2011 Commencement Address: Kristi Zea

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Kristi Zea addresses the Class of 2011 (Photo: Ann Montgomery)
“The glass is half empty… or is it?”

Thank you, Dr. Glickman! It is great honor to be here at Manchester Community College, with the Class of 2011 as it transitions with newfound insight and knowledge, into the big wide world. Bravo to all of you!

What is this world we live in? It seems our planet has let go of all the pent-up frustrations of the last 50 years and all the things that used to work simply don’t, anymore. Rivers are flowing over their banks, deserts are flooding, the earth crust is shifting, tornados are whirling and populations are rebelling. The human race seems to nearing the edge of a great precipice and wondering if it should jump into the abyss, or run in the other direction! May sanity and grace prevail!

So, Class of 2011, as you graduate into this crazy world, you have your work cut out for you, but it’s not as bad as you think. Dr. Glickman has been telling me a bit about you. I know that you are a hard-working, and resourceful group. You are ambitious–many of you are first-generation college students. Most of you hold jobs–at least part time. Some of you have families of your own. Most of you have had to juggle many competing priorities in order to attend school. Many of you have remarkable stories that involve overcoming huge challenges in order to accomplish all that you have. I salute you all, and feel proud to be here to celebrate your accomplishments.

As you heard, I am a production designer, a producer, a costume designer, and a director who has worked in the film industry for the last 30 years.

Some time ago I was asked by a college student how I got started in production design and I told him: “It was total chance.” Not the answer he wanted! I am sure he expected to hear that I had studied theater and film in high school, and continued into college, and even on into graduate school. Alas, not so! I am an example of someone who had no clue what to do before, during or after I left college. In fact figuring out my major was a big deal. In those days not knowing all the answers was part of growing up.

My path to college was a quick one. At my high school we were allowed to apply to only three colleges. I decided to go to Middlebury because they gave me a nice scholarship. I didn’t bargain on the very cold Vermont winters, or the isolated social life. I was a NY city gal! I transferred to Columbia School for General Studies in my sophomore year, and took a variety of classes at night so that I could get a job during the day. When my part-time receptionist’s job at McCall’s became too sedentary and my outfits too outrageous (this was the 60s, after all)… the magazine’s art director recommended me to a commercial photographer as an assistant stylist. This was a far more interesting, and high-pressure job, to be sure! I was paid $300.00 a week, and I was thrilled.

A stylist gets all the props, and clothes, and locations and talent for print and television commercials. One needs to be organized, and fearless. I was neither. But like many of you, I was determined and ambitious. I was fascinated with using visual cues to convey information and tell stories, so I braved the exhausting schedule, and breakneck decision-making, and actually became good at this job.

It was several years before I moved over into film, but it happened because Alan Parker came to New York to direct “Fame” and he liked that I had worked in the commercial world like he did. He also liked that I went to the High School of Music & Art (also Dr. Glickman’s alma mater) on which the film is partially based. He hired me as the costume designer against the advice of his producers. I wasn’t even in the union! My costume design education consisted of making clothes for myself when I was in high school.

Believe it or not, at that time, no one outside the dance world had ever heard of leg warmers, and they were only available in black, pink and white. With the release of “Fame,” young women all over America started wearing colorful leg warmers and cut off T-shirts. Despite the fact that I had never designed a film on my own before, I had a blast. Not to say that it was easy! Initially, there were wildcat strikes. And payoffs. I will always thank Alan for helping me to get my start in the film business. He was courageous and followed his instincts. I learned that from him. His only advice to me before I started the job was “Don’t screw up!”

After that, one film after another came my way. There is nothing more important than relationships in the film business, and people who I worked with on one film recommended me to work on others. I became known for my easy-going attitude, tireless enthusiasm, and willingness to attempt the impossible. Directors liked me because I wouldn’t stop until I got it right, and they were happy.

Once James L. Brooks who was directing “Terms of Endearment” spent 15 minutes asking me the same question, over and over again. Was Jeff Daniels really wearing the “right tie?” I found myself politely defending my choice each time. I kept wondering why Jim kept asking me the same question. Finally, I screamed as loud as I could “Yes! Yes! Yes, damn it! This is the right tie!” Jim looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Great! Great! Great! That’s what I wanted to hear! Finally!” he said laughing. Not only did I learn to trust my instincts but to not be shy about expressing my views. I learned how to sell my ideas… an essential asset for any designer, or any profession for that matter.

Before long I yearned for something different: more responsibility, a different kind of job. Once again, my network kicked in and provided me with an opportunity. When David Seltzer was looking for a production designer for his film “Lucas,” Jim Brooks told David that he should hire me and let me do whatever I wanted. I was hired on the spot. I had no experience drafting or drawing. It was terrifying, but once again, instead of focusing on what I didn’t know how to do, I was able to tap into what I did know how to do in order to get it done. I may not have known how to draw, but I was good at describing what I wanted—and found people who could translate those descriptions into the finished product. Everyone actually seemed happy with the results. The lesson here is that to succeed, you don’t have to know how to do everything yourself—but you do have to know how to get things done—and how to find the people who can make it happen.

