A highlight of the fourth annual Centre Film Festival, kicking off next week in State College and Philipsburg, Pa., is the return to Happy Valley of Stan Lathan, who will be honored for a visionary 50-year career as a director, producer, and Hollywood trailblazer.
Award-winning director and producer Stan Lathan discovered his passion for film, television, and directing while a student at Penn State. That passion gave rise to a prolific and groundbreaking career, five decades deep and counting, in public and network television, during which he’s directed hit TV shows from Sanford & Son to Miami Vice, performances of such luminaries as Alvin Ailey and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and iconic comedy specials spanning four decades. It is a career for which Lathan ’67 Com will be honored Nov. 6 with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Centre Film Festival.
Now in its fourth year, the Centre Film Festival was co-founded by Pearl Gluck and the late Curt Chandler—both professors in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications—to create conversations around global and locally made films. This year, the lineup includes feature films, documentaries, fictional shorts, and experimental narratives addressing topical issues including women’s rights, climate change, migration, incarceration, and race and gender.
Lathan has spent his career directing and producing content particularly relevant to Black viewers while still appealing to a broader audience. He spoke with us ahead of the festival.
Q: What was the film scene like when you were a student here? Lathan: There wasn’t much of a film scene—it was a normal town with a movie house. It wasn’t until I got into my classes and ended up taking a film course at Penn State that I discovered the world of motion pictures. The professor would show us great films, and he had this amazing cinema knowledge. We watched all types of movies—avant-garde and foreign films, movies from different cultures, etc. All that was very eye-opening. I learned so much about great movies and great directors like Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, François Truffaut, and more.
Q: The movies we’ll see during the festival will screen at the State Theatre in State College and the historic Rowland Theatre in Philipsburg, an iconic building. I’ve heard you used to frequent a theater here in State College back in the day… Lathan: Yes, I used to go to this 120-seat theater, Twelvetrees, on South Atherton. They showed films from all over, and it was mind-blowing. I saw many classic films there, including The Battle of Algiers, which left a huge impression on me. I was equally impressed with Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
Q: Did that exposure inspire you to become a director? Lathan: Absolutely. I also was inspired by the directors in the theater department at Penn State, and I did two internships at television stations, KDKA in Pittsburgh and KYW in Philly. I was exposed to all kinds of TV production and spent a lot of time in control rooms observing directors. That world was cool to me and led me to concentrate on directing and producing for television.
Q: How did your time at Penn State prepare you for your career? Lathan: My journey through Penn State was extraordinary in getting me started. My mentor, professor Arthur Hungerford, helped me plan my courses and prepare me for my career. He also helped me get my first work-study opportunity at WGBH in Boston when I graduated. Kappa Alpha Psi, my fraternity, was a huge support. It was an integral part of being Black at Penn State.
Q: You’ve had a prolific career as a director—what do you attribute your success to? Lathan: In 1968, the Civil Rights struggle was intense in this country. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, the nation faced heightened racial tension and the threat of unrest. WGBH decided to create a series that targeted Boston’s Black community. They put together an all-Black cast and crew, and I was hired as the director for Say Brother, a news/variety magazine show. Its success led to a lot of offers and many great opportunities for me, as in those times, some of the more liberal employers were looking to hire people of color. My success as the director of Say Brother was a ticket in and the fact that I was skilled and good at what I did sealed the deal. But doors don’t always stay open if you don’t deliver. I’m a perfectionist, I want to get it right, and I’m my own greatest critic. I go by what my mom always said: As a Black man, you got to be the best at what you do in order to get ahead in a white world.
Q: What’s your advice to aspiring directors? Lathan: Really understand what you want to do and how you’re going to do it, shoot your best shot—and in the beginning, avoid L.A.
Q: Why avoid L.A.? Lathan: The competition is unbelievable, there are a lot of really good people there all wanting to do the same thing, so it might be tough to even get seen. I tell people who want to be directors to try to get experience locally and do their own projects as proof of their abilities.
Q: The Centre Film Festival has a “Made in PA” rubric, focused on films shot in and around Central Pennsylvania and others made by Penn State graduates. Lathan: Nowadays, the task and craft of making a film is so much easier than when I was starting out. There are so many ways to do it—every phone you buy gives you the ability to make movies. It’s much easier—and cheaper—to prove yourself today.
Q: The films we’ll see address important issues like women’s rights, climate change, migration, incarceration, and race, to name a few. As a young man, you were impressed by The Battle of Algiers; does a filmmaker’s lens make big, global issues more immediate to local audiences? Lathan: Yes. Film overall is a gift to humanity, a way to cross into other cultures on screen and really get a sense of the world.
Q: Who are your favorite directors? Lathan: I’ve always loved Kubrick’s work. I like Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, Asghar Farhadi, Bong Joon-ho and many other international directors. There are a number of really good American directors also. My list is too long to start.
Q: Do name a couple. Lathan: I’m a serious fan of my friend Spike [Lee]. I have great respect for the way he approaches his work and moves forward by his own means and doesn’t answer to anyone. I like Ryan Coogler, who directed Black Panther and other great movies like Fruitvale Station. Gina Prince-Bythewood is another gifted filmmaker.
Q: You’ll be back at Penn State, where it all began, after a long time. What memories come to mind? Lathan: In my sophomore year, I joined the Jazz Club and got to work with my friends Bill Amatneek ’67 Lib and Steve Gorn ’66 Lib, whom I eventually ran the club with. At the start of every semester, we’d sell tickets to concerts; we’d use profits from the big shows to bring in smaller acts. We presented many great acts like, Dionne Warwick, Dave Brubeck, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Mann, Sonny Rollins, Charles Lloyd, Bill Evans, and many more. The Jazz Club was a very important part of my Penn State experience. I met many extraordinary musicians and learned the art of booking and producing successful concerts.
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