Robert DeNiro, Dolly Parton and Martin Scorsese are just a few of the big names Susan Skoog worked with before teaching her first screenwriting class at Montclair State University eight years ago.
Skoog embarked on a career as a screenwriter/director in Hollywood, but it took a lot of hard work (and soul searching) to get there.
Skoog attended NYU for Theatre but found herself not-so interested in acting and spending most of her time in the revival and art house films in New York.
After college, Skoog went into production and became an assistant to a talent manager and producer in an office that managed artists like Pat Benatar and Rodney Crowell, along with numerous comedians. After a pilot her office produced for HBO didn’t get picked up, Skoog was brought to VH-1/MTV by one of the producers who had become head of production. There, Skoog became an associate producer and then a director/producer of music and film documentaries, working with artists like kd lang, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Bonnie Raitt. Skoog’s next stint was producing a weekly film show where she interviewed filmmakers and actors.
Skoog enjoyed her work, but was itching to make films herself, so she moved to Los Angeles and began freelancing for Turner Classic Movies and TNT.
“It was very exciting because my job was to produce programming around many of the actors and filmmakers from Hollywood,” Skoog said.
“Although I didn’t go to film school per se, researching and preparing for this work was an amazing education in film history.”
Some of the actors she worked with included Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Glenn Ford and Oliver Stone. Her favorite was a retrospective on the collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, whereby she interviewed them together.
However, it wasn’t until Skoog sought out a mentor, that she really took off in the industry. John Landis (Animal House, Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London) gave Skoog the most important piece of advice: To be a filmmaker, you need to write.
“I went off and wrote a script for a short film, which eventually went on to screen at film festivals around the world. Then, he informed me that a short film wasn’t enough, I needed to write a feature length film. So I did, and when he read it, he laughed at me and told me it was terrible and that I should never make this film. BUT, he said his wife really liked my script and perhaps he might be wrong. With that tiny bit of encouragement, I raised some money, collected lots of credit cards, saved some money from the TV shows I was making, and embarked on making my feature film, Whatever.”
Skoog’s film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was even purchased and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
“It’s very difficult and expensive to get films produced, but here [at Montclair State], hundreds of films are made every semester!” Skoog said.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to witness the students’ growth as filmmakers and to have the privilege to help them.”
Skoog also noted the evolving entertainment industry and the effects it has on the film industry.“The methods of distribution are changing and how we consume entertainment is evolving. It’s important to stay current and understand the latest trends, and adapt–as well as hone your craft!”
“Filmmakers nowadays need to be able to do everything, from writing, to producing, to shooting, to editing. And, I think students need to be self-starters and always be trying to get films made, either for TV, festivals or the web,” Skoog said.
Her advice for students going into the film industry after graduation?
1. Make stuff.
3. Rewrite/recut. (It’s not as good as you thought it would be…)
4. Rewrite/recut. (It gets worse.)
5. Rewrite/recut. (It might get even worse.)
6. Rewrite/recut. (It will get better. Eventually. I promise.)
7. Rewrite/recut. (Ok, it’s better…)
8. Rewrite/recut. (It’s getting there…)
9. Rewrite/recut. (It’s pretty good.)
10. HEAR what people are telling you.
11. It takes just as much effort to make a bad film as a good one, so you MUST find joy in your everyday process of filmmaking.
12. Get a day job in the industry! Even if you’re answering phones. You’ll meet people. You need to be connected!