Film professor ‘inspiring’ students with industry knowledge and teaching philosophy


Mary Newman | @MaryNewmanDE

Professor Howard Motyl, widely known for his documentary Cowboy Christmas, poses for a portrait Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, at his office in the Communications Building. (Mary Newman | @MaryNewmanDE)

H.D. Motyl, professor and interim chair of radio, television and digital media, prefers to take a hands-on approach in the classroom.

“Learning from a book is great and people should do that, and I do that,” Motyl said. “But having that practical knowledge also helps.”

Motyl teaches classes that help students learn how to write and produce a television pilot as well as direct cameras and actors.


After graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1979 with his bachelor’s degree, Motyl enrolled at Northwestern University to get his master’s of fine arts in screenwriting and film and video production

Motyl decided to move to Chicago after receiving his second degree in 1990. He started working for a film company, where he said he produced television shows for around 20 years. In 2007, he got his first teaching gig at Columbia College. After a year of teaching there, he applied for tenure and sent out applications to multiple schools, including SIU, where he was eventually hired.

“I think that it’s a huge advantage to have been out in the world before I came back to teaching, because there are lessons that I learned working,” Motyl said. “Whether it’s about equipment, how to act on set, how to work on a script, how to deal with a network — I think that it helped tremendously.”

Motyl’s teaching philosophy

The most important thing Motyl said he’s learned is to never stop learning.

“The best way to learn is be doing and keep doing,” he said. “My big thing, and I talk about this all the time in my writing class, is that yeah, sure, it’s a lot of words on a page, but you need to think of the visual end of it too and how the visuals can help tell the story. I learned a lot of that by working with a variety of people.”

When preparing students for their future careers in film and television production, Motyl said he tried to impress upon them the importance of collaboration.


“They’re going to have to do it,” Motyl said. “They have to learn how to be able to not take things personally; if somebody doesn’t like something, it’s not because they think you’re an idiot, its just they don’t like that idea for this show. It’s all about the story that you’re telling.”

Motyl said it’s vital for students to learn how to make a cohesive film rather than focusing on individual scenes.

“We have this expression ‘kill your babies,’” Motyl said. “There are certain things that you can have in a film, you have a scene in there that you think is the greatest scene ever, but it really stops the flow of the story, it just doesn’t work in the story. It may be beautifully written as a scene and it looks great, but that’s your baby and you gotta kill it. As soon as you take that out and put everything together, then suddenly things work.”

Mentor to his students

One of Motyl’s students said the way he teaches makes the work seem “almost effortless.”

“Those classes were great … I was actually a little terrified of him, because I had heard he was a big deal, but when I got to the class I realized that he was really nice and he really wanted everyone to try to like writing,” Tiffany McLaughlin, a senior from Chicago studying cinema and photography, said. “I had never written a television episode before, and the way he taught it made it seem almost effortless if you just follow the rules he gave you.”

McLaughlin said Motyl takes extra care to make sure students are understanding his coursework.

“He would set up office time with all of us to catch up with us and help us,” she said. “I needed loads of help, and he would sit there with me for an hour or two and go through my script and analyze it and see what I could fix. That was on his own time.”

The reason students love taking his classes, McLaughlin said, is he way he acts toward his pupils.

“He treats you like an equal adult,” McLaughlin said. “He was the first professor that I’ve had … treat me like an actual human being rather than just being a silly old student. He’s like a mentor to me.”

Emily Bouchoc, a senior from Collierville studying cinema and photography, said the industry knowledge he teaches is vital for students.  

“I got to learn not only how to interact with actors, but also how to do it in a way that is practiced in Hollywood,” Bouchoc said. “I feel like he stands out against other professors in a way that he cares about what he’s teaching. Not that other professor don’t, but he’s really passionate about what he was teaching, as well as the students in the class.”

Bouchoc echoed McLaughlin in saying Motyl is unique for the way he interacts with students.

“When it came time for critique, it was almost as if he was treating us as an equal and giving very honest feedback from someone who’s done it before, but also as someone who is able to relate to you,” Bouchoc said. “It didn’t feel condescending, but rather encouraging and helpful.”

Teaching is a two-way street, Motyl said.

“I’ve said before in my classes the students are teaching the teacher,” he said. “To see how people think and approach something can be inspiring, to hear how somebody else looks at something and I go ‘Oh they’re right,’ and then I start changing the way I’ve been teaching that because of the way they saw it … I think that dialogue between a student and teacher can be inspiring and make me think in different ways about the work that I’m doing.”

Documenting rodeo

If Motyl’s name sounds familiar, it could be for his award-winning documentary about rodeos, “Cowboy Christmas.”

He said he became intrigued by rodeos around 2008, when someone sent him an article about Cowboy Christmas, an annual summer event in which a massive number of rodeos take place and cowboys from all over the country compete to win up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Motyl talked about his interest to some of his friends, and they found out the national high school rodeo finals in 2008 were going to be in Springfield.

He said he gathered a team of people in Chicago and they went down to the rodeo just to see what it was about. They interviewed and watched the event, but the idea of making a documentary about high school rodeos didn’t appeal to Motyl as much.

“I still had this nagging thing to do professional rodeos, and so I did.” Motyl said.

Motyl received a faculty grant from SIU and immediately started looking for cowboys. He went to Cody, Wyoming, to attend a week-long rodeo event.

“I thought if I could be stationed there for a week I would be able to talk to a lot of cowboys and figure out who would be the best one,” Motyl said. “It was a little weird because I didn’t know that much about them.”

He found one cowboy, Matt Reeves, who had a story that resonated with him. Reeves agreed to be part of the film and Motyl started talking to Reeves’ friends.

“We just kept talking, and we set it up to go in January to shoot,” Motyl said.

When the documentary came out in 2013, Motyl said it began to spread and eventually made it into some film festivals.

At the 2013 Madrid International Film Festival, “Cowboy Christmas” won the award for Best Feature Documentary.

“Now it’s on Netflix, Netflix said yes to it, so that’s a big deal and I’m happy about that,” Motyl said.

Staff writer Kitt Fresa can be reached at [email protected]. 

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