When you imagine a typical history class, you may conjure up an antiquated idea of an old man standing in front of a chalkboard, lecturing a room of bored teenagers for an hour a day. However, Phillips Exeter Academy is not the typical hum-drum school, and Back to the Future: History of Film is anything but boring. Taught by Shana Gilbert, a documentary-maker (among myriad other careers), this class covers one hundred years of an artform called: film—a five week intense journey chock-full of discussion and analysis of famous films such as “Citizen Kane” and “Bladerunner.”
On July 17, this already unique class became a little more special with a surprise encounter with a dynamic duo, the husband and wife team of Victoria Riskin & David Rintels. This screenwriter/producer power couple visited the class in the library and imparted some never-before-heard stories about the most famous film productions of all time. It was Hollywood Royalty at our door.
Ms. Riskin is the daughter of Fay Wray, the actress known for her role in the original “King Kong.” Riskin’s father, well-known for his exhaustive list of screenplays, is probably the greatest screenwriter of his time, or any other time for that matter. While Ms. Riskin, a screenwriter and producer herself, is the former president of the Writers Guild of America, her husband, and Exeter alum, Mr. Rintel, also a former President of the Writer’s Guild, is a screenwriter of such works as “Not Without My Daughter.” They arrived at our class just in time to share their stirring Hollywood stories and personal memories with us.
Afterwards, the class questioned Gilbert about this encounter and the state of film at Phillips Exeter Academy.
Class: Can you set the scene for us?
Gilbert: Every summer I take my class to the secret film room on the second floor of the Library. It’s a private, locked room full of screenplays that have all been previously submitted to the Academy [Awards] for recognition. Plus, no other library or school I’ve ever been to owns such an extraordinary gift—it’s pure aura. All I previously knew was that an Exeter alum donated the scripts each year along with the entire wall of old 16 mm film reels of classics such as “Battleship Potemkin.” On this day, we happened to be reading the introduction of the “Citizen Kane” script when they arrived. And to make it a bit special, I reserved the super-secret film room. Except this year, something extraordinary happened.
Class: What was your initial reaction when you were told that David Rintels and Victoria Riskin were coming to visit this class in the library?
Gilbert: When we arrived the Head Librarian greeted me specifically to say that the donor of the collection is stopping by the room at 10 a.m. in the middle of our class. Needless to say, I was excited.
Class: How did their stories about Orson Welles affect your perception of Orson Welles, his movies, and the screenwriting process?
Gilbert: It was amazing when Mr. Rintels and Mrs. Riskin walked in…I had just finished saying in all my ignorance that I wasn’t quite sure how much of the “Citizen Kane” script was written by Orson Welles and how much was written by John Mankiewicz. I assumed that since Welles’s name was on the script, he contributed equal work. I assumed wrong. However, Mr. Rintels proceeds to tell us the real story of the young Welles offering Mankiewicz $10,000 just for putting his name on the script…Citizen Kane was Mankiewicz’s masterpiece and he didn’t want to do it, but back in 1940, $10,000 was our equivalent of millions, so at the advice of another screenwriting friend, he took the money. Orson Welles was never acknowledged for his masterpiece; he never won the Oscar for the film that is now considered the greatest movie of all time. Maybe stories like that one were lost along the way; we don’t really know the truth of how Welles made “Citizen Kane.” That glimpse into the actual History of Film was priceless and I will be retelling the story to classes for a long time.
Class: Does film still have value at Phillips Exeter Academy, and why?
Gilbert: I hope so. I think the History of Film is simply the history of the human story since just before WWI. The invention of the film camera is the defining invention that provided the world a front row seat to the evils of war during WWI & WWII. It’s the mode of art that exposes injustices and repairs the human heart. It how the world simultaneously experienced 9/11. Good OR bad, film entertains and challenges and inspires us to figure out what we believe, what we hope for, what our purpose is on earth.”
Class: Did this visit affect your interest in watching, studying, or making films?
Gilbert: Yes, of course! Any moment with the Greats, the ones who have gone before us to create an artform, is inspiring. Film is an art that only lasted 100 years, we’re at the tail end of an era, and soon it will be lost forever. My only wish is that we could have had them with us a bit longer. On their way out the door, Mr. Rintels says so kindly without a hint of sarcasm, “I’d like to take this course.”