Film Prof’s Advice to Witherspoon: Hit the trail

by Glenn Lovell

As we stop to pay homage to the film greats we lost this year — Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among them — let’s not forget Stanford University film professor Henry Breitrose, who died in October at age 78.



I interviewed Breitrose numerous times over the years and served as a judge with him at a student film festival. Among his illustrious students: Oscar winners Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) and Reese Witherspoon, now in the critically acclaimed “Wild.”

An English literature major who dabbled in film studies while at Stanford, Witherspoon was torn between earning a degree and continuing to ply her craft. She already had a couple of movies and TV shows to her credit.

“I advised Reese to stop out and try an acting career on the grounds that if she didn’t, she’d never forgive herself,” he recalled via email.

Breitrose, likewise, suggested the young Payne concentrate on the more practical side of film-making. The advice, you might say, has paid dividends: After graduating from Stanford and U.C.L.A., Payne directed “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska,” collecting two Oscars for screenwriting along the way.

“Alexander walked into my office one day and said that he wanted to learn to make movies. I asked what kind? He said fiction film. I suggested that he take any of my courses that he deemed useful, which turned out to be film history and film theory, but that he spend the bulk of his undergrad studies learning about stories and story telling, so he majored in Spanish Lit.

“When it was time for him to graduate, I made a couple of calls to UCLA and arranged for him to do a graduate degree in directing with (Hungarian emigre) Gyula Gazdag, who is arguably the best directing teacher in the U.S. He is Gyula’s prize student.

“You’ll note that I claim no responsibility for Alex’s and Reese’s success. With these kinds of students, one just stands back and lets it happen.”

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