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Take Five

Get to know a member of the SCU community

Communication Professor Michael Whalen has been producing documentaries and television shows since 1994. His television experience includes writing, producing, and directing such hit series as Fox Television’s “COPS” and  A&E’s “BIOGRAPHY.” He has also produced series’ for The Discovery Channel, NBC, and The Learning Channel (TLC). Professor Whalen has also produced multiple award winning independent documentary films. His 2009 documentary, A Question of Habit was broadcast on PBS in 2012 and Gringos at the Gate was broadcast on ESPN Deportes in 2013. His latest work The Farmer & the Chef recently premiered at the 2014 Cinequest Film Festival.

1. You were doing well as a filmmaker in Los Angeles. What made you want to come back to SCU to teach?

I was working primarily in the documentary area for networks like Discovery and A&E and around the year 2000 the networks starting moving away from the traditional documentary form and into reality TV. I ended up directing the pilot episodes of a couple of reality shows (a baby's story and a wedding story) and then spent a year directing "Cops." It just wasn't the type of work I wanted to do and when SCU reached out to me to start teaching I used the chance to follow my dream of teaching while also being able to produce independent films.

2. What's your advice to SCU film students who may feel inadequate compared to students at what many consider top film schools like UCLA, USC, and Chapman?

Not to worry about it. The film education you receive at SCU is as good as all of those places. In some ways it's even better because you aren't just studying film. You're receiving an outstanding liberal arts education that will make you a better storyteller. Add in the film classes and you have a great foundation to enter the industry. Too many of the students coming out of USC, UCLA, and Chapman think they are going to become directors the minute they graduate. That's not going to happen. They start where everybody else starts … at the bottom. What enables you to move up is not your knowledge of a certain camera or tech, but rather the kind of person you are, the type of filmmaker you want to become. SCU does an amazing job of preparing you for this.

3. What inspired you to do your latest documentary, The Farmer and the Chef?

I really wanted to make a "green" doc—something to do with the environment but from a unique angle. I was looking all over for a good story to tell when my wife booked a reservation at Manresa for our anniversary. While we are eating the best meal of our lives my wife looked up and said, why not this place? I started reading up on David Kinch and discovered his amazing relationship with Cynthia Sandberg (the farmer) and was hooked. It's just such a cool thing they have going—and both are world class at what they do. It was an easy sell once i met both of them.

4. You often say that presently, the best filmmaking is on television. What do you mean by that?

Networks like HBO, FX, AMC, etc. are granting complete creative freedom to filmmakers to create amazing characters and stories. It's a freedom that directors don't have with major motion pictures because of theatrical film's needs to appeal to broad audiences and bring in massive amounts of box office revenue. On TV filmmakers are finding a place where they can develop far more complex characters and storylines because they have 12 to 18 hours per season and they can write for a very specific audience. Since these networks aren't nervously watching box office receipts they can, instead, spend the time and money creating content that keeps their very specific audience happy. That's just a luxury that theatrical films don't have and it’s why a lot of 'film' talents are moving to tv.

5. If you could've been on the set of any movie that has ever been made, which one would you chose and why?

Ok, every one of my students knows the answer to this …The Godfather. Why? It's the best film ever made. Do I really need to say more? Francis Ford Coppola at his best directing the likes of Pacino, Brando, Duvall, Caan, Keaton, and the rest of the cast. How could you say any other film?

Make sure to attend SCU’s 2014 Genesis Film Festival to see SCU student films Friday, June 6th at the Locatelli Center at 6pm.

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