Columbia Filmmakers Connect: Albert Berger '83 and Barbara Twist '20
BY Felix van Kann, December 8, 2021
In this series, we feature the new mentorship program that connects recent alumni with industry professionals.
To ease the transition from film school into the industry, Columbia University School of the Arts' Dean’s Council recently launched an initiative that connects those striving to make a name for themselves with those who have. Veteran alumni provide recent alumni ongoing guidance, contacts, and support while also strengthening the Columbia network around the world. In this series, we feature those pairs. Today we spoke with alumnus Albert Berger '83 and his mentee, alumna Barbara Twist '20.
When alumni Albert Berger and Barbara Twist first started meeting as part of the new mentorship initiative, they hit it off immediately. Berger, the Academy Award-nominated producer of such beloved films as Little Miss Sunshine and Nebraska, and Twist, a recent Creative Producing alumna, were able to meet in person after Twist decided to leave the East Coast for Los Angeles to pursue a career in producing.
“We share a history in film exhibition,” said Berger, who ran a movie theater between college and film graduate school. “As someone who produces feature films I have a gigantic interest in the future of theatrical exhibition, so I was excited to learn about Barbara’s past with Art House Convergence and the Ann Arbor Film Group.” Prior to Columbia, Twist worked in the exhibition industry for six years. “We talked about everything,” Twist said. “I’ve obviously seen almost all of Albert’s movies and think they’re brilliant. So it was easy for me to say, ‘I love everything you’ve done, and I’ll absorb anything you say like a sponge.’”
Perhaps more importantly, the two also shared an interest in the kind of films they like to make. Twist said, “I’m very invested in stories about blue collar workers in places like Appalachia or Wyoming, the Great West. Stories which don’t fantasize or romanticize living in these states but actually come to grips with the internal struggles of people without talking down to them, which often happens.” One of Berger’s last projects is set in Albion, Michigan, a town Twist knows well. “It’s not a film that comes in with the notion of wanting to be a social film about this particular issue but makes us think, ‘I know this person and I know this person and bringing them into the same room can lead to interesting conversations,” Twist said. “That was definitely something we connected on.”
Berger shared her excitement. “Hearing what kind of movies Barbara wants to make got us off on the wrong foot in a way because it got me excited to start talking about my work and how it relates to hers. I had expected the opposite—she would talk about her projects and I would help her make progress,” he recalled, laughing. He turned to Twist, “But we also talked about your agenda as a producer to a great extent, right?” The two seemed to have an easy rapport. “Albert sent me a great book that I devoured immediately, and I’m excited to read the screenplay next,” Twist said. “Sitting there with him and walking back what I had worked on at Columbia and the projects I am drawn to now has been eye-opening.” Berger reflected that the dialogue between mentor and mentee doesn’t have to be strictly defined, but should develop organically and to the mentee’s benefit. “The goal is helping her to transition into being a producer.”
Twist currently works as a post-production supervisor with a goal to shift into development and production work soon. “In the long run, I don’t want to be just involved in the end of a project, but post supervising was a great skill for me to learn. I would recommend, from a producing standpoint, to not limit yourself. Every job you’re doing is going to inform your career in one way or the other. As a producer, if you can’t get a job producing independent features right away, ask yourself: ‘Could I read scripts? Could I work for a festival?’ It’s a big shift from the knowledge-learning at Columbia to figuring out how to apply this knowledge effectively in the industry.”
Berger had a similar experience coming out of Columbia back in 1983, and he advocates for graduates to keep an open mind. In fact, Berger didn’t initially see himself going into producing. “When I came out of Columbia, I wanted to be a writer and director. I was a screenwriter for nine years, but writing for various studios, taking notes and developing scripts, I got frustrated. I was paid to write on movies I didn’t care about and the stuff I loved didn’t sell. All of a sudden it dawned on me that being a producer could help me make my own decisions in terms of what I wanted to do. Rather than having to create something someone else could validate, I would just put something together myself. It turns out those nine years came in really handy in terms of learning how to deal with writers. It all falls in the same stew. Barbara is making all the right moves working as a post-supervisor. I think she’s four steps beyond what I was expecting. That’s a tribute to her, and to the film program that she came out with such a focus.”
Both Twist and Berger reflected on how their shared Columbia experience connects them. “We’ve all been through the halls of Dodge. So when you meet another Columbia alum and you run out of things to say you can just revert back to: ‘Have you ever sat on the black couch outside the 511 screening room?’” Twist said with a smile. “It enhances the school spirit.” Berger added. “It helps to connect with someone like Barbara. I’ve spoken to large groups of people at Columbia, but it’s not the same feeling as in a one-on-one. It makes me think more specifically of all the people she should meet.”
This is truly the core of what the mentorship program aims to achieve—creating relationships, and consequently opportunities, among Columbia alumni. For both Berger and Twist, preliminary meetings have left them confident that they are moving in the right direction. They are both excited about what’s to come. As Berger said, “We were in a solid place to find common ground. Now it’s the good part of trying to figure out where it leads.”