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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Schulian’s travels

A man who’s worked in fields ranging from news journalism to screen writing to sports writing and beyond happens to be taking his first stab at teaching here at the U.

In addition, he’s hosting a free film series and working on his first novel. Is it that far off to think that a journalist who spends his or her work days reporting the facts could explore other, more creative, ventures?

“Oh, that’s nuts,” comments distinguished professor in residence John Schulian, who just so happens to be hosting the film series. That’s not all. “Anybody who says that working for a newspaper isn’t interesting may not have a pulse.” While he’s no doctor, John Schulian, of all people, would know. He might have only come to his first teaching job at the U (two upper-division classes, Literary Journalism and the Art of Storytelling) this year, but he’s built quite the resume in journalism-and everything else-in the meantime.

Born and raised in Los Angeles until he was 13, Schulian’s family moved to Salt Lake City where he graduated from East High in 1963.

He moved on to leave the U with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and membership in the honor society of Phi Beta Kappa in 1967, then proceeded to earn his master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern’s acclaimed Medill School of Journalism in 1968. Schulian did two years in the army (“I was a draftee-thank you very much,” he notes) before getting his first reporting job at the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1970.

But how did Schulian, whose (very thick) rsum continues on to list the various newspapers and magazines he’s written for (Sports Illustrated, GQ, Chicago Sun-Times, Playboy, the L.A. Times Book Review, Chicago Magazine, The National, the New York Times Arts and Leisure Section), honors he’s received (National Headliner Award, 1980; voted nation’s top columnist by the Associated Press Sports Editors, 1980), books he’s authored, and television shows he’s written/worked for (Miami Vice, JAG The Outer Limits, Wiseguy, L.A. Law, and Xena: Warrior Princess) come to eventually work in all of these different outlets?

Sure, it’s nave to think a journalist can write in only one area of journalism. But abstracts, characters and fiction?

“Newspapers were really a breeding ground because you learned to tell stories,” he explains. “You get to witness real life-you’re out covering shantytown fires at 5 in the morning with women screaming about their dead babies. You’re covering cops and riots and demonstrations and political conventions and trials and all kinds of corruption…and that stuff lodges in your head. What you see sticks in there…people you would never meet otherwise.”

It was Schulian’s experience in Baltimore that helped create some of his initial ideas for characters.

“I was lucky to work on a newspaper [the Baltimore Evening Sun] that recognized that I had some talent and they, in effect, turned me loose to go write about different characters,” explains Schulian, who began finding muses in his early news reporting. “To write about pool hustlers, to write about hookers who wanted rose tattoos, all that kind of stuff [in] Baltimore-I was lucky. It was a writer’s town, it was a town that embraced its characters; so writing about a racetrack tout was standard fair in Baltimore.”

Yet Schulian, who once worked as a copy editor at The Salt Lake Tribune while he was still an undergraduate at the U, maintains that the same muses that once inspired him can be found anywhere.

“Salt Lake City-it’s a much tamer vibe-it may be more difficult to find those kind of stories, but they’re out there. And they’re begging to be done.”

And done they were. Joyce Carol Oats, in her 1987 book “On Boxing” maintains that “among contemporary sports writers, John Schulian…[is] outstanding for the consistently high quality of [his] prose and for what might be called their rigorously analytical approach to [his] subject.”

TV Guide ranked “Xena: Warrior Princess” on its 1999 list of TV’s 50 Greatest Characters Ever, No. 46, noting that “despite comic-bookish situations, she comes off as a complex, even tragic human. Quite an achievement.”

So how does one write someone or something so epic and grand as Xena?

“You know, you sit in a room and you stare at a blank computer screen or a blank page on a legal pad and scratch your head…and…I don’t know how it comes about! For every hundred bad [characters], you get maybe one good one, or one memorable one, and I guess that Xena was my memorable one.”

Clearly, this is someone who isn’t afraid of failure.

“No. Well, you know, you pay your money and you take your chances. That’s what I keep telling all my 4.0 students who may not get an A from me,” he laughs.

Easier said than done, though. The off-beaten path is one more often idealized than realized. Especially considering Schulian’s The Best of American Cinema film series, going on now through December, the turnout of which has Schulian less than enthused.

“I don’t get very many students out, which has disappointed me. I understand there’s not a grade attached and no mandatory attendance,” he jokes, continuing with “that probably dims the appeal of this thing.”

That doesn’t make Schulian any weaker in his conviction to keep the series alive, though.

“If students are going to gain some cultural awareness, then they need to see X number of great movies. If you’re going to be a literate human being and going to begin an education while going to the University of Utah, you really need to know who Billy Wilder is, and who John Ford is, and who Alfred Hitchcock is.”

This week’s film, “On The Waterfront,” which Schulian describes as a film showcasing the late, great Marlon Brando “at the height of his youthful powers,” is no exception. In it, there’s a famous scene where Brando tells a priest to “go to hell.” Talk about relatable material. Schulian finds no problem defying the conventions of following a one-track career path-even if that means, for example, being a communication major who wants to write for Hollywood.

“Yes, absolutely! In fact, I’m sort of opposed to film school.”

Seriously? This comes from a guy who’s literally been there, done that.

“Look, I’m an old fashioned guy. I come out of newspapers and magazines. Once upon a time, there were a lot of people in Hollywood…I mean, people far greater and far more talented than I certainly. Billy Wilder worked on newspapers in Germany. Richard Brooks who did ‘Elmer Gantry’ and ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘The Professional’…terrific movies. He came out of newspapers.”

So, really, the “open road” to success is an open road, apparently.

“I just wanted to be as good as I could be,” he contends. “That’s what mattered for me. I think the other stuff follows. If you’re as good as you can be then somewhere down the line you’re going to get your reward financially.”

“What was my calling? It wasn’t the priesthood-obviously-but it was to be a writer. And to write as well as I could. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

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