Interview with University of North Georgia’s Communication, Media and Journalism Department Chair, Jeff Marker

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By Ali Coad, Staff Editor

Now that it’s after Labor Day, most students and teachers have found themselves in their various school routines and habits, which is why we figured that there’d be no better time to chat with University of North Georgia’s Communication, Media and Journalism Department Chair, Jeff Marker.

Recently and excitingly, UNG has taken serious strides in their film degree programs. It’s a very exciting time for filmmakers in Georgia, and UNG has adapted, rather successfully, to the that industry, now offering various majors and minors in film and digital media.

Jeff graciously answered my questions, exploring the ins-and-outs, pros-and-cons of film studies and experience. Per usual, my questions are in bold, and the responses are printed below.

You’re the department chair of the Communication, Media and Journalism Department at University of North Georgia; you must be pretty busy. What’s an average day look like for you?

The bulk of my day is spent communicating in one way or another. Everything from hallway conversations, to meetings with students, to meetings with one or a group of colleagues, to meetings of the whole department, to meetings with external constituents or prospective students, etc. And emails. So very many emails. I also teach in addition to my administrative tasks, and I still love being in the classroom. The most rewarding parts of what I do are mentoring students and supporting colleagues.

When did you incorporate the Film Degree into your program?

We launched a Bachelor of Arts in Communication in Spring 2014 that included a concentration in Film & Digital Media Production, as well as concentrations in Multimedia Journalism and Organizational Leadership. But the film program grew so quickly out of the gate that we earned approval to make Film & Digital Media a separate degree program in Fall 2015.

With a schedule like yours, how do you find time to create for yourself?

With difficulty, as the old joke goes. You just steal an hour or two when you can and accept that everything is going to take longer than you’d like it to. Perseverance is essential. I might have a few days or a week when I can work daily on a project, then I’ll get pulled away by other duties for days, weeks, or even months. It’s one of the more difficult parts of the job, truth be told, because department heads must still develop as faculty to advance our careers. And being creative and productive is a built-in need for me. During those periods when I can’t work on a project of any kind, I get very restless. You just have to be persistent.

How would you advise someone who is teetering between film school and ‘life experience’? I hear that debate regularly: the best way to learn is by trying and doing vs. the best way to learn is from teachers in a classroom, starting from the basics and growing knowledge.

I am so happy to answer this question. First of all, the film school versus no film school debate tends to assume that going to film school is only a vocational pursuit. I am a strong believer in liberal arts education and the development of the whole person. I know not everyone is interested in attending college classes for four or even two years, and that’s fine. But I do believe everyone should strive to understand human nature, because that is one of the foundations of empathy. I also believe we all should engage with cultures different from our own and to encounter ideas that challenge our current beliefs. Your worldview will be richer and stronger for it, and you will develop as a person. We all need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, too – especially in film and tv production – and those are core goals in any humanities curriculum. To bring it back to film school specifically, if you’re going to be a storyteller in any medium and know nothing of the world or yourself, your work will suffer, and that’s putting it nicely.

But to address the vocational aspects of the question, I think you need to consider what it takes to succeed in whichever area of film production you want to pursue. Aside from screenwriters, everyone needs access to equipment of one kind or another and to experienced people who will not only teach you how to use that equipment technically and safely, but also intentionally and artistically. Meaning, you’d better know something about how this medium communicates, the history of the medium, what you want to put into the world, and how to use the tools of the medium to communicate those things. You will also need to know how to behave professionally and collaborate. Oh, and you need to find collaborators, which means you’d better learn how and where to network.

If you are capable of accessing, learning, and achieving all of these things (as well as the many things I’ve probably left out), without going to film school, then go for it. But the right film program should facilitate your development as a filmmaker on all these fronts as well as provide access to gear so you can make things and build a resume while earning your degree. That’s the final part of my answer: it depends not only on what you want to do, but also which film school you choose. If a film school doesn’t provide access to equipment every year of the program, or if a film school doesn’t teach you where and how to network, or if a film school doesn’t teach you how to succeed as a PA and in entry level positions (because everyone starts at the bottom), or if a film school doesn’t stress experience as much as coursework, then that film school isn’t worth the tuition. Oh, and find a film school that won’t put you so far into debt that you’ll never climb out of it. Everyone has to take no-paying or low-paying work early on, but if your debt and other financial obligations are so pressing they won’t allow you to at least day-play for modest wages to get started, then you’ll find it very difficult to ever launch your career.

