Dale Pollock: An undeniable force in the UNCSA School of Filmmaking

If asked to choose, Dale Pollock would say that his favorite film is “The Wizard of Oz.” Maybe not what you would expect from a man who has spent his life studying and writing about cinema as a journalist, George Lucas biographer, Hollywood producer and instructor.

But the UNCSA School of Filmmaking professor has fond memories of the film from childhood. “I grew up watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on television every year with my family,” Pollock says. “My mom would make popcorn. I think it was the one time of the year she made it.”

He watched his other favorite, “Bonnie and Clyde,” as a high school kid in the theatre. It drew him into the world of cinema.

“It was the first time I realized that this was not just entertainment, it was an art form. I went seven nights in a row to watch and study that film.” 

That discovery led him to a career writing, studying, producing and, ultimately, teaching about film. In that wide array of roles, his life has been steeped in cinema.

He started his career as a journalist for “The Los Angeles Times” and “Daily Variety,” was hired by entertainment industry icon David Geffen for his production company and rose to the role of president at A&M Films. He co-founded the producing program at the American Film Institute and wrote the only full-length biography of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas— "Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas" — which has sold nearly 150,000 copies. 

This was all before he joined the UNCSA School of Filmmaking as Dean in 1999, a post he served in for seven years before pursuing his desire to teach film history and classic film.

One-on-one instruction

Dale Pollock and student

Pollock is known for his one-on-one instruction with students in and outside of class. / Photo: Trent Spivey

Since 2007, Pollock has taught Cinema Studies at UNCSA, where, unlike his early years of studying films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” his students have the benefit of studying their films on DVD and streaming services. But with a focus on history and aesthetics, they are still watching many of the same classics that got him hooked on the world of film to begin with. 

“We teach these classes in the very specific context of being a production school,” Pollock says. As budding filmmakers, students are learning not just about the abstract concepts and themes in the films they watch, they are carefully studying the visual and technical aspects as well.

Pollock points to his class taught in the spring 2016 semester on the films of the Coen Brothers as an example. He screened the films of screenwriting/directing team Ethan and Joel Coen in chronological order, starting with their first film “Blood Simple” and finishing with their recent works. “We look at their body of work,” he says, “and discuss how they have evolved, changed, adapted.”

Although required in film students’ first two years, these genre classes are popular with students. Pollock and other instructors teach on different topics each year. One spring he may be teaching the Coen Brothers, another Film Noir, the 1970s, Stanley Kubrick or Black Cinema.

He was also instrumental in the creation of another required class for first and second-year filmmakers – Short Films. The class gives students real examples, Pollock says, of the kinds of films they will be making as filmmakers at UNCSA.

“The students watch 10-12 short films per week,” he adds, for a total of nearly 200 films in a semester. Pollock himself spent an entire summer screening more than 600 films to whittle down the selection for the class. “From what I’m hearing now, this class has had a big impact on the students.”

But his most popular class by far has been what he calls his Criterion class — students watch a film from The Criterion Collection each week, not in a classroom full of other students, but on their own. And each week, every student meets one-on-one with Pollock to discuss his or her reactions to the film. “Students are much more willing to open themselves up that way,” he says, and each student has an opportunity to really explore the film in depth.

Following a vision

The one-on-one interaction is part of what has earned Pollock his reputation as an excellent instructor.

“I love my interactions with students,” he says. “I like to think I have some wisdom and insight that I’ve gained in my life and it’s an opportunity to share.”

He meets individually with 35 students each week. “It’s a little bit of a crazy schedule,” he adds with a laugh, but it’s what drives him. 

“The rewards of that kind of personal mentoring go beyond anything you can achieve in the classroom,” he says. “It has surprised me how hungry students are for that interaction.”

And the rewards aren’t just for the students. Their feedback helps him tailor his classes and learn “how much farther I can push them” to reach their own goals as filmmakers. “Meeting with students has made me a better teacher and a better person,” he says. “There’s an equal interchange of passion, emotion and sensibility for our field.”

His experiences in the world of film have served him well as an instructor. If he learned anything from his 60-plus hours of interviews with Lucas, Pollock says, “I learned what it’s like to have a vision … that had a big impact on me as a producer, as a dean, as a teacher. I envisioned how I wanted to improve myself and then I did it.” 

He sees his students adhering to their visions in much the same way. “To work with people who are in their late teens and early 20s who know exactly what they want to do and then they go out and do it,” Pollock says, “is simply amazing.” 

Dale Pollock is the recipient of the University of North Carolina Board of Governor's 2016 Excellence in Teaching Award for UNCSA.

by Corrine Luthy