Getting Lost with Stephen Semel
Nicky Tiso '10
Stephen Semel '73, Emmy-nominated film and television producer, editor, and actor, made the jump from "finding himself" at Evergreen to editing the hit TV-show Lost, which is in its sixth and final season. For those fans expecting a finale spoiler, sorry! Not even Semel knows how it ends.
Semel was born in Manhattan, grew up on Long Island, and graduated from high school in 1969, smack in the middle of what Semel identifies as "a huge cultural shift in the country."
"I was so drawn to what was going on on the west coast that I wanted to be there to experience it," Semel says. He chose Oregon's Reed College, then joined a small exodus of "Reedies" two years later to enroll in the newly opened Evergreen. Once here, Semel relished the academic freedom coupled with Evergreen's playground of media equipment.
"I was in a program called Communications and Intelligence," he reminisces, "which was a year-long, inter-disciplinary, pass-fail course in which you studied darkroom and video techniques ... still photography and film-making. There was all this equipment that you could check out. As long as you could pay for the film stock you could do whatever you wanted to. If you wanted to spend all of your time in the dark room you could. If you wanted to spend all of your time in the editing room you could, ... there was a lot of freedom and I think that was both good and bad."
"I certainly learned how to deal with the lack of structure that exists in the professional world," Semel continues. "Nobody is looking out for you when you get out in the world...and in a sense there was a lot of that Evergreen too. I mean, the teachers would pull you aside periodically and say 'your project is due' but it was pretty darn loose. I think it made us all very independent and more result-oriented than we would have been in a more structured situation."
"I went through periods where I felt aimless ... but the group of people there were so great, and everyone was so excited by what they were doing that it was kind of contagious. You wanted to finish your projects; you wanted to get it out and do things there because everyone else was getting it out there too."
Semel moved to San Francisco after college and worked for a film lab doing sound-transfers for The Godfather: Part II and working as an assistant editor for Apocalypse Now.
"At the end of that process, I had a marketable skill," Semel recalls. "It was never my intention to be an editor. I wanted to be a cinematographer, but that avenue was so much more restricted. The first jobs that were offered to me led me to be an editor... it turned out that I had a well suited personality for it so that's what I pursued."
Following the opportunities, Semel relocated to Los Angeles during a booming period for the entertainment industry. Soon his admittedly "very idealistic set of principles" butted up against the corporate, profit-motivated aspect of Hollywood.
"As in academics, as in fashion or the construction business or politics, or anything else," he says, "a lot of what you learn as an adult is not necessarily about how to do your job better but how to master the 'real politic' of interpersonal and professional relationships."
Hired as an editor for the TV series Lost, Semel has over the years spread his wings, serving as a director and even, for a brief time, as an actor. Asked to read for the small part, he was deemed a perfect fit and played the character for two days. "I have never at any moment in my life considered myself an actor, but that was exciting," he says.
Semel hopes there will be more directing in his future but is in no hurry see the culmination of Lost. Asked if he was looking forward to learning how the series ends he notes that "it's kind of a sad thing because once I know [the end], it's over, and once it's over it means I am leaving. After six years. That's a long time, I have never worked on anything that long."
Ed. note: while preparing this story, we were reminded that Tim Girvin '75 created the logo for Apocalypse Now.