When I was a teenager, nearly every day after I came home from school, I would plop down in front of the TV to watch a repeat of the original “Star Trek” series. Little did I know that years later, I would be honored with an academic title tied to the franchise Gene Rodenberry created, and one of its most prolific writer-producers Michael Piller.
First some background on Piller. Among the TV series he wrote and produced include “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” and “Stephen King’s Dead Zone.” TheBitterScriptReader wrote two terrific posts on Piller which you can read here and here.
Here is an interview with Piller:
It’s a short interview, but in it Piller makes many great points and here are two of them:
* “What’s it about?” This is a question he always asked writers, including himself, about every TV episode. “It is the thematic material I’m talking about, not the plot, the exploration of the world we live in that guides the development of the stories I like to work on.” That question is perhaps the single best way to drill down into the essence of a story and well worth remembering.
* “Star Trek” as a metaphor for writing: “I always feel that being a writer… is like being on the bridge of the Enterprise. Essentially the metaphor of going into space where no man has gone before is what a writer does every time he sits down at a word processor.” Plunging into the dark, trusting our instincts in search of story, boldly going where no writer has gone before. Lovely image.
You may have noticed the cap Piller is wearing in the interview. The insignia is for UNC, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where Piller received a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and motion pictures in 1970. In 1998, Piller established the Piller Fund for Excellence in Screenwriting endowment at UNC. It was through Piller’s support and the efforts of many people including former ABC, NBC and Fox television executive and writer-producer David Sontag that the university created the Writing for Screen and Stage program in 2003.
The WSS program is unique, a minor that focuses on teaching and developing screenwriters and playwrights. Notable visiting faculty in the past include Joan Tewekesbury (Nashville), Leon Capetanos (Down and Out in Beverly Hills), Danny Rubin (Groundhog Day), Anne Beatts (“Saturday Night Live”), and Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond).
Since its inception, over 60 students have obtained the minor, many of whom are in Los Angeles and New York working in the entertainment industry. One of the advantages of the program is there is a strong and growing presence of UNC graduates working in the business including writers John Altschuler & Dave Krinsky (Blades of Glory, “King of the Hill”) and comic, commentator and author Lewis Black.
The Acting Director of the Writing for the Screen and Stage Program is Dana Coen, whose numerous credits include Co-Executive Producer titles on the prime-time drama series “Bones” and “JAG.” I have been teaching in the program as a visiting lecturer since 2008. Thus the WSS program provides not only solid academic training for aspiring screenwriters and playwrights, but also given our many years of experience in Hollywood, students also receive much in the way of practical learning as well.
Currently I teach two courses: In the fall “Master Screenwriting,” a workshop where seniors write a first-draft of a full-length screenplay or stage play; and in the spring “The History of American Screenwriting,” a course crafted by Dana Coen that is, I believe, the only class of its type at the undergraduate level in the United States.
The students are top-notch and motivated, a delight to teach, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here. So it was with great pleasure when I learned I have been named the 2011/12 Piller Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Writing for Screen and Stage program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Given my early interest with “Star Trek,” I perceive that as a wonderful harmonic convergence.
If you are a high school student, a parent of a child with writing talent, or perhaps a college freshman interested in transferring to a university which provides a minor to allow students to explore their creative interest in writing screenplays or stage plays, you may check out the WSS program here.
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Sadly Michael Pillar died in 2005. His legacy lives on in many ways including the Writing for Screen and Stage program at the alma mater he loved.
I am proud to help carry on that legacy in his name.