progress in some sort of order: There was Screenwriting I followed by Screenwriting II, and so on, which made sense because you would hopefully be better by the time you got to Screenwriting III, and so on. There were assignments and grades and schedules all of which was familiar to me and implied we were all headed somewhere. More importantly, this structure gave me permission/forced me to try out ideas and discover how they landed on an audience - for better or worse - and to get into the conversation between the audience and the filmmaker which is the sum total of cinema.  

It also gave me a big portentous building on a mighty campus and the illusion that what I was doing must be important. In fact, when I first ventured to Morningside Heights to scout the school I was too afraid to go through the gates at 116th Street. I was sure I’d be identified as a trespasser and shooed away. (I sent my husband in who asked the guard where Dodge Hall was as he stood in it’s shadow.) I still feel a bit short of breath when I go to Dodge hall, but the heavy handed neo classical architecture lets me know being an artist is a pursuit not to be taken lightly.

What were the most pressing social/political issues on the minds of the students when you were here?

In the early 90s the AIDS epidemic was still on everyone’s mind. Although better treatments were being tested to some success, everyone knew people who had died and others who were sick and you saw people on the train who were clearly suffering. It was very sad. But, the city had dealt with it bravely and the generalized terror had faded. Writers were beginning to write about it and the cloak of secrecy had been lifted. Then, there was the crack epidemic...

Living on 112th and Amsterdam, the crack cocaine epidemic followed me to and from school daily. Scruffy, jittery addicts were everywhere and seemed very aggressive, especially to someone who’d moved from Boston where everyone drives. They’d typically follow one person down the street pick their weakest feature and then jeer it at them. One woman called me "beedy eyes" as I would regularly squint to ward her off. My husband was called “a bald headed man” regularly and they were merciless to a heavy set friend of mine. They were crazy. I remember wondering if we’d moved to a third world city thinking this whole venture to film school was a giant mistake.

Car jacking was also hugely popular at the time and we stupidly had a car. Strangely enough, I was never mugged or robbed of anything, including my car. When Giuliani defeated David Dinkins as mayor I remember great concern that some fascist dictator had overtaken the city.  Looking back, all the uproar when Giuliani cleared the streets of the squeegee men seems so minor considering the events of September 11.

If you could revisit any piece you created during your time at the School of the Arts, which would it be? Why?

I don’t feel the need to revisit any particular piece I created at Columbia because I believe we carry our work in our consciousness. Even if we resolve a story by telling it well and getting to it’s truth, it never goes away.  Paul Schrader told us we had one story to tell based on the most traumatic thing that ever happened to us and that we would tell and retell that story over throughout our lives. He was quite right. What drives a writer is a personal chaos that they cannot understand and feel compelled to resolve. I have one script I’ve worked on sporadically for 20 years and I’ve tried to throw it away many times. I tried to throw out Frozen River at least twice, but the ideas that matter, the ones elemental to our souls don’t go away, they simply morph into new work. We find a new way to tell them, or they reemerge in a poem or a story we tell a child or a friend. It is then that I’ve learned to welcome the muse and try again.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

Paul Schrader taught an advanced directing course in which he not only coached us through the nuts and bolts of directing, but also introduced us to the truth about "the business” that is Hollywood. To learn directing, which he believed was a teachable subject, he put us on our feet behind the camera directing a scene from his script, Affliction, before it was made into a film. He instructed us to cast and crew a small shoot in the studio space on 125th Street and he evaluated our results. It was a very worthy exercise. However, the reason I looked forward to every class and hung on every word were his weekly reports of his struggles to make films. He tends to speak like an oracle and his brutal honesty was more than just war stories. It was a window into a world we all desperately wanted to enter. But he told us with a grin what no one else was willing to admit: that the business of movie making is incredibly painful. In recounting meetings he had, the players he’d met with, what they talked about, what they thought of his work, what he thought of them, he would matter of factly elude to the depression, the humiliation, the god awful day to day schlep of the working filmmaker in all it’s indignities. And this was Paul Schrader talking. Now, when those hard days come and they do, I know it’s normal. I don’t take it personally which allows me to function and persevere. 
About Courtney Hunt
Courtney Hunt’s latest feature, The Whole Truth, a courtroom thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger will be released in 2016.

Her first feature film, Frozen River, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was released by Sony Pictures Classics in August of 2008. The film received critical acclaim winning the 2008 Gotham Award for Best Film, the Bronze Horse and 7 Independent Spirit nominations. She was also awarded Best First Film by the New York Film Critics Circle, and Best Debut Director by the National Board of Review. In 2009, the film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay for Hunt and Best Actress for Melissa Leo.

Hunt has also directed episodes of HBO’s series, In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne and Law and Order, SVU.

Her next project is a period drama that takes place in 1904.  She lives in Columbia County with her husband, lawyer and producer Don Harwood.


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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.