Interview with Cole Smith, USAF Veteran and MFA Student

AITAF StaffBridge Award

Conversation with Cole Smith, USAF Veteran, Columbia University MFA student, and former AITAF Intern

After leaving the military, many veterans struggle to begin their next chapter. For some, the next stop is an educational institution and for veterans who aspire to careers in the film and television industry, graduate school can be an appealing segue to the profession. But getting your foot in that academic door might seem daunting - how do you transition from service to cinema? 
Arts in the Armed Forces' Bridge Awards Chair Anna O'Donoghue spoke with Cole Smith, a current MFA student at Columbia University and former intern at AITAF, about his journey from a life in the Air Force to a life in the arts. Check out their conversation and stay tuned for future posts about the way graduate school can act as a bridge between military and civilian-artist life.

Cole! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. So, let's start with a little background: Where are you from? What were the influences that led towards your military service? 

I'm originally from Charlotte, North Carolina. I had one grandpa who served in the Air Force and another who served in the Army. I think their stories and encouragement first attracted my interest in the military. I was recruited to swim at the Air Force Academy and decided "free" school was too good a deal to turn down!

What were your duties, and where were you stationed?

I was active duty Air Force from 2012-2017. I did tech school at Vandenberg AFB in CA and then spent four years in the 321st Missile Squadron at FE Warren AFB in Wyoming. Essentially, I oversaw targeting, security, and maintenance on intercontinental missiles with nuclear payloads. So on late night shifts or days off, I watched a lot of movies and wrote a lot of scripts. It became a sort of unofficial film school for me. I devoured as many films, books, and screenplays as I could during that time - somewhere around 2 books and 7-10 films a week. It was a great foundation.

That's a lot of self-education. So, have you always known you wanted to make movies?

As a kid I had no interest in filmmaking. I loved movies but I really didn't have any idea that filmmaking was a viable career. My senior year at the Air Force Academy I started shooting little short film projects just for fun. When I graduated from the Academy, I found myself in a remote town working a shift job. So I just kept making films in my free time and the projects grew a little bigger each year.

You're currently pursuing your MFA in Film at Columbia University. Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to apply to grad school?

When it came time to leave the Air Force, I freelanced in the camera department in NYC and LA and generally took jobs anywhere I could find them. But most of the Camera PAs or 2nd ACs I was working with were in their early 20s while I was almost 30. I applied to grad school kind of on a whim. I looked at the American Film Institute because they had a small conservatory-like program. I also decided to apply to Columbia for the same reason, but AFI was my first choice. But then I got into Columbia, and not AFI. I visited CU and was very impressed by the faculty; I would say I ended up choosing to take the plunge and go to school full time at CU because of their genuine interest in helping students learn.

What was the application process like? Were there any particular hurdles you faced? Anything you turned to that was helpful?

I was able to rely on the body of work I'd developed during my free time in the Air Force for most of the samples the programs wanted. I think that going to CU to interview in person made a difference. I did the AFI interview online, and it went fine - but I went in person to CU, and I think the faculty got a better sense for who I am and my motivations for being there. It also helped me get a sense for the campus and what it would be like to be a student there.

If you were applying again today, would you do anything differently?

I would apply to more than two places. You're already doing the work. Might as well apply to three or four schools and increase your chances of success.

How has the experience been so far? What have been the surprises of your graduate school experience?

When I was making films in the Air Force, I was an island. I had very few peers to make films with and challenge me. CU has given me a community of close friends and collaborators that I'll be working with for the rest of my career.

I came into school with three or four half baked features scripts. I'm leaving with three solid feature scripts and two solid TV scripts. I also have several strong short films in my portfolio, and each of these pieces is stronger because of the guidance from the faculty and peer feedback I received at CU.

You could make the argument that I could have turned out this same body of work without school. And It's an extent. But writing is that much harder when you're carving time out at the end of a long day at some other job. At school it was the first priority. But even more than the body of work, I was given a community of peers.

How do you feel your military service has informed your time at school? How about your artistry?

I have found film sets to be so similar to the military - especially having been trained as an officer.

For a long time I thought I was wasting time at the Air Force Academy and then as an Air Force officer. But the first time I walked on a film set, that changed. A film set is very similar to the military: there's a clear hierarchy. Everybody has a job and they want to do it well.

When film sets are working well the director is really just guiding the ship, providing a light touch of servant leadership and allowing the master technicians who surround them do what they do best. The leadership training I received from the Air Force is invaluable to me as a director.

Also, after you work with nuclear weapons, there isn't much that bothers you. It helped prepare me for the stress of a film set...a stress that seems very manageable after working with nukes for so many years.

The military also gave me a lot of discipline that is invaluable in my writing process. Writing isn't magic. You just have to sit down and do it, for an hour or two a day, for several decades. The military gave me the discipline to carve out that time and stay on top of my writing.

What would you say to veterans who are considering pursuing an MFA in screenwriting?

One size doesn't fit all. Grad school was a great move for me. I was a little older and had trouble envisioning a way to make this a full time career.

But at the end of the day, a writer is someone who writes. A filmmaker is someone who makes films. You can do those things as a teacher, or a husband/wife, or as a fireman. Grad school isn't the only way to make it happen. It was just the best way for me at the time.

That's great great advice. Speaking of advice, can you share an important lesson you've learned from a professor? Or a classmate?

Support your peers and celebrate their successes. That has ended up being one of the best things about school: watching my friends create exciting projects and getting to be a part of them. My community has showed up in big ways to support my work. It's been very gratifying, and that was what I was hoping to find at school when I went in the first place.

Suzan-Lori Parks

Cole Smith is a filmmaker from Charlotte, NC. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (B.S. in English Literature) and a former nuclear weapons operator. He is an MFA candidate in Screenwriting at Columbia University in New York City. He is also a Director for Virtual Reality programs with military training applications.

Cole is a published writer. His work, “Space Age Conceptions of Time in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’” went on to publication in “Interdisciplinary Humanities” and his biography of Alfred Hitchcock appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Volume of “Critical Insights.”

In addition to his work as a filmmaker and essayist, Cole is an accomplished rock climber and alpinist. He is also a motorcycle enthusiast who, for about 6 months, lived full time off of the back of his dual sport motorcycle as he drove the American West.

Collaborators Include: Moth+Flame, Big Machine Label Group, Columbia University, U.S. Air Force, 9 Mind Asylum, Arts in the Armed Forces, Nine Stories Productions.

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