Interview – The Cinematic Journey of David Liban

Today, we have the incredible opportunity to sit down with David Liban, a multifaceted filmmaker and chairperson at the University of Colorado Denver’s Department of Film & Television. With a career spanning both academia and the world of cinema, David Liban’s journey is nothing short of inspiring.

Today, we have the incredible opportunity to sit down with David Liban, a multifaceted filmmaker and chairperson at the University of Colorado Denver’s Department of Film & Television. With a career spanning both academia and the world of cinema, David Liban’s journey is nothing short of inspiring.

Hi there! It is a pleasure to have you today! First, can you introduce yourself to our readers and share a bit about who you are, where you are from and what you do?

For sure! I am both a filmmaker and a film professor. I am the chairperson at the University of Colorado Denver Dept of Film & Television.  I’ve been making films for quite some time. I started with shorts and docs and have graduated to making feature films.   I grew up in Queens, NYC and currently live in Denver, CO with my wife, son and two dogs.  My oldest son (who is in Publish or Perish), Caleb Liban is a student at ASU where he is a film student and also athlete on the Dive team. 

Balancing your roles as a filmmaker and the chairperson of the University of Colorado-Denver’s Department of Film & Television must be demanding. How do you manage these responsibilities and find harmony between the two? 

It is most certainly a juggling act.  I find there has to be period where I put more focus on one or the other.  When we were in production for Publish or Perish, I took a leave of absence to focus entirely on the film.  Part of the expectations of being a professor is that 40% of the job is to do research/creative work and get that work out into the world.  I will often use the summers to write or make films.    At this point, during my free time I will write and develop relationships with people for possible collaborations = producing.   As for harmony, by keeping up with my own creative endeavors, I feel very capable in the classroom. I can bring real life experiences to my classes and can be a resource for the students and well as helping them develop their film projects.

Furthermore,  I have had students who have graduated and went on to being artisans in the film industry… then we hired them on to the film.  Former students who worked on the film: Trevr Merchant – DP, Kylee Mitchell – AD, Kelly Spencer – Production Designer and Wardrobe, Adah Fretwell – 2nd AD, Nick Arno – Props Master,  Phoenix Chu -Script Supervisor, Joey Bramer – Sound Recordist, Zane Barber – Stunt coordinator and actor, Todd Smith -UPM, Jaime Zursolo – Art Dept, Jonathan Vu – Asst Editor, Ryan Walker -VFX. AND two of the actors were students, Bonnie Utter and Nick James, both key characters in the film. 

AND 5-6 current students were Production Assistants on the film.

You’ve achieved tremendous success in the world of filmmaking, including winning an Emmy award. Could you share a bit about your journey into the industry and what led you to pursue a career in film?

Growing up in a household where there was a love of art, movies and theater, I was impacted by those things and had the support to be creative.  My mother and sisters were fine artists and we all loved the movies. 

I remember seeing a film by a kid a couple of years older than me who did an animated film about a guy who enters a room and all the furniture is dancing to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”  I was so impressed that a kid could do this, that I went home and tried my hand at it with my dad’s super 8 camera.  Then I saw some behind the scenes of making Star Wars and I knew what I wanted to do. That led to studying film in college and grad school and did whatever I could to make films.

Could you give us some insights into your latest project, “Publish or Perish”?

I am a fan of dark comedy and enjoy films where horrible things happen but they presented it in a funny way.  That is what I set out to do, and I think we succeeded.   The film is about a professor who is coming up for tenure and on the day he is handing in his materials, he runs over a student.  He doesn’t want to let it impact his career, so he hides the body and his life begins to spiral out of control.

”Publish or Perish” is described as an independent dark comedy loosely based on actual events. Can you share more about the inspiration behind this unique premise and how it evolved into the story we see on screen?

As a professor myself, I worked at several academic institutions where I was on a tenure track.  The thing about tenure that people may not know, is that if you are denied tenure, you lose your job.   So there’s this pressure to achieve tenure for both status but more importantly it’s about self-preservation… which is the underlying theme of Publish or Perish. 

I’ve had some contentious relationships with Dean’s in the past that seemed unwarranted and unfair.  The relationship between the fictional characters in the movie are inspired from incidents that I’ve have had. Anyone that has ever had an adversarial relationship with a boss will relate to this part of the story.  

