The students, faculty and staff of the Colorado Film School are close-knit, but today they’re closer than usual. On a late-August morning, nearly all of them are crammed into the lobby waiting for the unveiling of posters promoting the best films from last semester’s student showcase – a celebration of the best movies produced at the school. The poster ceremony was the idea of the school's director, Brian Steward, hoping to start a new tradition as he enters his second year in charge.
Steward, who stepped into the shoes of founder Frederic Lahey in January 2016, was overwhelmed when he first took the job. But it wasn’t the first time in his career that Steward felt in over his head; it's been that way from the beginning.
After graduating from Indiana University, he moved to Los Angeles and stumbled into a job with Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s production company. “I was supposed to be there for two days to help deliver Steven’s Christmas presents, and I think they felt sorry for me because I was like the dumbest Hoosier you ever saw that came out to Los Angeles," Steward recalls. "I think they pitied me, and so they kept giving me jobs. They’d say, 'Okay, come back tomorrow,’ and then, 'Come back next week.’ Eventually I just stopped asking and just showed up.”
The first film set he stepped on was Back to the Future, and he stayed in Hollywood through much of the golden age of Amblin: the making of The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Color Purple, Arachnophobia and the TV show Amazing Stories.
The first movie he crewed on was *batteries not included; he served as production assistant, working under assistant directors, who had access to the entire creative process.
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"I really liked the aspect of being able to have your finger in every department and know what they’re doing, and for me it was film school," he notes. "It was a way for me to understand how films are actually shot, because you see the way ADs orchestrate every department and crew.”
By the early ’90s, Steward had become an assistant director himself and worked with legendary filmmakers including David Lynch, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Rodriguez and F. Gary Gray.
Steward's career ended abruptly roughly twenty years ago when he suffered an injury working on a Steven Segal movie in Montana.
“I hyperextended my lower back and crushed a disc," Steward explains. "I had to have surgery and then about seven years later had to have another surgery, and that pretty much was an end to my career as an AD. There was a period of about three or four years where I literally couldn’t sit in a chair for more than twenty minutes. I thought that was the way the rest of life was going to be."
Professors at his alma matter, Indiana University, offered him the chance to return to school and earn his master's degree. Since he could no longer work fourteen-hour days, he decided to give it a shot. While he was bitter that he could no longer work in the industry, he says he "fell in love with teaching," which brought him to the Colorado Film School, first as assistant director in 2015, where he worked under Lahey's guidance.
“I had a really satisfying career. I enjoyed what I did, and to be able to give back and inspire students is really meaningful to me,” says Steward.
"I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was doing a yearlong apprenticeship with Frederic, because when I took the job, I asked him, ‘You’re not going anywhere, are you? You’re not retiring anytime soon?’ And he said, ‘No, no.’”
Steward was barely a year into his position when Lahey decided to leave the school to work with the Stanley Hotel, which had just been awarded an $11.5 million grant to build a film center and horror-themed museum.
“It was such a tremendous opportunity; he had to take it,” says Steward.
Some students were distraught. Joey Lopez, who studies writing and directing, remembers, “I was saddened when [Lahey] left. I had just started to get to know him."
And like many students, Lopez was concerned about the future of the program under Steward's leadership.
“There’s definitely a learning curve to any position, and I think he’s been handling that really well," Lopez says. "To go from managing one department to managing all of the students and the faculty in a year is a huge change. And he’s made mistakes. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say he hasn’t made mistakes.
“With Fredric, you had big concepts, dreamlike concepts for the school,” Lopez adds, while Steward brought a business mindset honed from years as an assistant director. "It was, 'What can we do to become more efficient?'"
Like other students, Lopez appreciates Steward's firsthand knowledge of the industry. "I really enjoy the fact that he has experience in the field, where I can come to him and ask for his advice on how to be successful."
Nick Bruso, also a third-year student, appreciates how hands-on the education continues to be with Steward in charge. “I worked on a big TV show that I won’t name, and I had some issues with some things, and I came to Brian and asked him what I should do, because there’s hundreds of people on the call sheet, and I have no idea who to contact with this issue.... I came to Brian, and he helped me, because he knows what it’s like to be on a big production. And that’s so key to have in a [school] director.”
Lopez also points out that while Steward has high standards for the school and has succeeded in implementing his vision, he has also respected Lahey's legacy. That tradition of hands-on education was something Lahey had pushed from the beginning.
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Even so, when Steward arrived, he wondered how much change he could actually make.
“I felt very much thrust into a position where I wanted it really badly, but at the same time, you’ve only had one director here since 1993," confesses Steward. "'Can I do this or not?' That was still very much an open question when Frederic left. Now I feel very confident in what we’re doing and my ability to run this school. But it was very much like jumping off of a cliff, a much higher cliff than you’ve ever jumped off of before."
As the program grows under Steward's leadership, his latest challenge is that it's running out of space. This year's incoming class was the largest in its history, and growth is on the new leader's mind.
“We’re getting close to the breaking point," says Steward. "I would love to expand the school, and I know that our leadership at CCA is cognizant of it, too, and so we're always talking about how we can expand and improve the program and to try and make the most of our facilities. We love our building, we love our space, and hopefully in the future we can expand the facilities we have here to accommodate our ever-growing numbers.”