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Extra Curricular

by Holly Willis

Breathe Deep

Recent graduates of the David Lynch MFA in Screenwriting Program with David Lynch at his studio in Los Angele, December 2018 (Photo by Juliet Jarmosco)

“I prefer placing the perceptual, intuitive, emotional and spiritual growth of the student at the center.” 

That’s the succinct teaching statement of Pablo Frasconi, a soft-spoken, thoroughly grounded filmmaker and faculty colleague of mine in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has developed a three-course sequence that helps students engage in a form of creativity based on quieting the mind.

“Mindfulness and meditation are central,” Frasconi explains. “It is where these classes begin: by looking inward to discover the ’moving visual thinking’ and ’song of the cells’—as Stan Brakhage called these experiences—that is our life energy in its purest, most vibrant form.”

Frasconi is one of a group of professors interested in approaching film production and screenwriting not from a craft-based, industry perspective but with the individual imagination and creativity of the student at the center. With this focus on the individual artist comes the need to attend to a host of attributes useful in creativity, such as mindfulness and meditation.

Frasconi says, “I find it most effective to nurture exploration and creativity by moving away from linear processes. Those methods are guided by divisions of labor that follow the crafts, guilds and apprentice systems that governed the arts for centuries.” He continues, “The new age of media is more holistic and integrated. This means that we can focus our teaching on ideas over craft.” Students in his classes look inward for subject matter. They explore relationships and collaborations with one another, and only then do they begin to look out to the world. 

Shayna Connelly, an associate professor in the cinema production program in the School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul University, uses mindfulness and meditation with her students and even created a class, “Creative Methodologies in Film and Television,” that puts meditation at its center. 

“I have seen a huge uptick in anxiety among our students,” Connelly says. “I teach film production, and anxiety kept appearing as subject matter.” To help students deal with this angst, Connelly’s methodologies class includes breathing and meditation techniques that are explained and practiced in class. She also issues assignments designed to help students continue this practice on a daily basis. 

What kind of breathing techniques? “Breathe in to the count of six through the nose,” explains Connelly, “then count to eight while breathing out through the mouth. The important thing is the exhale—it is the exhale that calms the person and restructures the brain. If you do this for even two or three minutes, you can feel yourself relax, and your brain begins to clear.” 

Connelly notes that the other practices she introduces can be quite simple. “I teach observation skills. I assign a walk and ask students to be aware of the world. I assign social media breaks. I ask students to give up a vice for a week—for some, it’s Instagram; for others, it’s chocolate. I tell them to get lost on purpose: Go out without a goal and really wander. I encourage students to make a quick video and photo every day.” Connelly says that these practices become ritualized. “All of this is about forming a habit, and that habit can be a kind of meditation as well, freeing the mind and reducing decisions so that you’re just present in the moment. When you’re present in the moment you see more, and when you see more you can record more.”

How else can meditation help film students? “On set, it’s not uncommon to have 16- to 18-hour days,” says Jeremy Warner, an assistant professor in the digital media program at California State University, Bakersfield, whose teaching has engaged in a full array of mindfulness practices across theater, film and digital media. “You see the wear and tear on people with this constant stress and little rest, and meditation makes you better at handling all of the issues that come at you.”

Warner also believes that meditation provides an excellent tool for thinking about emerging media forms. Recalling a recent lecture by VRLA cofounder Cosmo Scharf on VR, Warner expands on the theme of expanded consciousness and notes that VR and XR (expanded reality) require makers to consider notions of presence, empathy and space. Furthermore, a great VR experience demands a sense of full immersion. “With VR, you are consumed by the project, so it’s a whole different way of experiencing entertainment,” Warner says. As a result, skills for getting into that state of mind on your own may be a prerequisite. 

Connelly argues that directors need mindfulness and meditation practice if they want to connect well with their actors. “Actors are rushing from their day jobs, worrying about their bills, wondering if they’re going to get the role, but they have to go into a room and be fully present in the moment.” She continues, “The first thing they learn to do is to relax. Directors need to do this as well. The best way for a director to connect with an actor is to be quiet and fully present in the moment—but we don’t teach students to do this.”

Faculty actually do teach students to do this at the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, where the two-year MFA program in screenwriting is thriving based on its full integration of Transcendental Meditation (TM) and storytelling. Everyone—students, faculty and staff—at the university engages in TM, and the result is a unique learning environment and a compelling program for screenwriters.

“The entire concept of this writing program is that we use TM to connect the artist to the inner wealth of stories, so that they can be an authentic storyteller,” explains the program’s creator and director Dorothy Rompalske. “The students in the screenwriting program are as interested in their spiritual growth as they are in their writing ability.” 

The low-residency program begins on campus with a 10-day session, during which students learn the concepts and practice of TM and meditate in class together at the beginning of each day and again in the afternoon. “This has a profound effect of connecting everyone in the room,” explains Rompalske, who adds that the integration of meditation into the program achieves three things: “Practicing the TM technique allows us to settle down and access the ideas and stories we all have inside us. Students find that they can explore ideas that may be painful or difficult. These may have been hard to explore before, and the meditation is important in diminishing stress. The students are also very supportive of each other, and they listen to each other deeply.”
WThe program is inspired by David Lynch, who discusses meditation practice in his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity. Lynch describes accessing “an ocean of pure consciousness, pure knowingness” and attributes his own creative practice, sense of intuition and feelings of joy and pleasure specifically to his 20-minute meditations each morning and afternoon. 

Students in Rompalske’s program study Lynch’s work and enjoy unique access to some of his materials; they also speak with him during class sessions. Last semester, the graduating cohort visited his LA-based studio during a trip designed to help students make the transition from the program into the industry. 

Rompalske notes that the low-residency nature of the screenwriting program works well. Each of the 10-day sessions is a rigorous mix of lectures, panel discussions, writing workshops, screenings and master classes with expert guests, but meditation and a focus on spirituality also play an important role. Indeed, many students who might struggle to live in a small town year round appreciate coming to quiet Fairfield. “Coming here becomes a retreat,” says Rompalske. 

In addition to their synchronous online class sessions and residencies, each student also has an industry mentor, with whom they speak weekly. So far, the screenwriting program, which launched in 2016, has been very successful, and the school is experimenting as well with models for a production program and international program in China for Chinese filmmakers.

Lynch probably doesn’t have many detractors at his university, but faculty elsewhere are not so sheltered. “When I started teaching meditation practices, guided visualizations and mindfulness at USC in my classes—almost 20 years ago—it was thought to be flaky, marginal or fringe,” says Frasconi, who adds that students now tend to be more familiar with mindfulness and ready for exploration. 

Rompalske shrugs off any cynicism she encounters, pointing to the enthusiasm of her students for their unique program. “We are interested in helping creative people tell authentic stories, and we are very well aware of the trends in the industry—there is clearly a shift starting to happen toward more authentic storytelling.” 

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