Interview with alum John Paul Horstmann, founder of UPTV

When John Paul Horstmann founded University of Pittsburgh Television (UPTV), he didn’t justpave the way for hundreds of young, creative minds at Pitt-- he also took the first steps of his professional and filmic career, steps which landed him in Los Angeles, California after graduating in 2002. 

After the ACE internship took him out to the West Coast, he worked as many small production jobs and internships as possible, networking every chance he got. Nearly a decade and a half later, John Paul has an impressive list of credits under his belt, such as editing the Brad Pitt thriller Killing Them Softly which opened in Cannes and Cold in July which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He also has produced two documentaries that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, the latter of which he co-directed. On the TV side, he has cast and successfully pitched two Bravo shows with his producing partner Whitney Sudler-Smith, Southern Charm and Southern Charm: New Orleans. He currently has a new film opening in Tribeca, is producing a documentary about climate change, and has completed filming a top secret new reality project.            


What inspired you to start UPTV?

When I was an undergraduate I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I kind of liked movies but I never really thought of myself as a film kid. Pennsylvania is a working class state, right? I didn’t know anyone who did anything artistic. I didn’t even know that was a possibility. But ideally that’s what college is all about, colliding you with things you never thought you would try.

I always liked creativity, and my roommate and I we thought we were pretty funny, even though we probably weren’t. “We decided “sh*t we should film this, we should make a sketch comedy show.” So I asked where the TV station was, and they were like, “We don't have one.” I thought wait... this is a school with 80,000 students and they don't have a TV station? Even my high school had one. And it was like lightning struck and I thought, “I'm going to make one.”

It took two years to get it on the air. I went around to all the departments with a little presentation I made, and it took a long time but finally the Honor’s College finally gave us funding. It was supposed to be a secret, because the other departments were nervous about the politics of a student TV station. But the Dean, he didn’t care, he believed in us. He said, “I know you’re just going to make a bunch of fart jokes, but you’re going to learn something from the fart jokes.” And he was right, about both.

At first all we had was a couple camcorders and a computer, but we had nowhere to put them. Everyone claimed they had no space for us.  So I talked my way into a job as a “network surveyor”, which gave me access to all the rooms on campus. That way I could spy on who actually had unused offices. In the end though the Communications Department was very supportive and volunteered a little room. It was actually a large closet, but we didn’t care. It was like 10 people working elbow to elbow in there. There were no windows so one of the girls drew us one on the wall.

But our little tribe quickly started growing, and several of those who I worked with in the early days of UPTV-- Sam Cotler, Nate Cornett, Jon Hill, Jumoke Davis—  have gone on to great careers. And I’m really proud the station ended up helping launch our careers in film and TV.

What classes did you take to help you along?

We never had any instructors, except for Carl Kurlander, who had just arrived from LA. We were amazed that there was a real “industry” person who was going to teach at Pitt., and we begged to sign up. It was the only film course most of us took. The Film Department at the time was mostly theory, and Pittsburgh Filmmakers was still doing 16mm film. All this digital production stuff was still pretty new. So we had to improvise all the time.

Over the the course of two years I started to learn how to edit. I taught myself, and then I started teaching editing class to other students. Like I booked a classroom from the computer labs and printed up a little course book. I actually had no idea what I was doing, but people came!

Next we had to improvise a delivery system to get the stuff out there. There was no YouTube yet.  At the time people were playing tapes on big machines, but we didn’t have big machines or anyone to run them. So we hired an engineer, and designed a way to send the shows digitally over the school network to the cable system. We were breaking new ground.

Next we needed shows so Sam and I assigned teams. Some people would be producers, some writers, actors, and they would help each other learn. And it was amazing. The people were there and they didn't really need teachers, they just needed to be organized.

That was actually secret to the whole thing, which we stumbled into by complete accident. You don’t learn film by taking a class and being told what to do. You learn by filming and practicing and failing, and then wanting to kill yourself, and trying again, and learning from your mistakes. The administrators at Pitt really supported us by being open-minded and giving us the tools to go and play. They allowed us to learn in our own way.


How did you get from Pitt to the industry?

After I graduated I hung around for a few months “helping out”. In reality didn’t know what to do, I figured maybe I could get hired to teach. One day Lucy Fisher, the Film Studies director, and Carl Kurlander told me about the American Cinema Editors internship, which places two recently graduated students a year in actual Hollywood cutting rooms; I would be going up against all these big film school kids, but we gave it a shot. I remember I wrote on the application “I didn’t go to film school, but my friends and I started our own.” And out of nowhere, I got an interview in LA.

Now, I didn’t know a single person out there, let alone an editor, to advise me with this. So the day before the interview, Carl suggest I reach out to the editor of St. Elmo’s Fire, Richard Marks, who had befriended him as a young writer. Richard was a legend who had done legendary films like Apocalypse Now and Broadcast News. I literally sent him a fax, which was weird even then, and against all odds he faxed me back and invited me down to the Fox lot and let me ask him a million questions on his break from mixing the film Timeline. When I told the A.C.E. interviewers about it the next day they were impressed. They only give out two spots a year, and it put me over the top, thanks to Richard’s kindness.

