Olivia York – Filmmaking as Boundary-Breaking Creativity

Olivia York – Filmmaking as Boundary-Breaking Creativity

Faculty Shout-out by Professor Jeff Wray: “Olivia has been a wonderful student from the very first moment I had her in Intro to Screenwriting. I was thrilled that she took on a big serious idea for her first screenplay. Soon into that class, I realized  she liked to challenge herself. She would write, question and re-write, and our discussions were almost always about ideas rather than just the nuts and bolts of writing. In our current screenwriting independent study Olivia is doing her thing at a high level once again. She is dedicated, producing inspiring work. Olivia continues to challenge herself, but like the best of our students, she also challenges me to be at my best.”

Faculty Shout-Out by Dr. Ellen McCallum: “Olivia excelled in our contemporary film and media theory class with nimble and surefooted discussions of a wide range of challenging theoretical texts. Her writing consistently exemplified lucid thinking and expression, and her insightful and keen participation in class discussion was instrumental in the success of our collaborative deliberations. In a challenging course like this one, her peers valued her contributions as we all learned from her questions and interpretations of the texts.  I wish her all success in the road ahead. “

Faculty Shout-Out by Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai: “Hearty Congratulations, Dear Olivia! You exemplify through your poignant film on Jaimie’s search for and meeting of her sibling, the uniqueness of Film at State: theory and practice informing and invigorating each other. Wishing you the very best!”

How would you describe your time as an English or Film Studies major at MSU?

The past four years have been nothing but a blessing, and I’ve grown so much as a result of my time as a Film Studies major. I still remember coming into my Intro to Film class as a nervous little freshman. I was wide-eyed with excitement and thought I knew exactly what film was about: storytelling, emotions, Hollywood, and Tom Hanks—what else was there? Little did I know that the history of film was enriched with vigorous artists who constantly broke boundaries, stood against injustice, and fought against the odds for a voice of representation and artistic freedom. The faculty and staff within my program have surpassed any and all expectations I’ve had, and with the lessons and community they have given my peers, it’s clear that the history of film will continue to be written, analyzed, and appreciated by each class of graduates as time goes on. I feel honored to be a part of such an inclusive and reputable program, and I’m forever indebted to the professors and peers that have helped me to learn and grow along the way.

Which classes, instructors, or experiences particularly stand out for you and why? How did they prepare you for the next phase of your life?

My Intro to Screenwriting class with Professor Jeff Wray was a kick-starter for me in many ways. I had always dreamed of screenwriting, and his class allowed me to explore that dream for the first time (and I haven’t turned back since). His encouragement and articulate instruction made me feel supported and capable of the task at hand, and by the end of that semester all of the students had completed first drafts of feature-length screenplays—not an easy feat, but a feat that was conquered by the aid of his belief in us (because if Jeff Wray believes in you, anything is possible).

Professors Alexandra Hidalgo, John Valadez and Swarnavel Eswaran have all been incredible instructors for my minor in Documentary Filmmaking. They have provided such invaluable insight on storytelling, the creative treatment of reality, and the range of responsibilities we take on as nonfiction filmmakers. With their expertise, I not only feel prepared to take on filmmaking, but I also feel more excited and passionate than ever to record the stories that are waiting to be told and deserve to be heard. I know I’ll be using their lessons and advice with my own projects for years to come.

Professor Ellen McCallum’s instruction of my Contemporary Film and Media Theory course was also one for the books. The breadth of her knowledge was inspiring, and her passion for teaching and learning did not go unnoticed. She truly wanted the best for her students and would push them in ways that exceeded growth beyond a passive level. The content we covered in that class really opened my mind to the problems and ethics of filmmaking that have been at work since the birth of the medium, and I hope to utilize that information in my own work in order to respect representation and push for a betterment of equality, both in front of and behind the camera, on contextual, emotional, and theoretical levels.  

I cannot forget the week-long CAL Study Away program from the Spring Semester of 2019. Our wonderful faculty leaders, Pete Johnston and Kate Sonka, lead our group of eager Arts and Letters students throughout the industry in Los Angeles for a week during our spring break. Our connection with Spartan Alumni who have branded themselves within the film industry opened my eyes to the range of possibilities life after graduation held. That trip solidified my goals and dreams of working in the film industry, and because of that experience I was able to visit a company called MOCEAN, where I later earned a spot as a 2019 Summer Intern for their writing department. That week-long trip relieved any doubt or fears I had about my future, and I don’t know if I’d be where I am today if it weren’t for that experience and the people I met along the way.

What advice would you give future English or Film Studies majors, based on your experiences in the department?

First and foremost, always ask questions! No matter the circumstance, asking questions will always lead you out of your comfort zone and allow you to grow and learn. Every person you meet will have something valuable to offer you, and their life experiences will add to your own if you’re willing to ask and accept all opportunities that come your way. This means going to office hours, the career center, staying after class… there are so many wonderful and willing people in our Spartan community that want to see you succeed, and they will notice if you’re eager to take the time to learn from them.

Another piece of advice would be to let your guard down a little bit. There will be classes and films that aren’t your typical style or cup of tea, but if you approach these things with an open and willing mindset, you’ll come to learn and appreciate the work that you’re being exposed to and the lessons they have to offer.

