What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Relieved and suspicious. I had a non-traditional prelude to starting at Columbia and was admitted, I felt, by the skin of my teeth — which was only reinforced by a blinking light on my ROLM phone with a voicemail from the Admissions Office, asking me to stop by as soon as I could. I started at Vanderbilt but left after a desultory freshman year and spent the next year traveling through Europe without much of a plan and working on an archaeological dig in the Sinai desert.
I came back to my childhood home in Connecticut sure about only one thing: I wanted to go to Columbia. Sadly, though, I had a checkered transcript with lots of footnotes, and I remember the older alum who interviewed me saying, after hearing of my academic travails, “Well, I’m sure you will find a school that fits.” I asked him how he knew I wasn’t getting in to Columbia and he said, “I think you have to be honest with yourself. Columbia may not be the right school for everyone.” Well, he was right and I did not get in. But I was convinced it was the right school for me and I resolved that I would get in no matter what. I enrolled in the local branch of the University of Connecticut and started writing essays and “think pieces” (so ridiculous to use that phrase as a 19-year-old) for anyone who would publish them.
At the end of the semester, I applied again but this time included a stack of the essays with a letter to the admissions group explaining what I had been doing with my time. Miraculously, I was admitted and so it was with enormous pride that I moved my stuff into East Campus (with a silent “Hmph!” to the alum who said I would never get in) and then panic and dread when I heard that voicemail. Oh, no. They talked to someone at Vanderbilt, I thought. They meant to admit another Erik Feig. But I went to Admissions the next day and they just wanted to meet me. They acknowledged I had an odd transcript and was a non-traditional transfer, but they liked my essays and each person wanted to tell me which was their favorite. That still is one of the most emotionally yo-yo-ing days I have had, but I remember such an enormous bounce in my step as I walked back across the quad and up the steps of Low Library to my dorm.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
East Campus was fairly new when I transferred in and was considered the boondocks. It was sparsely occupied and I remember it being very eerie and weird to walk down these cold, brand-new haunted condo hallways. You could hear the wind howl in the air shaft almost all the time — I hope they’ve fixed that! But, still, I was so psyched to be at the school and I had already gotten all the partying out of my system, and had that transcript to recover from, so I think I spent as few hours as possible in my dorm room and the rest in the library.
What class do you most remember and why?
Film classes with Annette Insdorf, English classes with James Shapiro ’77 and Lit Hum because of David Denby’65, JRN’66. I loved movies and loved obsessing over them but not till I studied Orson Welles and Polanski (maybe that’s why I thought East Campus was so creepy?!) with Professor Insdorf did I start to think that working in movies was something I could actually do for the rest of my life. Professor Shapiro was so brilliant but also so funny — a great lesson that the smartest points are often made with the sharpest wit. I had pushed off taking Lit Hum till senior year and by the time I did I was a total know-it-all. But this was also a time when people were writing books and debating whether Lit Hum should still be taught at all — it was, so they said, just about Dead White Males. Denby was auditing our class as research for a book (the very great Great Books) and I loved having his outside perspective and audience. Hell, I really just loved any audience for what in hindsight were probably incredibly pretentious observations on my part.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
I really did love the Butler library. I know that’s geeky but I loved every part of it. I loved the big giant tables where I could feel like I was in The Paper Chase, I loved the spooky stacks, which had timer lights that would tick down and then shut off (I always thought it would be a great scene in a horror movie and have tried to add it to many I have worked on) and I loved the basement where I would watch old, obscure European movies Professor Insdorf had recommended with totally immersive headphones. Is it any surprise I ended up working in the film business?
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I guess I could say I wish I had attended as a freshman, but 1.) That older alum was right. I never would have gotten in then. And, 2.) Coming in late in my academic career and having to really work for it made me truly appreciate a place that has been a deciding chapter of my life and one that underlines so many of my decisions I make in trying to work with great storytellers.