How has the Film Program at UNG evolved since its implementation in 2015? (**Please feel free to correct me if that date is wrong.) What has happened that you didn’t expect? What has happened exactly as you expected it to?

In terms of curriculum, we now also offer a concentration in Media Studies. It is not hands-on; it’s heavy on media literacy, history, and theory. It’s perfect preparation for graduate school or for anyone seeking a modern liberal arts program of study. We also continue to add advanced classes in particular filmmaking specializations, especially in screenwriting, post-production, and producing. We expected the program to grow and felt very confident that our curriculum would draw students and prepare them for the Georgia industry, but we underestimated just how quickly that would happen. So we’re striving to offer more courses to meet the wide variety of career aspirations of our students.

When did you know this was a degree-program that you needed to include in the UNG degree catalogue? How did you know?

My film colleagues and I knew back when the tax incentive program was launched that big things were going to happen in Georgia and that the university system would have to respond aggressively to help build a local workforce. But we also knew this was a chance not just to support the productions that would come into the state but also to build a base of local content creators. Our students know they will have to start at the bottom like everyone, but we’re developing them as storytellers, producers, directors, and department keys. Our primary goal is to graduate students who will write, direct, and produce content in Georgia.

How did you transition from earning your PhD in Comparative Literature from UGA to working at the forefront of this film boom here in GA?

Doesn’t everyone get a Comparative Literature degree as a stepping stone into the film industry? The degree might be misleading, because my interests have always been both creative and scholarly. I have also written about movies as a critic for around a decade, too. I became involved in the film industry from all of those directions. My administrative career has sort of grown step-in-step with the industry here, and I’ve gotten involved in film education in a number of ways. Creatively, it started several years ago when I did some stage acting with some dear friends in the Circle Ensemble Theatre company in Athens, which led to a great partnership with Dodd Ferrelle, a talented musician and songwriter with whom I made a series of music videos. That’s really when I began to learn directing and editing, and discovered I really love it. That part of my career began to snowball, but I’ve been occupied with department head duties for the past few years. Other than a short written and directed by my former colleague, David Smith, I haven’t gotten to do any acting or directing for a while now. I miss both. Meanwhile, I’ve met so many great people in and on the periphery of the industry by being a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and the Georgia Film Critics Association. It’s all connected in convoluted ways.

What does UNG have to offer, as far as film and media programs, that separates it from other schools?

Our curriculum is as comprehensive as any undergraduate curriculum of which I am aware. We train students to succeed in their first PA gig and entry level jobs, while also helping them develop into future above-the-line leaders. People are consistently surprised by the quality of our facilities and gear, too. And after a handful of key hires over the past couple of years, I’d stack up our faculty against anyone. I can’t say enough about how proud I am to work with the people I do – and not just in the film and digital media program. Our department is made up of talented, creative people who work well together and enjoy working with students. While we all pursue our own scholarly and creative projects, we pride ourselves on being effective teachers first and foremost.

What about Georgia specifically? Your film department at UNG is relatively new, why now? Why in GA? What do you think Atlanta has to offer that other cities and states don’t have?

My wife and I moved to Georgia in 1998 (as she likes to say, we got here as soon as we could) and intended to stay for two years. The plan was to leave after I finished my master’s. But the place quickly became our home. Georgia has that effect on a lot of people, doesn’t it? As far as why now in Georgia, there’s an obvious practical answer to that, of course. We offer a very attractive financial incentive package. However, there are non-financial reasons Georgia has outlasted all of the other states who launched incentive packages. It’s the people, the landscape, the variety of cities and towns, and a unique mix of tradition and progressivism. Georgia has a unique, infectious energy.

What makes a movie good? What makes a movie bad?

