By Rebecca Ventura
The clean, bare taupe colored walls hardly prepare one for the animated personality of Tom Russell, assistant professor of media arts.
His film, “mr. dungbeetle,” about five schizophrenics who break out of a mental facility, was runner-up for best feature film at the Mendocino Film Festival in northern California, which took place May 18-21.
“The first thing an indie [independent film] has to do is go to festivals,” Russell explained.
After Mendocino, Russell said the film will be sent to other prominent festivals with the hope that it will get noticed by distributors.
In the film, a doctor, who has lost his wife to cancer, is sent out to help the escaped patients return to the facility. He soon finds one of the patients, Phillip, is mysteriously able to heal the others of their schizophrenia.
“In the course of doing that, of trying to heal these men, he [the doctor] comes to a point where he acknowledges he needs some healing of his own,” Russell said.
The film ended up being more autobiographical than he intended it to be, Russell said. His wife, Angie, who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, died during the shooting of the film.
Before the shooting for “mr. dungbeetle” began, Russell said his wife made him swear he would finish the film. He explained that if it had been up to him, he would have canceled the whole process, but he didn”t because of the promise he made to his wife. Not canceling, however, was not because either of them thought the film was more important than what was going on with his wife, he said.
“I think that she, as she always did, had the foresight to know I would need something to really occupy my mind, my attention and my time after she passed away,” he said. “And she was, as she always was, exactly right.”
Russell gets animated when describing his wife, making it apparent why his students find his enthusiasm for life so contagious.
“She was amazing!” he said, beaming.
Matt Schramer, a senior from Tacoma, Wash., graduating in media arts this August, said Russell”s enthusiasm is something that his students pick up on.
“He loves what he does,” Schramer said. “He has a love for life and what he teaches and that”s passed down to his students.”
Tom Morrill, a recent graduate of BYU who worked as second assistant director on “mr. dungbeetle,” said the first thing he noticed about Russell is his ability to tell stories.
When asked to sum up Russell, Morrill said, “Tom [Russell] is passionate about his work, his family, about life in general, and he has a love for everyone he is around.”
Schramer said Russell”s best quality as a teacher is his ability to work one-on-one with his students. He creates a good learning environment by letting students learn on their own and make their own mistakes, he said.
Students are young, so they”ll make mistakes, Russell said. Sometimes, they”ll come up with an idea that”s been tried before or doesn”t work and he has to sit back and let them try, he said.
“They have to find out for themselves,” he said. “But then they”ll do something that just thrills you, that”s just delightful.”
Surprising him, Russell said, is something his students do often.
“When they do surprise you, there”s so much more satisfaction than in your own lame ideas,” he said.
Teaching at BYU has been a great blessing in his life, Russell said. He”s cautious about saying the Lord dictates every little decision people make, but rather he guides the “large strokes of our lives.”
“He [the Lord] seems to set the bounds of our habitation,” he said. “We just tend to be in the right place when we need to be in that place. That”s BYU for me.”
Russell said teaching at BYU opens up the summers for him to spend time with his children and is flexible enough if his children need him, he can be there for them.
“I don”t think the Lord particularly cares whether the things we do become really big in anybody”s eyes, or how much money we make,” he said. “It”s all kind of irrelevant to him. But, I think the things he cares about are the things that really matter. I think that happens to be family, it happens to be our children, our charges, our main responsibilities in life.”