Alumnus speaks about career in documentary film production

Robert Seidman ’63 lectured on the PBS “American Novel Project” in Griffin 6 on Feb. 20. Seidman spoke about writing screenplays and novels, making documentary films and living in Hollywood.

After graduating from Williams as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Seidman studied English at Columbia University. He has written two novels, One Smart Indian and Buck’s Country Idyll, as well as numerous articles and screenplays. He has also worked on a number of documentary films, with topics ranging from the poet Wallace Stevens to anthropologist Margaret Mead to playwright Samuel Beckett. He has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy for his work on documentaries. Seidman also teaches at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts and Cooper Union.

Seidman began his lecture by discussing the craft and struggles of writing, calling it “an endless process.” He mentioned the difficulty of getting past one’s first draft and recalled his troubles while writing his first novel. He described the writing process as “humbling.”

He praised computers, as they made writing much easier than when typewriters were used. However, he said that he spent so much time with his writings in the revision process that he knew them word for word. He laughed as he recalled a quote from Henry James, who “knew every word [of his writings] before he started.”

Seidman then discussed the various screenplays on which he was worked. He recalled with humor an incident regarding actor Patrick Duffy’s demand that he “get beat up” in a film, as well as an actor in the movie “Alphabet City” who constantly did pushups. He called Hollywood “a grown-up’s sandbox” with its hierarchical nature and its consummate rumor mill. “Everyone’s aware of the pecking order,” he said. He also criticized the fact that business comes before art and the town’s paradoxical nature of being both “attractive and ugly.”

Seidman then discussed his career making documentary films. First he spoke about the film on poet Wallace Stevens. He showed a portion of the film, reflecting on Stevens’ complicated life and how Stevens’ disappointment with his life was reflected in his work.

“An important part of filming,” Seidman said, “is to boil down to what’s really important. You’re like a tailor, cutting and pasting.” He emphasized the importance of making the films dramatic and attention-grabbing.

Seidman then showed a portion of a film called “Riding the Rails,” about teenage hobos who traveled by train across the country during the Great Depression. The next film clip was from a documentary Seidman worked on about Hasidic Jews. The film was difficult to produce, he said, not only because the Hasidic community is closed to outsiders, but also because of tensions behind the scenes. To Seidman, the art was most important, while his counterparts felt that the religious aspect was most important.

Seidman also talked about a documentary he wanted to make that nonetheless failed. Entitled “Voice of the Delta,” it included excellent footage and exclusive interviews. However, because of budget constraints, the film was never fully completed. “Art is perfectable, and then there’s reality,” Seidman said. “Everything costs.”

Finally, Seidman talked about his current projects, of which there are many: he is working on a novel; developing an opera based on James Joyce’s Ulysses; and filming a six hour series on China, to name a few. He praised the changes Williams has made towards diversity, and said how proud he was to speak at the school, it being so different than the Williams he attended in the early 60s.

A reception followed in Stetson Lobby.

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