And last but certainly not least, create as often as you can. It’s crazy how fast these four years fly by, and I regret not making more films or projects of my own. Don’t wait until you have a class designated for this; go ahead and rent out cameras, get your hands on equipment you’re not familiar with, and go make some amazing and fun work that you can look back on and be proud of (or laugh at because of how hilariously awful it was – we’ve all been there, trust me). The point is, now is the best time to create, and you’ll learn the most through trial and error. Plus, making films with your classmates and friends can be so much fun. Trust me, you’ll never regret spending time on these side projects—you’ll make memories and build a portfolio at the same time, so there’s really no reason not to!

What coursework-related projects were/are you working on this year, and what interests or excites you about them? 

I’ve been fortunate enough to work on two projects this year that have given me such joy and purpose. One is my short documentary, Connecting Kin, for my Documentary Filmmaking capstone. I began working on this film a few weeks into this spring semester and am in the final stages of its post-production work now. It’s been an incredible, exhausting, and amazing journey, and I’m so glad that I’ve been able to work on it with the aid of advice and guidance I’ve received from John Valadez, Swarnavel Eswaran and my fellow MI411 classmates. It has a run time of about 12 minutes and follows a young woman, Jaimie, as she embarks on a journey to find and meet members of her family that she has never known. It’s a powerful story, and the process of filming, directing, and editing it within a matter of about 2 months has been a whirlwind of emotion. I feel fortunate to document this story, and I look forward to sharing it with audiences in the near future.

My second exciting project is a feature-length screenplay, which I’ve taken on as an independent study with Professor Jeff Wray. This is my second feature, and Jeff’s encouragement and expertise has been a godsend, to say the least. He’s helped me to really develop this story, and as tough as it is to write a feature, it’s been worth every ounce of hard work (plus, it’s been fun to see how far I’ve come since writing my first feature in his class a few years prior). The story has a mix of drama, comedy, and mystery, and revolves around a young man in a small Michigan town as he uncovers hidden truths about his family. This draft is certainly a work in progress, but I am so lucky to have a second semester under Jeff’s direction while doing what I love most.

What are your hopes and aspirations, post-graduation? 

I fell in love with Los Angeles after spending my summer working there, so my plan is to move back out as soon as I can. I’m still on the job hunt right now, but I know L.A. is where I belong for the time being, and I’m very eager to be back. As far as my specific aspirations for employment go, I would consider myself lucky to be in any part of the film or television industry. My first love is writing, so I’d love to continue to utilize my voice in a professional setting, if possible. I think my goal has always been to work my way into a writer’s room for a scripted series or to write and sell feature scripts. Trust me, I know how crazy that sounds. Although it seems like a pipe dream, everything I’ve been fortunate enough to experience so far had also seemed that way at first, so fear and doubt won’t stop me now! The only thing that will stop me is the price of rent in L.A., and that’s that!!

I’ve also really enjoyed directing and filming my documentary, so I’d love to be involved with more hands-on productions in a professional setting. I’ll continue to exercise those muscles regardless, though, and plan to do that through writing and directing shorts. I’m lucky enough to have a network of extremely talented peers and friends, and many of us have talked about working together on our individual projects to build portfolios and have a creative outlet, so I’m very eager to get together with them again to create, fail, succeed, and grow.

If you’re interested in doing so, please reflect a bit on the strange experience of being a graduating senior during this moment of local and global crisis. What resources have been most useful to you in navigating this unprecedented situation?

I must admit, this moment is big time sad. It’s a time when truly everything is up in the air, which is not the most comforting feeling when you’re leaving college and planning to start the next chapter of your life. I have definitely experienced a lot of grief, sadness, and anxiety in recent weeks, for not only myself but for the world as a whole. It’s a tough thing to balance, because on some level I’m extremely scared and afraid of my future, job security, and being stuck in a national recession, and on the other hand I feel completely guilty for worrying about these things when there are bigger issues and lives at stake. I’ve come to learn, though, that it’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling, and to acknowledge exactly what those feelings are. It’s important to sit in those uncomfortable moments of grief and sadness, because pushing it away will only give more power to the anxiety and stress around the situation. So, I’ve been spending time acknowledging the grief of packing my bags and leaving the place and people that I’ve known for four years without getting to say goodbye. I’ve accepted the sadness I feel toward not being able to celebrate and toss my cap to the many sleepless nights that have made this milestone possible. These feelings aren’t fun or easy to recognize, but I’m allowing them to be heard, named and felt while trying to expel the guilt I’ve wrapped around them. As the great Brené Brown put it, “Comparative suffering is dangerous. Empathy is not finite. When we practice empathy, we create more empathy.” So as hard as this situation is, I’m trying my best to live by these words and take each day as it comes. I try not to look too far ahead, or to dwell too much on the past. I’m practicing patience and gratitude and am working on maintaining faith in the fact that this too shall pass, and that a beautiful and exciting life is waiting on the other side of this uncertainty.

Thank you for allowing me to share these moments and reflect back on my time as a Spartan! It means so much to me and helps to add a bit of closure to this year that has otherwise been lost. I’m so sad to say goodbye to this program and University and am endlessly grateful for all that it has given me!