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Reel Life

The faces of students in the Alondra lounge are briefly illuminated by the black-and-white scenes of The Seventh Seal flashing across the screen. In an iconic scene, the hooded figure of Death has come for Block in his Swedish hometown, challenging him to a game of chess.

(ANNE PIPATHSOUK/The Stanford Daily)

When Ingmar Bergman’s classic film eventually flickers to a close, Greg Watkins ’85, resident fellow of East Florence Moore and coordinator of the Structured Liberal Education program (SLE), gets up from his seat in the back of the room. He launches into a discussion of religious imagery–all before he has even reached the front of the classroom.

As he discusses Bergman’s technique, Watkins speaks with an authoritative calm–a heavy thoughtfulness that is visible in his eyes. When he gestures, the periphery of a tattoo–a black scroll-like Rumi symbol–on his upper arm peeks out from beneath the sleeve of his colored shirt. This is a man who clearly knows his stuff.

About 30 years ago, Watkins was himself a freshman in SLE, Stanford’s intensive liberal arts, residential learning experience, sitting in the same seats as these students–and intrigued by Bergman’s cinematic genius. He had been a film buff, attending Stanford’s weekly classic film series “Great Directors, Great Films” that was projected in Cubberley every Tuesday. Having grown up in a rather isolated “farm town” in Idaho, he felt that these films radically altered his perception of the world. He had no idea of how dramatically Bergman’s film would alter his life.

In 1985, Watkins was in his senior year at Stanford. He was uncertain of his plans after graduation, but one day, that uncertainty vanished after a conversation with the Boise photographer who was taking Watkins’ senior portrait.

“He was taking my picture, and he said to me, ‘So, you’re a senior–what are you going to do?’” And I said, ’I’m going to apply to law school.’ And he started giving me a hard time, like, ‘Oh great, the world needs more lawyers. That’s a wonderful choice,’” Watkins said.

“So I wasn’t sure how to take all this,” he continued. “And he’s snapping away, and he said, ‘Let me ask you a question. If you could look at your life 20 years from now and consider it a success, what would you have done?’”

One thing came immediately to Watkins’ mind.

“I would’ve made a film as great as a Bergman film,” he responded. “And [the photographer] said, ‘Well that’s what you should do.’”

Watkins graduated from Stanford in 1985 with a B.A. in Social Theory, a self-designed major. But the exchange with the photographer prompted the “year of confusion” when Watkins decided he would take the riskier road and see if he could become a filmmaker. After taking a year off, Watkins pursued his passion at UCLA, where he spent the next seven years completing an MFA in film production.

Filmmaking was a vastly different field at the time Watkins went to graduate school. Laptops and programs like iMovie weren’t accessible yet, so a formal film education was the only way to get access to specialized equipment and the training it required.

As a film student at UCLA, Watkins produced his first feature-length film with a friend, Caveh Zahedi, who was also in the program. He explained that he and Zahedi were having trouble coming up with an idea for the film. At the time, Zahedi had fallen madly in love with an art student, who worked in the building next door, and who also had a boyfriend.

“It suddenly occurred to us that we should film the story of that infatuation, but use the people involved,” Watkins said.

So the co-director played himself, the girlfriend played herself and the boyfriend, even though he had since broken up with the art student, agreed to play himself. It was an intimate project; all of the scenes were reenactments of real events, and Watkins and his co-director did all of the writing, filming and sound effects themselves. His first film, A Little Stiff, made it to the Sundance festival in 1991.

But Watkins’ focus wasn’t solely confined to capturing romance on screen. It was while he was a student in Los Angeles that he met his wife-to-be at Mom’s, an Los Angeles bar.

“Obviously he was this awesome, nice guy that I kind of liked,” Watkins’ wife Susan beamed. “He was an interesting guy doing interesting things, and I was kind of a boring engineer.”

When Watkins moved back to the Bay Area in 1991, his passion for film ultimately reconnected his life to Stanford, where Watkins began lecturing and teaching film in SLE, the very program that first exposed him to Bergman’s classic.

“SLE raised basic meaning of life questions,” Watkins said. “I just love thinking about those big questions.”

When he began to see his job as his a career, he knew he would need to get a Ph.D. He decided to pursue a joint doctorate in religious Studies and humanities at Stanford out of his interest in philosophy. When he graduated, there was an available position in SLE and the possibility of being an RF–Watkins filled both.

Watkins is currently approaching his seventh year of being the RF of East Florence Moore Hall with his wife, Susan, and two daughters. Over the same time period, he has also been a lecturer in the Humanities and is now co-coordinator of the SLE program. He continues to weave film into his career.

Jeremy Sabol, a SLE fellow currently working with Watkins on a film titled This is Hamlet, explained that the RF has a special presence in the SLE program.

“Greg really understands why SLE is residential, and he incorporates residential life into the dorm in a way that none of us can do,” Sabol said.

“These days Greg is the heart of SLE,” Sabol added.

As a SLE discussion leader, Watkins is known for being patient, calm and for emphasizing that learning should be fun and something to appreciate.

Emily Mitchell ‘13, a student now in Watkins’ spring discussion section, described the impact Watkins has had on her freshman year.

I switched to SLE from IHUM the second week of school,” Mitchell explained. “I sat in on his section…it was because of him that I decided to do SLE, and that’s probably the best decision I have made at Stanford.”

Although it’s hard to be an academic and filmmaker–he has two other directing titles under his belt, A Sign from God and This is MacBeth–Watkins is balancing both. He is currently working on several projects, on subjects from Sartre to Hamlet, and has partially-finished scripts in the works.

Although Watkins’ return to SLE was a circuitous one, the program that helped him define his passion was and continues to be a defining aspect of his life.

“I’ve never been sure of what’s more than a year down the road,” Watkins said. “I certainly love being here right now…and it’s hard to imagine not being here in the future.”