In college, I pursued history, English and creative writing courses but the occasional required civil engineering lab gave me a real appreciation for the nuts and bolts design of attempting to build something with a purpose and an aesthetic. The super-stellar THS English Department had assigned us among others Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and On the Road, and imparted us with the imperative "Only connect," so sure enough, I set out each summer on cross-country roads trips, heading to L.A. to work toward a goal that had begun gestating when still in Middle School: I wanted to make movies. Post-graduation I gravitated to New York City to work for the amiable producers responsible for Boys Don't Cry and You Can Count on Me. They were gearing up a production of Susan Minot's novel Evening and had asked me to assist the director Lajos Koltai, who had won acclaim previously as a cinematographer for Giuseppe Tornatore and Jodie Foster, and for sneaking onstage in Rome as a teenager to pose as a journalist and interview Federico Fellini. His tales of moviemaking, as well as of life in Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution, had me hooked. He kindly gave me permission to document the film set in photographs, so each day I had the thrill of taking portraits of Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy amidst the precise circus of lights, sound, crew, costumes, props, stunts and fog that bring a movie to life. The designer Ann Roth gave me my first big kudos after an early meeting when she told me, "I like you. You don't say much."
Why do you do what you do?
I am currently making a romantic comedy movie called Sweet Baby James with my oldest friend Jesse Silliman. We met at Tower Hill in Pre-K... twice; every grade at Tower Hill is worth repeating! Like all alums, we've been lifers ever since. Jes and I and fellow Hillers grew up making short movies and music videos with his camcorder on weekends: spy movies in black & white, bank heists, ghost stories, Jurassic Park rendered with Kay-Bee toy dinosaur figurines and a Sharper Image sound machine that recreated the rainforest. When the New Arts Center came along, we enjoyed attending the Club Dada screenings started by Jonathan Hoelzer and Josh Phillips. There was such allure in the scope and storytelling and shared experience of movies, a newer art form that could provide time to reflect, time to collaborate, time to unreel, time to edit, and the possibility to see the world and meet everybody in it.
What are you passionate about at work?
I love that we are making something that is to some degree, unknown even to us! Movies are made, primarily, one scene at a time, and one angle at a time, and out of sequence from their ultimate presentation. It allows for thousands of compositions of people and places, of storms, sunlight, motion and close-ups, all with, in our case, comedy and music at its core. When I was younger, I could never see those Magic Eye puzzle books, where if you stared long enough, a scene emerged from the patterned noise. With the movie, when we film a moment, it might represent eight seconds from Act I or from the pinnacle. We're riding a wave made of all those moments, propelling us towards one big picture, so you dare an eye at the horizon while keeping a steady eye on the present. It's been exciting to catch glimpses of what that one picture will be.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
My favorite day of the week is actually Monday, for that is the day I get to play basketball in the Girls' Gym in the treasured league started decades ago by Mr. Straub and now led by Bob Bird and Patrick Kaiser. Every week, men and women age 20 to 75 run pick-up games on the hallowed boards where Jim Straub, John Pierson and Steve Hyde once played, where we all ran as pre-schoolers under the multi-colored parachute held by Patty Marshall and Stu Markley, and marched across the smallest bridge in the Halloween parade, danced on Student Union Fridays, lifted and were lifted at Tree Trim, on a court now named for Hall of Fame coach Deb Kaiser. It's honestly my idea of heaven. Being outdueled there weekly by Khadijah Rushdan, St. E's star and WNBA draftee, is a total delight!
What was your experience like at Tower Hill?
It all felt exuberant: listening to stories in the Lower School Library on the longest window seat in the world, sprinting in the dashes, that majestic weeping tree with its canopy by the Field House, the reverie of the back-to-school picnic, looking up to my sis Court and her friends in the hallways, discovering reading with a brigade of devoted teachers, discovering math and science and history the same way, watching wide-eyed as Carmen Wallace and the Straub brothers defeated Sanford at Sanford, hail on the Spirit of Philadelphia at our senior prom, the magic of the Sunken Garden, tri-corner hats in Williamsburg, lifesavers in Northwoods, trudging the dunes under the night skies in Cape Henlopen. I remember hearing that George Stetson led half of the boys' barracks on a pre-dawn run because they refused to go to sleep and immediately realizing, "Gosh, I missed out!" The experience was once-in-a-lifetime. Can I do it again?!
How do you feel that Tower Hill influenced your life and career?
From time to time, mercurial, marvelous Madame Bernadette Richardson would rightly throw me out of her French class. ("Cinq minutes, Jules!") I'd quietly depart then hightail it down to the computer room. Our reading teacher Nancy Murvine had given us the assignment of creating a montage using PowerPoint, and I was fascinated. It was a continuation of a remarkable computer education program at Tower Hill that had coursed all the way from Marge Altergott bravely teaching us Logowriter as kindergarteners(!) to Corinne Bailey bravely guiding us through speed typing as middle schoolers to Joe Smolko bravely introducing us to the World Wide Web as high schoolers. I made a montage that alternated photos of Winston Churchill with adjectives like "determined" and, "tenacious." Then I capped it with the song "O Fortuna." I still don't know if it was terrible or terrific, but I loved it. The classroom, the campus, the fields at Tower Hill were always a place for thought that had room to run, and the teachers and staff made that possible. Then too the students felt like siblings. They inspire me still, as Jes and I turned to so many of them to star in the movie! Kate Dougherty, Kelsey Robinson, Casey Owens, Emsy Tepe, James Silliman, Rob Silliman, Laird Hayward, Kate and Timo Weymouth, and Hugh Atkins all play major roles, and that's just for starters! You can see them and countless other Hillers on our instagram @sweetbabyjamesthemovie and we'd always love to have more to make our last scenes complete. Tower Hill is special. Can't you still just hear the announcements from Flower Market floating in the window on a Spring day? Here's to the next 100.