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An Eye for Film

Story by
Nancy Joseph

It started with Martin Scorsese.

Justin Roach always enjoyed going to the movies, but watching Scorsese’s Goodfellas in high school, he realized films could be more than simple entertainment. “That was my first dive into more sophisticated stuff,” he says. “I’ve probably seen that film upwards of ten times.”

Despite his interest in film, Roach (BA, Cinema and Media Studies, 2018) came to the UW intending to major in business. He enrolled in business courses but also took courses in astronomy, cinema, philosophy, and other disciplines before deciding to major in cinema and media studies. The major is in the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema & Media.

Justin Roach outside the Varsity Theater in Seattle's University District.

Justin Roach has been immersed in film at the UW, on and off campus.  Media credit: Corinne Thrash

“When I tell people that I’m studying film at school, they always ask what films I’ve made,” says Roach. “I have to clarify that the program is not production-based.  The cinema studies major here is more analytical — reading, writing, watching films — and I actually think that’s very necessary if you want a career in filmmaking. You’re looking at cinema from all time periods, all nations, a bunch of different directors, and with that knowledge you’re able to form your own style.” Roach furthered his understanding of cinema through Department of Philosophy courses including Philosophy of Film and Existentialism and Film.

While Roach has appreciated his UW courses about film history and theory, he also wanted hands-on experience. His search for a summer job in the industry led to an entry-level position with a Los Angeles production company, to work on the independent film Other People, featuring Saturday Night Live alumna Molly Shannon. Roach was offered the job five days before filming began.

“I ran down and joined the production and thought everybody there would be as excited about creating a movie as I was,” Roach recalls. “But for a lot of people, especially in production, it’s just a job. They weren’t big film buffs.” Roach also had less time on the set than he’d hoped, spending most of his days in the production office dealing with paperwork.

Because of cinema studies I have a much more visual eye now.

When he returned to the UW, Roach had a more satisfying hands-on experience through an introductory digital film production course offered by Digital Arts & Experimental Media (DXARTS). He created his own short film for the class, serving as a one-person crew handling everything from camera to sound to directing. Thanks to his cinema studies background, he had a clear vision for the project.

“Because of cinema studies I have a much more visual eye now, so I wanted to tell the story in a visual way and not so much through dialogue,” Roach says of his short film. “In that class we had total freedom to do something narrative, experimental — whatever we wanted to do. It was challenging but also really fun.”

Still hoping for professional experience, Roach took a one-quarter internship with IE3 Global Leadership, through its Capetown Film Industry internship program. He interned in South Africa for film producer Michael Murphy (Bob & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, District 9, Dread), providing feedback on film scripts submitted to Murphy’s production company and meeting with South African filmmakers to discuss and help develop their projects. “That was very different from my first film job,” Roach says. “I had much more of a personal relationship with the producer.” Roach enjoyed the experience so much he returned the following year — using summer poker winnings for his plane ticket to South Africa — to intern with the production company again as a location scout and casting assistant.

Not all of Roach’s time abroad has been film-related. His also spent a quarter in Prague through a UW Comparative History of Ideas study abroad program, with an emphasis on history and politics. “It was incredible,” he says. “CHID is very good at immersing you in the culture of each place you go. All of my travels have given me more of a global perspective, which I think is helpful.”

As he prepares to graduate, Roach is considering a move to L.A., the heart of the film industry. Or maybe he’ll join the Peace Corps. He’s still undecided. “There are a lot of options,” he says. “Hopefully I can do something with film, but I’m pretty open, to be honest.”

His advice to other aspiring filmmakers? Don’t be deterred by the fact that cinema and media studies is not a production-based major.

“There are other ways to get that production experience, including a UW video production club,” says Roach. “The major itself gives you a really good eye and develops your taste in movies. If you want to write or direct, it will help you develop your style as well. I think it’s a great choice.”

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