“You eventually start to think like, Oh, it's just me — everyone else is out there thriving and living their best life in quarantine. But I've had these 15 people that I've spent nearly every day with virtually. We’ve bonded without ever meeting each other in person.”
Kunst is a graduate student in the UCLA School of Theatre and Television’s MFA Producers Program. He enjoys an intimate learning environment with “so much one on one time” and interaction with leaders in the film industry. Despite the challenges of learning at a distance, he praises Glenn Williamson, the co-head of the Producers Program for "doing a phenomenal job" and "being super transparent about how (COVID-19) was going to affect our program."
Kunst chose UCLA to achieve his dream of producing for TV. Though attending film school during a pandemic has been challenging — “If it weren’t for my classmates, I don’t know that I would have made it through […] the isolation in my apartment,” Kunst says — he’s excited by how it’s made the industry even more “permeable” and accessible.
“What we’ve considered TV, like episodic storytelling, is no longer distinct from like, a feature film. Directors and producers are going back and forth in ways that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before.”
From American University, to the U.S. Air Force, to Hollywood
Kunst grew up in Glen Falls, New York, a small town in the Adirondacks. Discovering his passion for film came in stages. “I've always joked that when I first saw Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in theaters in third grade that that was the moment that I knew I wanted to make movies," he says. "When I saw Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in college, that was the moment that I knew what kind of stories I want to tell.”
Eastwood’s early works sparked Kunst’s passion for old Westerns, which he praises for their “solid storytelling” and “captivating twists.” Kunst often returns to the Criterion Collection, a video distribution company that specializes in classic and contemporary films, for creative fuel. “What they did back then, in a lot of ways, pushes the envelope more than what we’re doing now, which is more formulaic," he says.
Before coming to UCLA School of TFT, Kunst graduated with a BA in Film and Media Arts from American University. Then he enrolled in the U.S. Air Force for the next eight years. According to Kunst, “I thought coming from the military to the (film) industry that my skills would be applicable. But I don't think I realized how applicable they are.” He believes that his stint at a Public Affairs Officer prepared him to offer opinions on other people’s work — a key to being a producer.
“I would give my viewpoints to my Commander as his advisor and say, ‘I don't think this is such a good idea,’ which can be tough for young people. I mean, it is for me, even now,” Kunst says. “That was a directly transferrable skill: to be able to be respected, but not necessarily liked.”
For Kunst, one benefit of attending UCLA School of TFT has been finding inspiration to experiment with storytelling. “When I began the program, I leaned toward features […] and now I’ve shifted towards TV and comedy."
The Producers Program’s Key Focus: Reading Scripts
For UCLA School of TFT, parsing the difference between an amazing script vs. a mediocre script vs. a terrible script is essential to becoming a good producer, Kunst says.
“We’ve read a lot of scripts in our development classes, and most of them weren’t great. That was intentional […] to get us to write more effective script notes. I had one professor who would just bring us the most bananas, bonkers scripts you’ve ever seen. He would tell us, ‘They’re actually making this into a movie,’ and it would like, blow our minds.”
Kunst also says that his professors have prepared him for more than just the script development process. “There’s marketing involved, too,” he explains. “It’s a very entrepreneurial program.”
Reading script after script is pivotal for the second-year thesis, which must be based on someone else’s source material. Everything in the program, Kunst says, but especially reading scripts, is geared towards their final project. They have the option to develop a classmate’s script or go the freelance route. “I know a couple students who are working with screenwriters in the Screenwriting Program at USC to make their shorts,” Kunst says.
The pressure of choosing one script to commit to for “the entire academic year” has delayed Kunst from making a decision about his thesis. Being enrolled in film school from a distance is another big factor.
“I’m still hoping that I find (a script) soon […] it’s obviously a lot harder in Zoom times, because I can't just like, meet somebody over lunch or coffee […] or bump into them at a screening. You have to be very, very intentional — you need to actually make the effort to set up a meeting and show up, if you can find a (writer) to begin with.”
Producing for TV and Film: What It REALLY Is
The open-ended nature of producing is appealing to Kunst, who wants room to discover his interests as a filmmaker. Kunst states that producing is the path that confuses people the most, but to him, there’s a simple answer about the nature of producing:
“It’s like a Wizard of Oz, man behind the curtain kind of thing where nobody really knows what, exactly, it is that you do. But you need (the producer) as a point person that has a full view of every department. They've got the top-level picture from development and inception of an idea, all the way through distribution and box office."
Kunst compares being a producer is a project manager; it’s heavily focused on enabling the director’s vision, and choosing the best possible actors to make it happen.
“But from what I’ve heard from our guest (speakers), it varies […] you can be a super hand-on producer and you can be on set every day, or you can do it from afar, like Zooming into production meetings.” The versatility of solving problems up close and from a distance appeals to Kunst, especially in the post-pandemic film industry.
The depth and density of the material Kunst has covered in only two quarters has helped him grow faster than he thought possible. “In the first year, it’s like drinking from a fire hose […] but it’s very effective,” he says. “I’m learning so much more than I did in undergrad in a shorter amount of time.”
Behind the Scenes of The UCLA Screenwriting Scandal
Kunst is aware of the ongoing scandal surrounding the undergraduate and graduate Screenwriting programs. The head of Screenwriting, Phyllis Nagy, has been accused by former students of being negligent and abrasive. Kunst has an altogether different account, however.
“I took one screenwriting class with […] Phyllis, and it couldn't have been more fun. It could have been more hands-on, sure. But at the same time, it was a huge class with three TAs. I told one of my classmates, ‘If we listened to everything Phyllis said and did it, I'm sure we would win an Oscar for our screenplays’ — she’s very smart. I can't speak to the politics of her program or the policies because I'm not in it.”
Kunst has also had an excellent experience with the other co-head of the Producers Program, Barbara Boyle. “I think in a lot of ways, she draws on decades and decades of experience. I always give her the benefit of the doubt because […] I feel like her opinions, whether I agree with them or not, are way more informed than my own.”
Having access to Boyle, Nagy, and a wide variety of film industry professionals has enriched Kunst’s learning experience. “I mean, my TV Development instructor is Dan McDermott, the president of AMC. Where else could I have that kind of experience?”
In addition, Kunst says that every lesson, guest speaker, and assignment has been underscored by purpose: “I don’t think I’ve learned anything that I don’t need […] that’s just checking off a box. Everything has some sort of value.”
The Entrepreneurial Element of Producing
The Producers Program is “pretty regimented,” Kunst says, with a healthy balance of creative and academic courses. Participants are required to take two critical and media studies classes, which requires research writing. However, Kunst says that he has benefited from working outside of his wheelhouse.
“Right now, I'm taking the American Television History seminar. I hadn't written a 20-page paper in forever. But I've learned so much in this class and I’m glad I stuck it out. That’s kind of like my experience at UCLA School of TFT in an anecdote. It’s challenged me in ways that I wasn’t expecting, but I got everything out of it with the flexibility that I wanted that other programs couldn’t necessarily offer.”
Kunst advises anyone who might consider applying to film school to go in without preconceived notions — and to not fear what comes after. Keeping an open mind about the film school process, taking his work day by day, and embracing possibilities are central to his success.
“We’re constantly being exposed to new roles and new positions. As the industry changes and goes more digital, there are going to be jobs that don’t exist today. I find it hard to say what I’ll be doing in five or 10 years from now, because I might be doing something that hasn’t been invented yet.”
To learn more about Keenan Kunst, visit his portfolio and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can also contact him at his FilmSchool.org profile, @KeenanDK.
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