I literally made the decision to move on the spot. My life changed in a week, it was really weird. I didn’t have a chance to save or prepare, so after the internship I was broke. But I couldn’t just leave, I had to stick it out.

But that’s what I’d advise Pitt graduates to do: try stuff even when it’s scary, don’t play it safe ever. If it’s scary that might be a good thing. What’s the worst that can happen, you move home? If you don’t take the chance you won't have a chance.

What was the A.C.E. Internship like?

I would highly recommend the A.C.E Internship to anybody that wants to get into editing. Here’s why: the people who work on the “good stuff” are a tight knit club. The internship is a way in.

Sure, you can walk out tomorrow and get editing work anywhere. But you're not going to work on big films or important TV unless you're working for the people who already are in the club, and they know you and they're recommending you. “It’s who you know” and you’ll get to know them. Lucky for me, as an A.C.E intern I got to meet all the really big editors. They treated me warmly and were very inclusive.

But the secret is, you don’t actually need to win the internship to get in the club. Even if you aren’t selected, they put on events and programs for all the applicants. There is this little community that goes on for years. Plenty of people who didn’t get the spot have stayed in touch, attended the events, and gone on to big Academy Award winning careers. Nat Sanders, for instance, who just did Moonlight.

How did you get your first jobs?

Like I said when I got here I had no money or job, so I decided to own it. I said, “Ok, I have no money and no job, but I’m here. I’m going to make interning my job. If I have nothing, I’m not going to lose anything working for free.”  I just went on Craigslist and got as many unpaid internships as I could. I was working, like, six of them at once ... at night, during the day... for eight months or so. People used to make fun of it.

But I’ll tell you what, they all ended up paying off in the end. Either I met somebody, or learned some new skill, or somebody introduced me to somebody… it's small world. Basically it was one big networking opportunity.  I met so many editors that I ended up working for the next six years. One guy helped me get in the Union. Another recommended me as an assistant editor on a big show at Sony Pictures, which was hard to get. We became friends and later on he ended up helping me land a job on the biggest films of my career.

Now, I wouldn’t advise you to go work for free and let people take advantage of you. But what I would say is don’t worry yourself to death about salary when you are starting out, worry about experience. Go try weird things while you can still afford to. Work a day in production. Do a post-PA gig. Be a director’s assistant. Try TV, VFX, internet content, whatever. The more things you try out, the greater the chance you’ll discover something you never thought you’d like. Just like trying out different classes in college until you find your major.


What's the best advice you’ve gotten?

The best advice I got were these three things:

Number one: work with the people who do the thing you want to do. Don’t work with people who do something you don’t want to do, or you you’re going to end up doing that.

The second is have a two-year plan and a five-year plan. Setting those goals will give you context for all the decisions you make in the near future. If you’re goal is to be an assistant editor on a TV show in two years, don’t take a job as a set PA because you need the cash. It’s not going to help with your goal. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns. If you’re going to go broke, go broke for the right reasons.

Third, you are a brand. In the film industry everyone is put into categories. If you want to make horror movies and go do slapstick comedy stuff, nobody’s going to think of you as a horror film person. If you want to work in film, and you go do reality, you’re “the reality guy”. It’s crazy how fast people label you.

What advice would you like to give?

There's always an opportunity. There's always something out there, a way to trade your skills or eagerness for a chance to gain experience. And even if you’re not working, perfect. Use the time to make a short with your friends. You’re gaining experience and you’re building your network of future filmmakers.

Another thing is, and Carl taught me this, you have to go to LA if you want to break in, even if only for a little while. You can't do it from home...You have to go where the work is.  It stinks, I mean, I was definitely lonely for those eight months... But it ends up paying off. The payment was in the connections and learning about how it all works.  Then you can take that and do what you want with it.   (Editors Note: This was before Pittsburgh became the regional production hub it is now.) 

Also, don’t worry about failing. If you fail, you won’t fail because you didn't land a job. You'll fail because you'll land one and realize “damn, I do not want to do this.” And that's the best thing, really, to try stuff out and figure out where you belong. You’ll find something. It happens by going and meeting people. But, yes, for a couple weeks, you'll be sitting around with an empty inbox wondering if anything is going to happen. That’s when you close the inbox and get out the door.

Last of all I’d like to close by saying I’m so excited that there’s now a Pitt in LA program which can help Pitt students get a taste of what that is like.  Sort of a dry run, with other students like you around. Remember there are also other graduates here who want to help and are ready to give advice. It’s been my dream for a really long time for there to be more a connection between Pitt students and the industry, and I am so excited to hear that UPTV still thriving, and that Pitt’s new production program is taking off.