Monday, March 24, 2014

Taking the Road Not Taken

Interview by Annie Sugar

Peter Hutchings started his undergraduate career studying Theater and Film at Northwestern University, but transferred to CU-Boulder where he completed a BA in English Literature and then received an MA in Comparative Literature. After graduation, he left Boulder to pursue his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Princeton University where he has also returned to his first love, film-making, while completing his dissertation. After graduation, he intends to continue writing and directing films while publishing independently.

How are you preparing for your career after graduation?
After deliberating at length between a career in academia and one in film-making, I ultimately decided on the latter. In doing so, I diverged from the path most often traveled by graduate students in the Humanities. Yet, ever since I was an undergrad, I have tried to identify basic transferable skills in any course I've taken, whether on Translation Theory, Renaissance poetry, or Spinoza's philosophy, so that I could apply them one day in a chosen career. Close reading, critical thinking, and writing skills stand out to me as the three pillars of my liberal arts education. These tools have equipped me to deal with many aspects of my job as a filmmaker, from screenwriting to script analysis to working with actors.

What role does networking play in your current work, and what is your networking strategy?
As an art form, filmmaking is about collaboration; as an industry, it's about connections. Sometimes these connections come ready-made, like when someone has a family member in the business. In my case, personal connections helped me get my start. But while this type of connection can help you get a foot in the door, you need to work hard to broaden your network.

My strategy is two-part. First, never burn a bridge. I've seen it far too often in the short time I've been in the industry. You never know when a current connection can lead to a future collaboration. There's rarely a good reason to close a door. Second, when I work with talented team-players I keep them in mind for future projects. The old adage is true: a director's only as good as the people with whom he surrounds himself.

How did you learn to network?
My mother worked in television, and my father is a photographer. They're two of the most gregarious people you'll ever meet, and I learned a lot from them. I also found a lot of opportunities to practice networking in graduate school -- not just by forming enduring relationships, but also by watching my professors strike a balance between the personal and professional when dealing with students and colleagues. A lot of this happened outside the classroom at conferences, parties, dinners for invited speakers, etc. In this respect, some of my professors acted as both teachers and models.

Where have you discovered are good places to network both on and offline?
I don't spend a lot of time networking online. That said, I'm one of those people who is on Facebook exclusively for the network. I don't like to approach networking like a shark, and I'm really turned off by people who do, but I like to keep my lines of communication open. Offline, it seems to me that any setting or situation can be fruitful. I was once outside a pizza place waiting for it to open, and I struck up a conversation with the man standing in front of me; it turned out he's a working screenwriter, we exchanged information, and we've kept in touch ever since. For me, it's more about staying open and attentive, and never feeling "above it all."

Is networking different in different parts of the country?
It seems like 90% of the film industry is in Los Angeles and most of the rest is in New York City. I've bucked the system by living in the Hudson Valley, where my next-door neighbor is a herd of cattle. I find this environment very conducive to my creative process, but it has certainly insulated me from some of the realities of the industry. What has struck me is how technology has made a lifestyle like mine possible. Being able to Skype or video chat with actors, writers, producers, and crew members is a great example of how I've been able to work and network without being in one of the industry's main centers.

What advice do you have for graduate students seeking to establish or improve their networking skills beyond academia?
I think one of the real pitfalls of networking is approaching people opportunistically, as if they were rungs on a ladder leading to a successful career. This is not only ethically but also professionally problematic, because people can easily sense when someone's trying to use them or take advantage of them for personal gain. Ambition is a tenuous quality; it rarely identifies goals that bring personal well-being or that engender significant social contributions. I think people respond much more to friendly, open, and cooperative people. You can approach every encounter as a potential opportunity without being opportunistic. The difference is important for many reasons.