Francisco Menendez, artistic director for the department of film, has accomplished much in his 30 years at UNLV, most recently being named Teacher of the Year by CILECT, a global organization of the elite international film schools. While working remotely, he reflects on his early years, his love of film making — and how sitting in a darkened theater watching a mechanical great white inspired him.
Prior to coming to UNLV…
I lived several lives before UNLV: stringer for Time magazine, documentary filmmaker, actor-director, and I ran a casting office at 20th Century Fox.
In 1984, I took a semester off from my undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound to return to my home country of El Salvador to cover the first free presidential elections in 50 years. El Salvador was in the midst of a bloody civil war, and I wanted to discover first-hand how the conflict and elections were being reported by the international press.
During the elections, I worked for Time magazine, and I was subsequently recruited as a liaison for CBS News to cover and translate the entire trial of the five off-duty soldiers who raped, murdered, and buried the four American churchwomen at the beginning of the war. This 17-hour, non-stop trial changed me.
In 1985, I received a Dore Schary Award for my documentary Los Niños Thinking About Others about the plight of orphan children along the California-Mexico border. My news and documentary work allowed me to appreciate what different reference points can afford you beyond your imagination. To witness struggles, to see people devoted to helping others, and to experience obstacles big and small in a real-world context opens your eyes to the human condition. It also etches into your psyche a deep understanding of what people need and what people want which is essential to visual storytelling.
At California Institute of the Arts, I worked as a teaching assistant for the master filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick, my mentor, and he set me on my path to directing narrative fiction. My thesis film at Cal Arts was Backstage, a feature-length romantic triangle set behind the scenes of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. With the exception of Martin Scorsese, feature-length films were an anomaly in film school, but I always loved a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
I was completing the final negative cut of the film while running the office for Pagano/Bialy Casting on the 20th Century Fox lot. During that time, I was recommended for the job to create a production sequence at UNLV. My intent was to teach for a year and return to Los Angeles and continue my career making feature-length films. Instead, inspired by my UNLV students, I stayed in Las Vegas, developed curricula, and grew what became UNLV FILM, but all the while kept making low-budget features about immigrants living in the U.S. while in residence.
Tell us about a time in your life you were daring.
Our cab, covered with tape that read “Journalists don’t shoot,” was not allowed into the restricted military area, so we had to go at it on foot. We saw the military chopper, our target, flying in, and had a half-mile run with this heavy equipment to capture the chopper’s landing. I turned the camera on mid-run and stopped 10 feet from the landing site. I framed up on army medics taking the body out of the chopper and onto a gurney and into an ambulance. Our footage opened the ABC Nightly News at a time where the 24-hour news cycle and social media did not exist.
What inspired you to get into your field?
The credit goes to both my parents who ironically were going through a divorce.
At 8 years old, I was the only child of divorce in my school. I was doing my best to keep busy struggling to entertain myself by performing magic tricks. My father, who produced newsreels for the cinema, came back into my life for weekly visitations and we bonded by going to the movies. He borrowed a Super-8 camera from my grandfather and brought with him a brand new 50-foot cartridge of film. He used a tripod and showed me how you could make objects appear and disappear by starting and stopping the camera and moving these things off and into the frame and then starting it back up.
A week later, when I saw our film projected, it looked like I was a master magician. It was amazing! It was clear to me that filmmaking was the true magic and I started making movies for my father’s enjoyment on his weekly visits.
I also credit my mother heavily. She dragged me to plays since I was very young and I performed in community theater productions along with her. My undergraduate degree is not in film, but in theater, and probably the key to our curriculum creation is the respect of the actor-director relationship which crosses over in all media and certainly begins with the theatrical tradition.
Tell us about your recent CILECT win
CILECT was founded at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. It is a dynamic global organization of the elite international film schools, including the USA’s. In 2018, UNLV Film was accepted as a CILECT member school.
This was the culmination of our efforts to become a part of this top-tier group for the benefit of our students and our program. This was an honor in and of itself. Then to my surprise I was awarded the CILECT Teacher of the Year for 2020. There had never been a winner from the North American region.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I was determined that UNLV Film's advanced directing workshop initiative — a unique consortium of five combined classes that I manage — would not let down its actors, directors, cinematographers, production designers, and costume designers.
