UCLA TFT Producers Program, Demystified: Spotlight on Keenan Kunst, Graduate Student

Keenan Kunst (FilmSchool.org user @KeenanDK) sits behind a cluster of canyons and valleys. His Zoom background reflects his longtime passion for Spaghetti films, old West gunslingers that have more plot points than bullets. Watching 20th century classics and constantly reading scripts has sustained him during the pandemic.

“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 says.

Kunst is a graduate student in the UCLA School of Theatre and Television’s MFA Producers Program. 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."

Though attending film school in the pandemic has been difficult — “If it weren’t for my classmates, I don’t know that I would have made it through […] the isolation in my apartment,” he adds — Kunst is excited by how the industry has become even more “permeable” to filmmakers from all backgrounds.

“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. He served 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 — an essential stepping stone to being a television 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," he says.

UCLA TFT Producers Program’s Key Focus: Analyzing Scripts​

For UCLA School of TFT, parsing quality scripts from mediocre scripts is essential to becoming a good producer, Kunst says. And that hingers on reading scripts. A lot of scripts.

“We’ve read a ton 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 these into movies,’ and it would 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 says. “It’s a very entrepreneurial program.”

Analyzing scripts is pivotal to preparing the second-year thesis project based on someone else’s source material. Everything in the Producer's Program is designed around this project. Film students also 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 to commit to one script for the entire academic year has delayed Kunst from nailing down his thesis project. Attending film school remotely is another factor.

“I’m still hoping I'll find a script soon […] but it’s obviously a lot harder in Zoom times. 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," Kunst says.

Producing for Television and Film: What to Expect​

The open-ended nature of producing for television appeals to Kunst, who wants room to discover his interests as a filmmaker throughout his career. He believes that producing for television is the most difficult career for filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike to fully grasp. When asked to describe his path in layman's terms, Kunst says:

“It’s like a Wizard of Oz, man behind the curtain kind of thing where virtually nobody knows what, exactly, it is that you do. But you need [the producer] as the point person who has a full view of every department on a film or television show. They've got the top-level picture from the development and inception of an idea, all the way to the distribution phase."

Kunst also compares being a producer to being a project manager. Both careers heavily focus on bringing the director’s vision to life and choosing the best actors to make it happen.

The versatility of collaborating and problem-solving up close yet from a distance appeals to Kunst when he considers working in the post-pandemic film industry. “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," Kunst says.

The depth and density of the material Kunst has covered in only two quarters at UCLA TFT has helped him grow faster than he thought possible. “In the first year of the program, 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 TFT Screenwriting Scandal​

Kunst is aware of the ongoing scandal surrounding UCLA TFT's Screenwriting degree programs. Phyllis Nagy, Head of Screenwriting, has been accused by former students of being negligent and abrasive. Kunst offers an altogether different account:

“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, that 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 or policies of [the Screenwriting program] because I'm not in those.”

Kunst also speaks of having an excellent experience learning under Barbara Boyle, co-head of the Producers Program. “I think in a lot of ways, Barbara 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.”

Tapping into the knowledge of seasoned 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?” he says.

Kunst also says that every lesson, guest speaker, and assignment has been purposeful. “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 for Television and Film​

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; 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 a nutshell. It challenges me in ways that I didn't expect, but I have the flexibility that I wanted that other [film schools] couldn’t offer.”

Kunst advises anyone considering applying to film school to go in without preconceived notions about what film school is like and what comes afterward. Keeping an open mind and embracing possibilities have been central to his success.

“We’re constantly being exposed to new roles and new positions," Kunst explains. "As the [film] industry changes and becomes even more digital, there are going to be jobs we have today that no longer exist. I find it hard to say what I’ll be doing years from now because I might be doing something that hasn’t been invented yet.”

To learn more about Keenan Kunst, take a look at his portfolio and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can also contact him on FilmSchool.org @KeenanDK.

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Alexa P.
Alexa Pellegrini (she/her) is a freelance copywriter, editor, poet, and essayist. Keep up with her latest musings on Twitter.


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