When Lauren Sayula ’23 came to Middlebury in fall 2019 as a Posse Scholar, she planned to major in computer science. As one of the only electives offered at her Los Angeles high school—and one of the few classes she had enjoyed—it seemed like the most logical choice.
In the end, it turned out to be the wrong choice. Middlebury, however, didn’t. Here, she found her passion, changed her major, and landed a job that is helping prepare her for her future career. When I caught up with her over coffee this fall, she marveled at the unexpected direction her life had taken and how much had changed in just the past few years.
In high school, Sayula hadn’t even planned to apply to traditional four-year colleges; she was going to go to trade school to become a carpenter. But when she learned that she could attend Middlebury on a STEM track through the Posse program, she jumped at the opportunity. Arriving as a first-year, however, she quickly discovered how unprepared she was for college.
“Academically, it kicked my ass.”
She struggled through her first semester and returned for the second, miserable but determined to get a handle on her studies. By the beginning of March, however, she was again feeling overwhelmed. “God, I need a break,” she told herself.
In mid-March, she got one, but for the worst of reasons: the College sent students home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least, Sayula thought, the time away might allow her to regroup. When she returned for sophomore year in the fall of 2020, however, with a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person classes, things didn’t get better. “As we were getting back into actual school,” she said, “computer science was not interesting or fulfilling for me, and I was like, ‘If I continue down this route, I’m not going to finish college, so I need to pivot.’”
And pivot she did.
As a teen, Sayula had played around with video editing for fun. “I’d been editing in pretty heavy software like Adobe After Effects since I was 13. It was crazy. I didn’t go outside. I was just on my computer.” A class with Louisa Stein, associate professor of film and media culture, rekindled her interest. The class “was about video editing, stuff that I had done as a hobby, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ And then I got into film, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is even better,’ because initially I’d wanted to go to either art school or, of course, trade school.”
As a junior, Sayula changed her major to film and media culture and threw herself into film studies. She loved it, although she found herself an outlier in what she describes as a “theory-heavy” department; unlike her peers, who focused mainly on writing and directing, she gravitated toward film editing and gripping—handling the gear. She tried to follow the traditional filmmaking path of her classmates but “crashed and burned” doing screenwriting while working on her thesis. “I figured out what I really wanted to do was the gear handling and problem solving, the hands-on-ness of grip and gaff and stuff like that.”
Luckily, her classmates needed just that kind of help with their senior projects. She found herself extremely busy and, mentored by Ethan Murphy, the department’s media production specialist, learned a lot quickly. “I ended up gripping, I think, seven of the nine films that were made for our thesis projects, which is crazy.”
Her belated decision to change majors left Sayula feeling like she had missed the full film studies experience, but she is making up for that now: after graduating this past June, she took a job as an assistant in instruction in the Film and Media Culture Department. She says of film, “It was so late that I fell in love with it. My junior spring, I think, was when I was like, ‘I really, really like this,’ which is part of the reason I’m staying now. I want more time with the department, more time learning.”
The Film Festival
Sayula would have been in limbo between graduation in May and the start of her job in the fall had it not been for the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. Its producer, Lloyd Komesar, worked with the Center for Careers and Internships to hire Sayula for the ninth annual summer festival, which this year screened 118 films across six venues on campus and in town and saw a record 4,150 attendees.
Though hired as a videography intern, Sayula says the role was “more like data wrangler”; most of her videography was limited to filming sponsor ads at the beginning of the summer and, later, during the festival, conducting filmmaker interviews with Middlebury Magazine editor Matt Jennings. She spent most of her time “receiving films from filmmakers, converting them into formats, testing them, making sure they worked. It was a very technical side of the job that I didn’t expect, but fun, and good to know.”
The pressure increased as the late-August festival grew closer, and Sayula found herself taking on more responsibility than she had planned, if only because she brought skills no one else had. At one point, for example, a hard drive failed; the disk inside, on which lived the only copies of two completed sponsor videos, shattered. As the sole person on the festival staff who knew how to use Adobe After Effects, it fell to Sayula to recreate the videos from scratch.
During the festival, she and fellow intern Jisan Haque, a UVM student, ran from venue to venue to handle and take photos of the post-screening live Q&As with filmmakers. But she found her greatest responsibility to be putting out fires, fielding nearly all the questions and problems that came up regarding data and gear. “Near the end, I looked back on it, and everything was just a huge fire, and I was just going around putting out everything.”
Despite the pressure, or perhaps because of it, she came away from the film festival more confident. “Since I joined the film department so late, and because I don’t have the same ambitions as my peers, I was always like, ‘Impostor syndrome. I’m not as good as them.’ But to be able to step into this film festival with no prior knowledge or training and be able to turn it around like that—and lead a team of videographers, even though I didn’t have to—was really gratifying for me.”
Today, Sayula plays an important, if not flashy, role in the Film and Media Culture Department: helping teach students how to use the software and hardware they need to make their films. “We have incredible screenwriters as professors, so we’re pretty heavy on that. There are only a handful of us who know anything about gear, and I’m one of them.”
Because of COVID contagion concerns, for a long time students in Sayula’s cohort weren’t allowed to handle or borrow cameras or other equipment and instead were told to film on their phones. While she acknowledges the value of learning to shoot on a phone, Sayula says, “There’s so much gear I didn’t even know about until I started working here, gear that people used to know about.” She now has the opportunity not only to learn about this other equipment but also to teach students to use it. And she is gaining more than just technical experience. “I’m also developing soft skills, which are very important, and figuring out how to manage people, also very important for film.”
She’ll be staying on for next year’s film festival—its milestone 10th anniversary—and another year in her same position at the College while she continues to hone her skills. Eventually, she’ll head back to LA to find work, though she concedes breaking into the industry won’t be easy. No amount of experience will guarantee her, as a young woman, an easy entrance into the gripping scene. Gripping is an insular, male-dominated field and is, next to stunt work, the most dangerous line of work in the film industry. “While I won’t have the difficulties of trying to be a writer/director, I still am going to have the problem of being a woman grip; the job is mostly mental, but you are picking up heavy things all the time.”
While it may be Sayula’s passion for film that has allowed her to catch up as a late film major—and successfully manage the high-pressure challenges of the film festival—she repeatedly credits Ethan Murphy for preparing her so thoroughly for her future career. Ideally, she’ll find similar support once she gets out to LA. “I hope I can find a mentor in the industry—and then really just make a name for myself.”