In Memoriam: Brendan Noel Ward

August 26, 2021

On August 4th 2021, our dear friend and colleague, Brendan Noel Ward, passed away suddenly at his home in New York City.  

Brendan Ward taught Screenwriting at Columbia University's School of the Arts Graduate Film Program for almost thirty years, from 1991 through 2020. At the time of his passing he enjoyed a bustling international career as a beloved professor, script development expert, and award-winning screenwriter/producer. Upon news of his death, many of his former students, friends and colleagues reached out to honor and celebrate a man who not only taught the secrets of screenwriting, but also life-long lessons in compassion, generosity and the unexpected gift of finding powerful stories inside any nook and cranny of life.

A dual citizen of Ireland and the US, Brendan Ward grew up quite poor, the youngest boy of eight children. Schooling became a priority for him. He traveled every day to high school in the Bronx from Washington Heights and got a BA in Mathematics and History from Hunter College, and an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies from Cornell. He later studied at Oxford and completed an MFA in Screenwriting/Playwriting from the University of Iowa.   

His expansive and rigorously lived life took him around the world as a creator of film and television projects, a mentor to writers who often considered him a dear friend and ally, a “deep sea story diver,” who, in the words of a former student and then collaborator, “thrived in the depths of story and a writer’s desire to scour the deepest regions of their lives and spirits.” Brendan Ward asked young writers to bathe in their stories, let them wash over them, and seep into their being. He was sought after as a story master who gave poetry writing assignments, liberally quoted Othello, and showed students how to work from the initial weakness of their narrative to discover their strengths. With humor, curiosity and foremost empathy, Brendan Ward guided countless filmmakers across the world to embrace their artistic courage and find their own voice.   

An avid, adventurous traveler, he crisscrossed the world, had a soft spot for Italy, Eastern Europe, East Asia and later Mexico, making countless friends along the way. As a self-taught gourmet chef he relished feeding his friends with unexpected flavor combinations, surprising, yet inevitable, not unlike his self-created brand of dramaturgy. 

Brendan Ward’s methods for teaching script writing developed out of his early work directing the writer training program for all four Procter and Gamble daytime television series and later for New Horizons Entertainment under contract to Warner Brothers, Sony, Paramount, and CBS Film studios. He further refined his script development methodology as a professor at Yale, and afterwards at Columbia, where he continued teaching for three decades. He taught extensively at and helped to build the legendary film school FAMU in Prague, where he played a fundamental role in the growth of its English language programs, especially for screenwriting. He was often invited to teach at ŁÓDŹ, the National Film School in Poland, and at San Antonio de Los Banos in Havana, Cuba. He also taught extensively at The Berlin Film Academy; The Dramatic Institute, Stockholm; and at the Theatre and Film School in Vietnam and the Royal Film University in Thailand.

Brendan Ward was passionate about giving access to under-represented voices. Importantly, he played a central role in Kosovo gaining membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and participated in secret workshops with Burmese filmmakers under the auspices of the Czech and French foreign ministers, giving seminal input to the 2014 Myanmar film The Monk. In recent years, he avidly championed older writers and fought against the ageist bias in Hollywood.

Among his international screenwriting families, he will be remembered as an original founding mentor of the MidPoint Institute and the EU Media Script Development Program for Eastern Europe; and a mentor, facilitator, and collaborator of the writing development program Cine Qua Non Lab, based in Morelia, Mexico, and sponsored by the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

During his long career, Brendan Ward celebrated the achievements of his students like his own and contributed to the success of countless mentees and students, including Lisa Cholodenko, '97 (Academy Award nominations and multiple awards for The Kids Are Alright), Ayad Akhtar ’02 (Pulitzer Prize winner for Disgraced, and multiple Tony nominee), and Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen ’96 (Academy Award nominations and multiple awards for Boys Don’t Cry). 

Brendan Ward wrote unproduced screenplays and teleplays for numerous studios and networks, for stars like Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson, and for directors including John Duigan and Neil Jordan. He was also a close friend and collaborator of the late screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere (The Unbearable Lightness of BeingThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Among his many other projects, Brendan Ward co-produced five feature length music documentaries with Director Gary Keys including Cuba, Island of Music and Whitney Houston, both distributed by The Museum of Modern Art. His collaboration with longtime friend and colleague, Leon Katz of Yale, on The Notebooks of Gertrude Stein is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2023.   

A spirited man of joy and gravitas combined, Brendan Ward used laughter and wisdom to impact so many of us around the world. He is survived by a sister, Ouna, numerous nieces and nephews, their children, and of course countless close friends. He will be greatly missed.