Oh wow, that deserves a book-length answer. It’s no one thing or combination of things. Story and character are still most important, and always will be, along with sincerity and humanism. I get dazzled by stylistic and technical mastery like everyone else, but often a movie is great in spite of flaws in execution. That’s something I love about independent cinema. Often the crew is not as seasoned as the fine folks who crank out studio product, but they know what they want to say and are passionate, and that can help a film transcend the occasional technical flaw. My cardinal sin is laziness. You don’t have to be a master of the medium, but if filmmakers are lazy and just go for what’s easy, it’s disrespectful to the art form and to the audience.

I read that you are a director, producer and editor of music videos; they’re an under-appreciated art, if you ask me. You have a very short window to explore a song that is often overflowing with emotion and story and rhythm. I have a running list of my favorites. What would be on your list of best music videos? What makes a music video good? What makes a music video bad?

I’m old enough to remember when MTV launched, so I have a lot of music videos to choose from. I could probably name 100 videos from the 80s and early 90s, some because they’re great and some because they’re so evocative of the time. And I am a big Michel Gondry fan, both his features and his music videos. I still love Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” because of the Aardman and Brothers Quay animation. Almost every video Bjork has ever released is brilliant. Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is so simple but who can forget it? I’m not a big Radiohead fan, but “Karma Police” is also simple yet so brilliant. I love the White Stripes’ “Hardest Button to Button” video. I’ll stop my rambling but throw out one more: Lisa Hannigan’s “I Don’t Know.” The whole band is crammed into this tiny area behind the bar in a pub, they perform the song live, and the video is filmed in one take. It takes me back to Ireland every time, because this wouldn’t even be strange in an Irish pub. Love it.

Music videos are less about story and more about imagery. It’s both challenging and liberating. I’m still learning how to make them. I don’t know. This is a bad answer, isn’t it?

What’s your favorite movie? (The movie that all other movies must now live up to.)

This isn’t a fair question. You can’t make me answer this.

What was your favorite class when you were in school? What’s your favorite class to teach?

I loved all of the film history classes. All of them. Now, Film History I is probably my favorite to teach, because I love teaching students about the earliest films made. On one hand, after you watch a bunch of silent films you start to realize there really isn’t anything new under the cinematic sun. We’ve just been making variations on the originals ever since. On the other hand, there are so many great silent films you begin to wonder why we ever added sound. If the students end up loving those early films half as much as I do, I feel I’ve done my job.

What do you notice about your students that inspires you regarding the future of film?

Their work ethic. Ask anyone who has hired our graduates. They bust their tails and genuinely want to contribute. They’re also coming to it with fresh eyes and excitement. I’ve been teaching for around 17 years now, ever since my second year of graduate school. Any time you do the same thing for that long, it threatens to become stale. And let’s face it, a lot of what plays in the multiplex these days is not very inspiring. It’s easy to become jaded. But the students aren’t jaded at all. They have their own stories to tell, and their voices and perspectives are different from mine and my generation. I am also enormously proud of the number of talented, strong young women we have in our program. I want all of our students to succeed of course, but as a faculty we want to help push the industry toward true equity, in gender and in ethnicity. It’s inspiring to see that happening before my own eyes.

How would you advise someone who is interested in becoming involved in film but isn’t quite sure how?

Which author wrote, “If you want to be a writer but aren’t, then you’re not”? Interest and desire are great, but at some point you just have to start doing it. Don’t have a camera? I’d bet you have a phone with a camera. So try telling a 2-minute story with your camera. Or write a screenplay and invite some honest people to read it out loud and give notes. Start creating. If it’s a matter of getting connected, start googling and find some job listings. Go be a production assistant for free for a day to taste set life and decide whether it’s for you. Volunteer at festivals so you can meet people. The resources are here now, and you just have to take that first leap of putting yourself out there. I know that can be a difficult leap, but you’ve got to do it. Work hard, and it will snowball. Suddenly, you just might have the beginnings of a career. Or, you could find a great film program, of course. I know of one I could tell you all about.

Anything you’d like to plug? Where can we follow you and your career?

I just finished a paper that’s now under review for publication, and for the past few weeks I’ve been deciding what my next project will be. A few collaborators and I did a day of on-camera pre-interviews a while back as a way of exploring a rock documentary idea. That may be the next thing, and I’d love to tell you more when it starts to become real. If anyone wants to connect, I’m on Twitter and Instagram. And you can learn more about our department and film program here.

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