After that, I was a production designer for a variety of directors including Jonathan Demme (who needed a new pair of ‘eyes’ for “Silence of the Lambs”), Martin Scorsese (who needed a new take on New York for “Goodfellas”), Barry Levinson (who wanted blocks and blocks of Hell’s Kitchen in the 60’s for “Sleepers”), and Oliver Stone (who insisted that I find the next great look for Wall Street royalty). Every experience was different and amazing. The trick was to make sure that I had a really good team in my art department: great draftsmen, set decorators, painters, and carpenters. People whom I could count on and who had great ideas as well.

My collaborations with Jonathan Demme on “Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia,” “Married to the Mob,” and “The Manchurian Candidate” has been a high point. He is a brilliant director to work with. He is totally open to all suggestions. He knows how to communicate what he wants. His films have remarkable stories, and are visually demanding. I learned from him that good ideas come from anyplace, at anytime, by anybody. An open mind is essential for great work to happen.

Filmmaking is a very difficult business to understand. Actually, it is remarkable that any film gets made at all. The confluence of elements is almost impossible to predict. Everything has to happen at the right time, or the film won’t get the financing it needs: stories have to be written, directors have to be found, actors have to be attached… It is a very competitive business, with an enormous number of certifiably insane people all vying for the same jobs! Often it reminds me of what Rome must have been like just before it fell. There is no rhyme or reason to it. A total crapshoot, with maniacs at the helm! A multi-million dollar industry based on a totally unpredictable market: a market that is constantly changing.

In fact, when you look around everything is changing. For starters, look at our economy. It is no surprise that according to a recent article in The New York Times “just 56 percent of the graduating class of 2010 has held at least one job by this spring.” What’s more, according to the Times “only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree.”

Some of us may need to adapt, and re-set our sights. If it is true that we change jobs on the average of eight times in a lifetime, we need to learn how to stay ahead of the game. That is why you all worked so hard to get to this place today. The challenge before you – and before all of us – is how to stay equipped with the knowledge and resources that will allow us to remain adaptable, and flexible. Now is not the time to be soft, or complacent, now is the time to keep ahead of the wave.

So what does that tell you about your future? It tells you that you have come to the right place here at MCC. Many of you have chosen to apply your time to learning things that will launch you into viable careers: engineering, graphic design, hospitality, information management, social services, visual arts, and as I once did, general studies—which is an excellent foundation for whatever you may choose to do next. It also tells you that you are going to have to dust off your boxing gloves and start using The Four P’s: Patience, Persistence, Practice, and Personality!

Whenever you think you can’t do another interview, or make another phone call, just look at yourself in the mirror, and say, “Yes this is hard. Yes this sucks. But I won’t let this get me down. I will get a good job eventually. It will take time. That’s all. I just have to be patient.”

If you are looking for a job, give yourself a goal every day. Make five calls. Or write five letters. Network like crazy. Leave no stone unturned. Be kind to yourself if a day or two goes by and you can’t deal. You will find the strength to continue. You will be amazed at how persistence pays off!

Think outside the box. What will make a difference in your life? In the world? What kind of work makes you smile, or makes you feel good about yourself? How can you keep occupied? What are you good at? What are you passionate about? Volunteer, if no one will pay you! It’s amazing how jobs seem to come to those who are already busy, and active. Practice gives you confidence and makes people want to hire you.

Finally—the fourth P: Personality. Even if you feel like the world has dealt you a bad hand, keep on smiling. People like to have people around them who are happy, even if the world is falling apart! And this brings me to the one ingredient that you all have in abundance, and that binds all of this together: Unbridled Optimism!

It is a known fact that “believing a goal is attainable motivates us to get closer to our dreams.” Those death-defying jumps that somehow get you to the other side are not fantasy. The most remarkable feats of success often happen because someone refused to admit defeat. Countless entrepreneurs and sports stars tell us the same story: they had to do the un-doable, or achieve the unattainable because somehow it was necessary. Like a calling. That’s why some of you are here. We are hard-wired to expect the best from ourselves as well as others. What we mustn’t do is get angry when the best takes longer than we expected.

Every person here has the capacity to succeed at something. You are here because you took the next big step. Success is not measured in financial terms only. You are all capable of achieving greatness. Not everyone will play the piano like Rubenstein, or throw a ball like Hank Aaron, or spin on point like Anna Pavlova, or sing like Lady Gaga. But in every act, and in every motion, authenticity and honesty are rewarded. The universe has a way of sensing this. If you think about it, once you decide to commit to something everything just seems to fall into place… almost miraculously. The trick is to believe in who you are, and allow the impossible to happen.


I have supreme confidence in you as you leave this great institution and set forth on your new path. With your help we can make this the decade that will be written about as the game changer for this century. All we have to do is have the courage to change the things we can. As Goethe has so beautifully written: “Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin it now.”

Thank you.
News Item Posted On: May 26, 2011
For Additional Information Contact: Charlene Tappan at 860-512-2912