Alum Takes Storytelling from the Small Screen to the Big Screen, and Back Again

September 10, 2015

Mark Pellington is a man you know, but you don’t know that you know him. More than likely, he was behind the camera for some of the most memorable visual experiences you’ve had in the last 30 years. 

Pellington, a 1984 graduate of the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, may be best known for his music video work. From U2 to Michael Jackson, he’s directed videos for some of the hottest acts in the business. In fact, his love of music and writing helped him reach where he is today.

In 1985, Pellington was working at MTV when the first piece he made, “Collage,” won an award. He was 23.

Pellington said it was the first award he’d won for something non-sports related. He recalled that his father, the late Bill Pellington, was very proud. Bill, a former linebacker for the Baltimore Colts, traveled from Baltimore to New York for the award ceremony.

“I felt like I was finding my way,” Mark Pellington said about the award. “I felt like, ‘Wow, this was something I could succeed in.’ It felt natural to me. At that point, I thought, ‘I’m just going to keep doing this until somebody tells me to go home.’”

“Thirty years later,” he said dryly, “and nobody has told me to go home.”

Pellington, now 53, shows no signs of slowing down, or going home. In addition to music, he has tackled a variety of styles and themes in his storytelling, and with critical acclaim: a 1993 Emmy nomination for “Homicide: Life on the Street” (outstanding individual achievement in graphic design and title sequences); a 1997 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize nomination for the film “Going All the Way”; and a 1999 nomination for the Grand Prix award at the Paris Film Festival for the film “Arlington Road,” to name a few.

UVA Today caught up with Pellington after he wrapped up shooting of the first season of NBC’s new series, “Blindspot.”

Q. You came to U.Va. to play lacrosse on an athletic scholarship. What convinced you that U.Va. was the place for you?

A. My brother (William “Bato” Pellington, a 1982 graduate of the College) was an All-American lacrosse player and I kind of followed him. I was on the team for four years. I was never a big star, but that didn’t matter. I enjoyed the University. I dee-jayed at WTJU and wrote for the University Journal. I was really into music and journalism.

I got an internship at MTV my third year and spent the summer in New York. I really got turned on to New York and the music business and was lucky to get a job [at MTV] after college.

Q. What was MTV like then?

A. It was great. The equivalent would probably be like working for the super-hip Internet startup now. It was new and fresh. New York was very exciting.

MTV taught me to trust my instincts creatively. I wasn’t trained in film or design or anything. I just learned on the job at MTV and it was a great training ground.

Q. Your resume as a director is impressive: videos like “Shut it Down” by Public Enemy, “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam (for which you won the 1993 MTV Video Music Award for Best Director), “Skyscraper” by Demi Lovato and movies such as  “Arlington Road” and “The Mothman Prophecies.” You also have a TV show called “Blindspot” premiering this fall. It seems you’re not drawn to any particular genre or style, so how do you decide what projects to take on?

A. A lot of it’s timing. It just seems to work out. You’re always trying to get a movie going, but that’s not always under your control. As the business has changed and life has changed, I kind of shift gears between juggling the opportunities and paying the bills.

Creatively, when I’m itching to do something longer and a little more challenging with actors and narrative, I go do that. That might come after a period when I’ve done a lot of music videos and short-form stuff; perhaps explore a little more abstract, experimental side of myself. It doesn’t pay the bills the same way, but it satisfies a different creative niche.

Q. You majored in rhetoric. How did that prepare you for what you’re doing now?

A. I was always a fairly competent writer. The ability to articulate and express your ideas and opinions and your point of view in a passionate way; to be able to go into a room of people and be able to have them entrust their commercial or movie or TV show to you; those oral and written skills were very much heightened and honed at U.Va. My ability to prepare arguments and express them verbally and persuade people was a skillset very much born out of my U.Va. experience.

I’m very grateful. Frankly, it was far more important than any specific digital editing room or 16mm film – that kind of stuff you can learn on the job. Even in my 20s, the experience I had at U.Va. set me apart from my peers. Maybe they had gone to film school and they had more technical training, but they couldn’t articulate their ideas on paper or in front of three to 30 people – and that was a skillset I gained at U.Va.

Q. What advice do you have for a current U.Va. student looking for a career in film or TV?

A. Know what it is you’re looking to do. Directing and shooting and editing or being a filmmaker – it’s really something the technology allows anybody to do. So, my first advice is to get a cheap camera and start shooting and editing because that’s what filmmakers do. There’s no great exclusivity now, you don’t need tons of money to do it.

Also, diversify. Do as many different types of projects and mediums as possible. Understand design and illustration and photo manipulation and type design and editing and photography. Just verse yourself in all of the visual arts, because they’re all interrelated.

The more content you can create on your own, to develop your own voice and point-of-view – it all comes down to telling stories. Find the story you want to tell and figure out the most effective way to tell it.

Q. What haven’t you done that you would like to do?

A. There are a few narrative stories I’d like to tell. There are still a few stories I need to tell. I’ve started to get more into photography. I’d like to publish a book of photographs. I’m starting to take that more seriously and have more confidence in those images.

The line between my images in videos and the photographs I take is very blurred. That’s why I love social media. I make a lot of images and put them out on Instagram and Facebook and it’s fun.

Q. What’s your fondest memory of your time on Grounds?

A. I went back last June for my 30th [class reunion] and I hadn’t been back in 25 years. My brother went back all of the time, but I didn’t. I had fond, incredible memories, but didn’t feel like, if I didn’t get back …

So, when I went back, it was great, really great. I went by my hall and all of the old places and had nothing but positive memories.

I really had a good time in my fraternity and built some great relationships. You know, you’re there at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and you’re surrounded by your friends and the music and the good times. The way that that made me feel – I felt young and I felt safe, and those are two good things to feel.

You really are protected in college. My fourth year wasn’t much fun because I knew I had to leave. My second and third years were ideal. They were sublime. It was like, “It’s never going to get more free than this.”

I knew I was, frankly, at the wrong school for what I wanted to do, but it didn’t matter because I was getting life experience. So, I had a good time, I went to classes, I played lacrosse, did other things and built those memories.

And I had such strong memories that when I went back for my 30th, and I hadn’t seen some of the people in 30 years, but it felt like it had been yesterday. That’s it – that’s the experience you have in college that’s undeniable.

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