Interview: Kristyn Jo Benedyk, Matt Irvine of DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts

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CHICAGO – Moving up the rankings like greased lightning, the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts cracked the Top 20 of all film schools in the U.S. in 2014, after building a program that didn’t exist 20 years ago. A couple reasons why are School Director Matt Irvine and Screenwriting Professor Kristyn Jo Benedyk.

One of the more successful programs in the school is “Project Blue Light,” an interactive course that places students in typical jobs on a movie set, to create short films that eventually will be festival eligible. This is done through a partnership with Cinespace, a studio facility on Chicago’s west side, where DePaul University has a substantial presence. The philosophy of the school is “hands-on,” to allow the next generation of film creatives to flex their skills and find their niche. got the opportunity to interview Kristyn Jo Benedyk and Matt Irvine, to get a sense of how they are building the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts, and how Project Blue Light fits into that curriculum.

StarKristyn Jo Benedyk, Screenplay Professor, DePaul University

Kristyn Jo Benedyk is currently the Chair of the Screenwriting program at the School of the Cinematic Arts at DePaul University, and holds an MFA in Film & TV writing from the University of Southern California (UCLA), as well as an MFA in Playwriting from Arizona State University. She helped to launch the Screenwriting program at DePaul in the Fall of 2011. interviewed Ms. Benedyk on set at Cinespace, as she directed her second short film as part of the “Project Blue Light” program.

Project Blue Light
Kristyn Jo Benedyk Directs a Scene in December for ‘Project Blue Light’
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for ‘Project Blue Light’ has been a successful and innovative program at DePaul. How does it work for the students who participate?

Kristyn Jo Benedyk: The way that we do this is that people sign up for the class, and then we send out announcements and tell those who enrolled to send us their top five preferences for jobs on the set, and we also ask them to send us their experience levels for each job. We usually only do one film, but this time we’re doing three. We designed the crews on each of the films based on their preferences and experience. There is also an also an opportunity to ‘work their way up’ if they desire experience on a particular on-set role, but don’t have any prior experience doing it. All the crew positions, except the directors, are all students. Since this is your second short film, what have you learned about pre-production, and getting the right mix of students together?

Benedyk: Getting the right team together, number one. You have to make sure that whoever is heading a certain job on set are people that you can trust. This one is different, because we’re shooting three films back-to-back-to-back. The first film was set in a basic loft, and wrapped a couple days ago. So I began my shoot the same day. We’ve been doing 12 hours days since then, because we had to strike the modern set and convert it into the setting for my film, the 1960s, and there are many set-ups, and split screen. You’ve described the film as a ‘Pillow Talk’ homage. Why did you pick that particular film and 1960s era?

Benedyk: It didn’t begin as a ‘Pillow Talk’ homage, but as a misunderstanding film about texting - which happens more and more these days. There are ways to read texts, and sometimes it doesn’t get communicated the way it was intended as written. The idea came when I was texting my husband for a day-and-a-half, and we weren’t getting through to each other. That inspired the story. It’s a guy asking a girl out for a first date, and he’s misinterpreting all her cues.

I wanted to do split screen, with the texts as animated communications, and as I was talking about it my husband said it sounds like ‘Pillow Talk.’ It’s one of my favorite movies, so the light bulb went off. What do you want to communicate to your student production staff, as leader of the collaborative art of filmmaking?

Benedyk: As I mentioned before, once the trust is established for your team, then it’s about their creative freedom to complete the vision. For example, my production designer was challenged with the Pillow Talk look. She didn’t have to show me everything she was gathering…I trusted that she would make it work, and she did. I think the only thing I consulted on was paint color. When I walked into the set for the first time, that’s when I saw it, and I loved it So get together and hire the people you trust, and give them the creative freedom from there. It’s about doing that one job the best that they can do. The DePaul University School of the Cinematic Arts has had a meteoric rise in the past five years, recently placing 17th overall in the nation, virtually from nowhere. To what do you attribute to that rise?

Kristyn Jo Benedyk
Kristyn Jo Benedyk of DePaul University
Photo credit: DePaul University

Benedyk: There are few things. One, there are certain policies in our program that are very different than other film schools. The advantage of being up and coming, is that we were able to look at other schools, and see what worked in them and what didn’t…so we wanted to take what was best in those schools, both in practice and theory. We’re also flexible. The first year we had an acting class for writers, which students didn’t like, so we adjusted and added a class for film pitches. We look at the program every year, and make adjustments. For example, this year we added web series, so we’re always trying to keep up. What are some of the innovations that have really worked out well?

Benedyk: We have an open equipment policy, so any student can check out any piece of equipment at any time, Freshman to Graduate student. It’s about hitting the ground running. Your first short film was called “Flat Chested,” a story about a woman who decides to have a mastectomy, because she is genetically predisposed to breast cancer. What was the origin of that idea, and how did you want to portray this difficult subject?

Benedyk: It was personal, in that I wanted to spread awareness about BRCA [a genetic mutation that could cause breast or ovarian cancer]. It became more personal, because my sister was diagnosed with cancer, and then two weeks later my other sister was diagnosed with cancer.

While I was in pre-production. I didn’t want it to seem preachy, so that’s why it was pretty raunchy. And secondly, women are often viewed as the chosen, not the chooser, when it comes to their own destinies. I wanted to empower the main character, and show that they are as sexual as men. And wanted to do something about how women talk to each other in real life, as opposed to something that felt like screenplay dialogue. What are the type of screen stories out there right now that would best fit your style as writer?

Benedyk: Maybe because I’m doing a Pillow Talk piece right now, but ‘Mad Men’ is such a well-directed and composed show, I’d love to do something like that. I like something that is stylized, and that program fits that category. Also HBO’s ‘Girls,’ they do a great job regarding how women actually talk to each other.

StarGo to Page Two for an interview with Matt Irvine, Director of the School for Cinematic Arts at DePaul University

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