Tom Gilroy stands at the board and draws what looks like an upside-down check mark. There’s a long slope running up from left to right that ends with a smaller line running down in the opposite direction. “This,” he says, “is what every story looks like.”
A problem is presented, tensions rise, we escalate to an inevitable climax, the situation is resolved, and there is a conclusion. Every story, with exactly zero exceptions, follows this pattern. At some level, we all know this. Somewhere in our elementary or middle school education, we were taught that this is what a story looks like. But Tom thinks it goes deeper than that. He turns to the class and says, “Okay now we’re all adults here. What does this look like? Why are humans drawn to this type of pattern?”
It doesn’t take long for someone to say the correct answer. It looks like sex. It’s an unconventional explanation, but Tom, who’s come to Davidson to teach screenwriting and filmmaking this fall, is an unconventional professor. He insists on being called Tom. He wears V-neck t-shirts and jeans to class. Gold bracelets cling to his wrists. He signs of some of his emails with the words “Heaven is Now.” He teaches with the energy of a nine-year old who just drank three cans of Mountain Dew. He dashes across the front of the classroom, scrawling diagrams and pictures, dishing out breathless explanations and anecdotes of how to make a story work. It’s no wonder he says he’s exhausted after each of his three hour classes end.
He’s different than most professors, but that might be because he isn’t really a professor. Although he taught part-time at Columbia University for five years, Tom is a filmmaker who admits to having little interest in becoming an academic. He says, however, that when you work in the arts, “the shadow of academia is always around somewhere.” Right now he’s in between films, and he has accepted the McGee Professorship of Writing this fall, becoming a member of the English Department. The former McGee professor, filmmaker Ali Selim, recommended Tom as his replacement. Tom knew very little about Davidson, but he accepted the position anyway.
Tom has been writing, directing, and acting in films since he was twenty-two, but he comes from a family of businesspeople. His father wanted him to be an accountant, but Tom wanted to be a novelist. He only lasted one semester as an accounting major at Syracuse before transferring to Boston College to study literature.
After graduation, he got involved with modeling and acting in New York City, and he joined a punk rock band. He never went to film school but he studied acting at Te Strasberg Institute and became a member of The Actor’s Studio, which he then quit to start his own theatre company with eight acting friends. Tom draws comparisons from his career to the punk scene; it was more about just going out doing it than learning in a classroom or even being good. He eventually started writing plays and short films and moved out to Los Angeles to act in a variety of movies and TV shows.
But it wasn’t until Tom was acting in a movie directed by legendary British director Ken Loach that he realized he had the chops to write and create films. As Tom tells it, one of his fellow actors told Loach that Tom wrote. Loach asked Tom if he had anything with him, and Tom gave him his latest play. Tom says, “A few days later he asked if we could have lunch and I thought, ‘Oh he’s just going to kill me.’ But Loach said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you living in Los Angeles? Why are you doing these moronic television shows? You should be making films.’”
Although he’s not as well-known in the U.S., Ken Loach is a big name in the film industry. Loach’s filmmaking career boasts several awards including two awards at Te Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious film festival in the world, for his Land & Freedom. Most recently, he captured the Palme d’Or, the highest award at Cannes, for his film I, Daniel Black. Tom says, after speaking with Loach, “Suddenly I saw things radically differently, and I thought ‘I’m not going back to LA to audition for stupid sitcoms.’” So he moved back to New York and started making films.
His first film was a short called Touch Base, starring Lili Taylor and adapted from one of his stage pieces. It released in 1994 to critical acclaim. From that success, Tom received funding to write and direct Spring Forward, a feature length film that was shot in sequence, meaning they started on page one and went through the script in order, something that had never been done in the US. In 2013, he wrote and directed The Cold Lands. Both films were well received by critics and audiences. In between these films, Tom has worked on a variety of projects, from editing scripts to directing the music video “It Happened Today” for the band R.E.M. He has also written three books composed of various haikus, and he has contributed political analysis for the Huffington Post.
When he leaves Davidson after this semester, Tom will direct a film called Wonder Drug, the story of a cancer-causing drug that was marketed to pregnant women for decades. After that, he’s going to work on another film he wrote about a group of nuns.
Looking back on thirty-four years of working with stories, Tom sees a few trends emerge from his work. The first is that he hates violence. Violence is how a shallow writer moves a plot forward, he believes. Spring Forward, for example, is almost entirely dialogue. Te second is that he’s interested in some sort of spirituality. This is not surprising for someone who grew up a Christian, became a Buddhist, and is now an atheist. “I wouldn’t even say it’s religious,” he says, “But some form of human spirituality will raise itself up in my films. And I can see it getting bigger.”
Tom has only been teaching for a few weeks, but he’s enjoying it. He says the students at Davidson are diligent and ask good questions. It reminds him why he likes teaching; it’s a massive review of storytelling basics and forces him to consider the process in new ways. Students in his classes love his energy and enthusiasm for the material, as well as his ability to speak to the “real world” of filmmaking. The chair of the English department, Dr. Shireen Campbell, echoes these sentiments. She says Davidson is incredibly lucky to have someone who has experience making films and is also an excellent teacher.
Whether we know it or not, we are always telling stories. Upside down check marks are everywhere. More than anything, this is what Tom wants to teach. The first line of his screenwriting syllabus reads, “Story is our basic unit of communication.” Whether his students end up in public relations, politics, law, advertising, psychology, web design, or even filmmaking, they need to know how stories work. Tom says, “I’m here to teach students the rudiments of storytelling. They can use it however they want to.”