Film Courage: Starting at Age 43
Film Courage: Ken, as a tenured professor in your mid-40s, what made you think you could change careers?
Dr. Ken Atchity, producer and author: Well, this is America and you can do whatever you want to do. It’s one of the great things about this country.
What I was doing was very related to a career I’m in now. It was developing stories, developing writers, and of course, teaching a number of things that I no longer teach like classical literature and Italian literature.
So it’s all united by storytelling. I had no idea which world was sort of the bigger world of ideas, the world of academia that I had been in for 17 years, or the world I went into. And I discovered that the world I went into was really the world of ideas, because it’s a world in which people are tracking ideas across continents to find out who owns the rights to a story.
They pay lots of money to acquire the story (at least they used to pay lots of money) and they spend millions of dollars to turn the story into a movie and they’re fiercely competitive about the world of ideas. The motion picture business is the jungle of ideas and it’s survival of the best idea and the best business people.
I always so it’s called show business for a reason. It’s not just about show, it’s about the business of how stories get developed into movies that the whole world can see.
Film Courage: I’m hoping we can go back to maybe before you made this transition to wanting to be in film? Was there something that happened, was there a time in your life that where you felt like “You know what? I want a new challenge.”
Dr. Ken Atchity: That’s a good question because I’ve reflected on it all of my life since then and it was actually provoked by my receiving tenure. I actually belonged to an untenured faculty committee against tenure. One day when I was a Fulbright professor in Bologna, Italy, I got a telegraph from the Dean of the faculty at Occidental College telling me that I’d received tenure in my absence.
And my reaction to it was not very understandable to my friends and colleagues. I became deeply depressed for about a year. And it took me a long time to figure out why I was depressed and it was because I had really never asked to be in this golden cage where nothing can happen to you. It was like the most secure place you could be and I realized at the time that my father’s chief value in life was security. He was a child of The Depression and security was all important to him. And I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t that important to me. I never worried about being secure. I’d published lots of things and I was in demand as a speaker and just never had to worry about it.
And what I valued was freedom and I didn’t feel and I didn’t feel freedom when under a structure where you had to behave a certain way and you had to know a year in advance that on the week of October 12th you’d be teaching the 8th book of The Iliad. And it was wonderful to be teaching The Iliad, but that to know a year in advance you were going to be somewhere.
I now live in a world where I don’t know where I am going to be tomorrow literally and it’s complete opposite, it’s a free world. And of course I realized that as I got older that freedom is as much an illusion as security (both of them are illusions), but it was my illusion. Security was not my illusion and so I’ve lived with complete insecurity. But with the freedom to express myself creatively and in every possible way (which is what the film business allows me to do) and so that was very exciting to me.
Film Courage: And do you ever tell people that? If they are looking to be in a creative pursuit whether it’s being an author or screenwriter or actor, that security will probably be something that they will not encounter and to be okay with that?
Dr. Ken Atchity: Absolutely. I mean this is not a career to wish on anyone. You have to have a burning desire to do it and you have to be willing to sacrifice anything to do it and to persist despite every setback and I can tell you that this is a business in which (a career) this never gets easier, I don’t care how many movies you’ve done. The next one is going to be the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced, the world changes all the time. It’s been changing ever since I’ve been in it which is around 30 years now and it never gets any easier and it never gets any more secure and even if you’ve had windfalls and lot.