Ben Shiffrin ‘03 grew up in Ithaca, New York. He graduated from Cornell with a double major in English and Theatre. His original intention was to focus on acting. He appeared in many productions in smaller roles and eventually changed his mind, focusing on directing instead.
There were many theatre productions going on, and students had the opportunity to direct plays in the Black Box Theatre. Shiffrin directed The Dutchman by Amiri Baraka (AKA LeRoi Jones), along with Good ‘N’ Plenty by Jeffrey Hatcher.
Shiffrin says the best class he took was David Feldshuh’s theatre directing class. “It was a self-serious class and we were encouraged not to blow off the class.” He didn’t take film classes until the very end. “Film is a logistical nightmare,” says Shiffrin, “so the classes can be technical instead of creative. To do theatre, you just need to get a bunch of people in a room. You don’t need equipment or locations. The theatre classes are more focused on the creative process.”
Cornell was the first place Shiffrin felt that he needed to be disciplined about creativity, which he still uses today.
Since then, Shiffrin has kept busy. His first gig was interning at AMCE Talent and Literary. Next, he interned under producer Vadim Perleman on The House of Sand and Fog. That internship led to a PA job on a defunct Dreamworks project called The Talisman.
This PA job led to another one on the set of The War of the Worlds. Shiffrin recalled one day on set where a plane crash was filmed, and it was eye-opening: “You feel like you are on a block where a plane has just crashed. They created it perfectly from that perspective. The scope to make a film is mind-boggling and hard to appreciate until you walk onto the set and you see it.” He then became a creative executive at Olza (a production company), and has been screenwriting since.
Shiffrin says screenwriting is grueling, but there is that “fun and beautiful moment” when you get hired to write something. “The feeling of waking up in the morning and knowing you get to write all day is incredible.” His latest project was writing for the film Nine Lives. Shiffrin said it was a rewarding experience, as it’s really “great to sit down and write a line knowing that Kevin Spacey or Christopher Walken will have to say it.”
His advice to Cornell students? “It’s really important to take whatever the most obvious classes are to take. Don’t obsess about dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s in film. You don’t have to take certain specific classes unless you’re interested.”
“The advantage of Cornell as opposed to a conservatory is that a conservatory will force you to explore every little minute detail of how a film is made. Cornell focuses more on the breadth, and you can take classes that have lots of value to you.”
Marina Watts '16 is a temporary writer for the Department of Performing and Media Arts.