Going through tenure is a very stressful process and it’s lengthy (7 years), so the enormity of that builds over time and it can become overwhelming and even an obsession.  Throughout that process I had a lot of “what if” scenarios going through my mind, so when I sat down to write the script I drew from much of that, and some of the awful people I’ve worked with.

How did you approach blending humor with the darker elements of the story in “Publish or Perish”?

I don’t know if really thought about it while I was writing because my sense of humor is dark in nature.   In real life I would never do the things that Jim does in the film, but since they are fictional, I thought it would be funny to put crazy obstacles and surprises in his our protagonists way and explore how he might respond to those obstacles.  The comedy is grounded and all the characters have very clear ‘wants’ and goals.   So long as I stayed true that, it made sense and the actors could latch on to those wants.  

While writing it, I was clear about how badly the character wanted tenure, but the real question and where the humor lies was, how far would he go?  I found the humor in the extreme measures he would go to achieve his goals, while poking fun at academia.

As a filmmaker, how do you hope your films, such as “Publish or Perish,” resonate with audiences on both an emotional and intellectual level? What kind of discussions or reactions are you aiming to provoke?

I want the audience to like and relate to Jim Bowden, our protagonist. Then, once the audience has bought into his world and are on his team, he starts doing questionable things.  Audiences may be appalled by his actions, but are still hoping for him to succeed (at some level… maybe).  I want audiences to be entertained, to laugh and gasp throughout the movie.    In the real world most of us would never make these terrible decisions, but I want the audience to understand why Jim is making these decisions.  

What kind of discussions or reactions?  How far would you go to get your ultimate goal?  What would you do?

Looking back, what are some of the achievements you’re most proud of in your filmmaking journey?

Each film is a new family, a new process and a new set of friends to collaborate with.  Each film is its own entity and once you’ve gone through making a film with these people, you will always have a connection with them.  I am very proud of Publish or Perish and the response it is getting, and that in itself is very gratifying.  I think it’s the strongest film I’ve made so far. 

My previous film, A Feral World I made with my son Caleb Liban.  He was 11 when we first started that movie and we did four chapters that we shot over four years. I am immensely proud to have made this film with him.  Some dads teach their kids to play catch. I made a feature film with my son.  One day when he has kids he can show them the work we did together. Also, he now wants to be a filmmaker too and is studying film at ASU.  I did that.

Could you share some insights into your approach to storytelling and filmmaking? What themes or emotions do you often find yourself drawn to exploring in your work?

My approach to storytelling is really an internal voice in my head.  I find a premise that interests me and I see where it takes me.  If I am entertained by that premise and I have a character or two that are fun to know… I let it take me where it will go. 

Given that I am mostly drawn to dark comedy…  how do we respond to death?  In 2010 I did a serious documentary called “Mortal Lessons” that won an Emmy.  I explored the end-of-life phase.  Not a funny topic nor is the documentary, but it is enlightening!  We all die. Sorry.  We don’t like it… but we will all have to deal with it sooner or later.  If that’s an inevitability, why not play in that realm.  You can’t escape your mortality… so maybe have a laugh at it.  

What are you currently working on in the world of filmmaking or academia?

I have a new screenplay that is a dark comedy that I am very excited about.  It is called, “Love Less Likely.”   After the recent release of Publish or Perish, I’ve have some ideas about a sequel that I am itching to start writing. 

At my department at CU Denver I am going to be working on building a new emphasis in the film department that will specialize in performance for the screen.  Also, I am teaching Senior Thesis where students will be making 9 short films over the next two semesters. I am very excited to help them in their process.

If you had to recommend just one movie to someone, which film would it be and why does it hold a special place in your heart?

Narrowing it down to one is tough.  I have about 30 favorite films.  But if I had to pick just one, I would pick “The Big Lebowski.”  I love that movie.  Every character is unique and funny, but also absurd… yet grounded, as if they could exist.  I don’t typically laugh out loud at movies, but this one does it to me. Also, I really love how even the minor characters are so funny and important to the protagonist’s plight.   Seeing Jeff Bridges react to these characters is gold.

For those aspiring to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them as they navigate the world of independent filmmaking and storytelling?

Make the movies that YOU want to see, not what you think people want to see.  Find your voice. Oh… and don’t be an asshole.  

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