Rachel Talalay is bringing her Hollywood experience to Hollywood North.
She produced the original Hairspray and directed and produced the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Her television credits include Cold Case, Without a Trace, Boston Legal and Ally McBeal. And for the past four years, she’s been a professor in the film program at UBC.
Talalay said that when she was first interviewing for the job, it was as much about seeing whether UBC wanted her as about seeing if she could bring something of value to the university.
“I decided yes,” Talalay explained. “I realized I had a lot to teach.”
The adjustment from working exclusively in the private sector to learning how to teach hasn’t been seamless, but Talalay said she’s received great support and is starting to get the hang of things.
“If you talk for an hour, then you see people texting,” she said. “And you’re like, okay, I know that didn’t work and you go home and rethink.”
She said making her classes more dynamic is important — not just to get people to pay attention, but also because the film industry is a very hands-on business. Being able to teach the skills needed to work in the industry in an academic setting like UBC was part of what attracted Talalay to the university.
“Many people ask, ‘Can you teach film production, and is this a trade rather than an academic subject?’” she said. “The aim is to give them both skills, but much more context.”
As part of giving students more context, Talalay has organized a lecture series that brings Hollywood professionals in to speak to her classes when they visit Vancouver. The series has seen a range of professionals with impressive credentials come through UBC, from the cinemotagrpher of Anna Karenina to the assistant director of the Bourne Identity series.
“They don’t come in and say, ‘I shot Anna Karenina on this film stock at this speed,’” Talalay said. “They talk about the artistry of filmmaking, and that’s what I want the students to learn.”
And, according to Talalay, the series has been a huge hit among her students.
“I had one [email from a student] just now saying ‘I will remember this for the rest of my life,’” Talalay said. “How much more could you ask for as a teacher?”
And while Talalay has had to cut back somewhat on her outside work now that she is teaching, on the whole she thinks she made the right decision.
“I kick myself sometimes because I miss some of the things I wish I was doing, but I have to say that the trade-off for the student — it’s absolutely the right decision,” Talalay said.
The hardest adjustment to working at a university has been the different speed at which things operate compared to the film business.
“You’re taught to be so practical and just like, get it done,” Talalay explained of her previous work.
“[Now] you can say, ‘Boy wouldn’t it be great if I had this, this and this,’ and they’re like, ‘Uh-huh, we can talk about that in a year or two.’”
Talalay understands the constraints of working in UBC’s small film department, but the university bureaucracy is nonetheless a rough adjustment from working on the set of a television show where a one-minute delay could cost $3,000.
But despite the occasional tedium of university life, Talalay said she’s thrilled to be working at UBC. The daughter of two university professors, Talalay has long appreciated the value of education. As an undergrad at Yale, she majored in mathematics and considered a job at IBM before choosing to go into film. She said that while she doesn’t use advanced mathematics in her daily work, problem-solving is ever present and she still thinks in mathematical terms. But more than that, she values the experience of learning the incredibly complex information needed to complete her degree.
“Education is about learning how to think, it’s not [just] about the specifics of what you learn,” Talalay said.
And after producing seven hours of television and teaching five classes over the past year, Talalay isn’t sure what her future holds. But for the time being, she loves being a professor.