Paul Schrader, Lesli Linka Glatter Presented With Honorary Doctorates at AFI Commencement

Courtesy of Earl Gibson III/AFI
Lesli Linka Glatter and Paul Schrader

The celebrated writer-director and impactful television helmer shared stories of their own journeys and offered career insights to the graduating class.

Assembling in the most iconic and enduring Hollywood temples of worship — the TCL Chinese Theater — for a commencement ceremony, the American Film Institute Conservatory’s cap-and-gown-clad graduating Class of 2019 were joined by filmmaker Paul Schrader and director Lesli Linka Glatter, both of whom took home diplomas of their own.

Both Schrader — the acclaimed screenwriter behind such seminal films as Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ as well as the director of his own screenplays, including Blue Collar, Light Sleeper, Affliction and First Reformed — and Glatter, who has notably helmed episodes of groundbreaking television series including NYPD Blue, Gilmore Girls, Grey’s Anatomy, The West Wing, Mad Men and Homeland, were presented with AFI Honorary Degrees, doctorates of fine arts honoris causa. AFI also honored Bob Kaplan, the school's longest-serving teacher.

After an introduction by AFI president Emerita Jean Picker Firstenberg, Glatter regaled the assembled students with an anecdote about a striking bit of visual imagery from the pilot episode of David Lynch’s original Twin Peaks television series in which Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Ontkean appear in a meeting room with a stuffed deer head lying askew on a conference table. Later working with Lynch on the series, Glatter asked him what prompted the unorthodox choice.

“He looked at me somewhat askance, and he said ‘It was there,’” Glatter recalled. “And of course I asked him, ‘What do you mean, 'It was there?' And he said, ‘The set decorator came in and was going to hang the moose head on the wall.’ But he walked onto the set and saw it laying there, and he said, ‘Leave the moose head.’ So something cracked open for me: have your plan, know what you want but always be open to the opportunities in front of you. Always be open to life. Always be open to the moose head on the table.”

Among many tips she offered to the graduates, Glatter delivered pointed advice to the female members of the class. “You don't have to give up being a woman to do the job,” she said. “It's not easy to be a director. It's not for the faint of heart. But it shouldn't be harder for our daughters to direct than for our sons. It should be an equal playing field — equally hard for everyone. And I remain hopeful that an equal playing field is actually something that we will see in our near future, where a director is just a director. Not a woman director, not a man director — just a director with a story to tell.”

After the ceremony, Glatter told THR she was impressed by the sheer amount of young women in the directing discipline she watched accepting their diplomas, and the diversity among them. “I was blown away,” she said. That was so exciting — and diverse! Yeah, I can't wait to see what stories come out of this group of graduates.”

Although she was not a Fellow at the conservatory, Glatter attended AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, where she said learning to tell the story that moves her is a lesson that’s served her throughout her career. “When I first got in the program I was a modern dance choreographer, and the story I wanted to tell was three quarters in Japanese with flashbacks, narration,” she recalled. “It was a period piece set in World War II with one Caucasian actor. There couldn't have been anything more uncommercial. But that was the story I wanted to tell, and they supported telling an unusual and unique story.”

Schrader, who was introduced by the renowned film historian and Wesleyan University film studies professor Jeanine Basinger, holds the unique distinction of being a member of the inaugural AFI class back in 1969 when it was known as the Center for Advanced Film Studies, held at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills and classmates included filmmaker Terrence Malick and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

“There were 11 Fellows — all white males,” Schrader recalled for the students. “It was 1969 and all sorts of experiments were in the air. Most of them were transitory. Some of them were literal pipe dreams. AFI was the vision of George Stevens Jr — a vision inspired by association with JFK’s support of the arts, and his vision was to have a training institution here in the Hollywood, free from industry constraints.

“It was quite a moment that first year: no tuition, daily screenings, receptions four or five times a week with famous filmmakers,” he recalled. “There were no structured classes, and I was the only critical studies Fellow…I was the entire critical studies department — I had three professors for me. You can see where I didn't think it would last. It felt like a house of cards, and to a degree it was. Yet it survived. AFI needed to rethink itself, it needed to relocate, it needed a new financial model, it needed a better teaching and administrative structure, and it was able to do all these things. The AFI campus in Los Feliz is the dream of George Stevens Jr., 52 years ago in 1967. It is more, in fact, than he could have imagined."

Noting how firmly AFI has become “embedded in the artistic and commercial life of this industry,” Schrader also urged the graduates not to let any future successes lead to a complacent, safe, entitled approach to their art and craft, recalling the rebellious, anti-establishment attitude of the original AFI class — “a bad boys club.” He cited the words of Colin Young, the fabled head of the UCLA Film School when Schrader was an undergraduate, during clashes with the state government and the school administration.

“He said, ‘Being the anarchist division of the university, we are open to more criticism than most. We do not have the comforts from some of the departments such as History, where you study revolution and not foment it.’ Wow — that was the head of the department, talking about fomenting anarchy.”

“I took something from those years, something for which I've always been thankful: You don't only have to play their game,” Schrader said. “You, of course Paul Schrader, Lesli Linka Glatter, have to play it. But you can also play your own game. It's not enough to be successful on their terms. You need your own terms. It is possible to use your imagination, your determination, your calculation, your steadfastness, to pierce through society’s protective veil and create something of unique value to society and importantly to yourself. That's the ultimate obligation you owe yourself, and it can be done.”

After the ceremony, Schrader told THR that he continued to cling tight to satisfying his own terms — including following the outpouring of praise for First Reformed, his most recent effort as writer and director for which he received his first-ever Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

“Getting all those accolades and the 10 Best lists and whatever, I said, ‘I'm really glad to see this praise, but if I didn't it would still be a good film,’” he explained. “Once you satisfy yourself…. I can look at that list and say, ‘It doesn't matter if I'm never on it.’ So it's not something that I put a lot of stake in. I even sort of felt that way about the Academy Award: If I got it, that'd be nice, but I've already won.”

“One thing did happen after I got nominated: I didn't change my career much, but my speaking fees went up,” he chuckled.

Schrader, too, took note of the strong multicultural bent of the graduating class. “I was sort of wondering when the WASPs were going to graduate,” he quipped. He said he saw a future of both opportunity and challenge for the cinematic hopefuls.

“It's a crazy time for them,” he reflected. “Of course, graduating from the AFI, they really do have a step up from everybody else, but still it's a crazy environment. Anybody can make a movie; almost nobody can make a living. There's so much product — there's more product than anyone can even monitor anymore. And because of this explosion of product, there are more jobs; also because of political correctness, there's a lot more jobs for nonwhite boys, so that's all great. But you keep thinking that when's this bubble going to burst?... They’re smart here to take much more of a crafts approach, rather than a Great American Novel approach.”