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Steeg Discusses 'A Way of Life'

Written November 9, 2007 in commemoration of the College’s 175th year

When Thad Seymour asked me to make a movie about the college, I’d already seen a bunch of schools across the country, and knew one reason why Wabash was something different: the level of “engagement.” Students, coaches, faculty, and the administration — almost everyone on campus seemed happily and fully committed to what they were doing. The energy was exciting and palpable. How to capture that on film? 

The answer for me was cinema verite — a style of filmmaking that takes the camera off the tripod, puts it on a guy’s shoulder, and puts the guy into the center of the action. If you hang out in an environment for a while, letting the people begin to forget your presence and allowing the situation (whatever it is) to develop naturally, then you eventually get spontaneity and believability. Today, with lightweight and hand-held video cameras, this is a common technique; in 1973, it was still innovative and unusual.

I had enough of a budget to bring a crew to the campus twice, once in early September (start of the school year; greenery) and mid-October (full school activity; autumn foliage). The cameraman, Phil Parmet, has gone on to become a Hollywood shooter of some note.

For the start of the movie, I wanted to suggest the American frontier. So we drove a few miles out of town and shot some woods. I also wanted as little narration as possible. Let the pictures tell the tale. 

It was important for me to present a kaleidoscopic view of as much of campus life as possible, without making it boring and “catalogue-y.” Thus, we insinuated ourselves into a bunch of different classes; into barbecues; into athletic and other extra-curricular activities. But never for too long; just long enough to get a sense.   And I asked Vic Powell, then Eric Dean, I believe, to briefly put it into perspective for us. I knew that his long experience as a teacher would make him comfortable and pithy in front of the camera. We gave him pause when we asked him to walk and talk, and even pass out of sight for a time behind a tree. “But you won’t see me,” he protested.

“Trust me,” I told him, “it’ll be visually interesting.” I’m not sure he ever believed me, but you can judge the results for yourself. 

For proof of the value of Liberal Arts, I wanted, instead of a narrator, several distinguished alumni of different vocations to tell us about that in their own words. 

Music is of course critical. For the “frontier” opening, why not Dvorak’s New World symphony? Plus, I had total access to a glee club album, not to mention live stuff from the marching band.  

And sometimes, you get lucky. One day I was scouting the chapel to think about lighting it, when I came across a young man on stage, playing these cascading, beautiful original melodies on the piano. It sounded great. He was all alone in that quietly elegant building, indulging his muse. I asked him, “Why here?”  

“Because of the acoustics,” he said.   

I asked him to come back later when I had the camera there. He did. In the final edit, his “scene” is probably no more than 15-20 seconds of film time but boy, do I love it. It says so much.

And that’s really what I was trying to do with the whole film: make audiences not just hear and see what’s great about amazing Wabash, but also feel it.