To meet social distancing restrictions, I needed to create a process to work with creative collaborators, to engage and direct actors, and produce virtual shoots using affordable technology. I developed a method using Zoom, cellphones, and computers to teach the directing process remotely and deliver mask-less content during the pandemic.
In 2020, I shared this approach at two national conference workshops: one for the Broadcast Educators Association and the University Film and Video Association. I was a special guest at the annual conference for Latin American film schools in Buenos Aires in the fall of 2020 to discuss in Spanish how to teach directing remotely.
The pandemic has been a struggle globally, but I also have seized it as a call for classroom innovation and immersive education.
Is this what you thought you’d do when you grew up?
At the age of 13, I saw Jaws for the first time. I had such a strong reaction I could not believe a movie could scare me, make me laugh, and keep me at the edge of my seat. That week, I saw a picture of Steven Spielberg in Newsweek magazine, lying on the beach in a wetsuit exhausted at the end of a shooting day. Underneath the picture, it referred to him as “director.” I knew then that this was my purpose and that I would be crafting visual stories for the rest of my life.
When you’re out in the community or traveling, what’s the biggest misconception you encounter about UNLV?
In 1990, when I was hired, UNLV was inextricably linked with Rebel basketball. Whatever was happening to the team, outsiders wanted me to answer for it. It surprised me and amused me.
The misconception no longer stands.
Our current diversity-serving and Top Tier record, attracted Mexican filmmaker and two-time Oscar honoree Guillermo Del Toro to come to campus and share openly with our students which culminated with an onstage conversation together at the Barrick Lecture at Ham Hall in his first and only visit to an American University.
Our strong leadership, now under chair Dr. Heather Addison, and our vibrant faculty have recognition throughout the world, and the promise of “the entertainment capital of the world” becoming a center of film production is only one tax incentive package (away) at the legislative level. Let’s do it.
What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?
I keep hearing the terrible advice “fake it till you make it.” I do believe students need to develop their emotional intelligence and confidence, but “learn it till you earn it” may be a better guide for the student. Because in this competitive industry every shortcut will eventually become a pitfall in this competitive career.
We want to impact the students during their training and we want to provide a familial atmosphere that extends to their lives as alumni. The cycle of meaning is complete when our graduates return to campus and share what struggles and obstacles lie ahead in the industry.
Tell us about an object in your office and what it represents to you.
Alumnus Cory Myler came to me after I gave him advice as to how to become a production assistant on the film Casino (1995). He quickly worked his way up to being Robert De Niro‘s personal assistant. Because of my students' hard work and dedication, I was able to shadow Scorsese for a week of that shoot.
Meanwhile, Cory got everyone — every lead performer plus Scorsese — to sign personalized messages on their 8-by-10s for me, and placed them in this beautiful frame. This hangs in my office as a reminder that at that point I was four years into teaching at UNLV and that Scorsese had taught four years at NYU before heading out to Los Angeles.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Video games, interactive storytelling, virtual reality.
I denied myself video games throughout my undergraduate and graduate career. Luckily, I was gifted a Nintendo 64 gaming console with Goldeneye the video game. The immersion was immediate, and the possibilities were endless. It changed the way I experienced the movie after that.
I immediately got to work with a presentation for the Society of Cinema Studies, now the Society of Cinema & Media Studies, about the relationship between games, roller coasters, and cinematic storytelling, and my journey into future and expanded cinema began. The alluring spectrum of mixed reality, the challenges of interactive storytelling, and immersive possibilities of virtual reality as the ultimate empathy machine are all intoxicating and rewarding.
In terms of revenue, my guilty pleasure finally has become an industry that is capable of generating $1 billion in sales for a single game in three days. Compare that to the cinema gold box office standard (that) remains 12 days to making $1 billion with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Everything changes as it moves. We must adjust and be nimble and find ways to transform dramatic narrative into the 21st century.
Best tip for staying cool in the summer?
That’s easy, go to the movies. Oh, wait…
The truth, for a filmmaker, since we spend most of our time writing or editing inside, we are always in climate-controlled spaces. However, my biggest recommendation is to complete your 10,000 steps daily, and if it’s summer, get up early in the morning or enjoy the desert night.