What is a liberal arts education?  Many people today are asking the question. The Association of American Colleges & Universities describes it as “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world, e.g. science, culture, and society as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest” (http://www.aacu.org/leap/what-is-a-liberal-education, January 22, 2015). And this is how a Screen Arts & Culture major who is now a screenwriter might use physics.  

“I wasn’t a great physics student, but if I’m writing sci-fi, physics concepts come up all the time. Any project, when I begin, I research the hell out of it,” explained Mitchell Akselrad (BA 2009, Screen Arts & Cultures). While he’s not using many physics principles in his current position as a writer for the AMC history drama TURN: Washington’s Spies (Akselrad is picture on right), the idea remains the same. “Is X correct for the time period? Is this something the character would actually say?” Akselrad keeps these and similar questions in mind while writing episodes. The show is based on the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose, set during the Revolutionary War, about America’s first spy ring.  TURN first aired on AMC in 2014 and will begin its second season in spring 2015.

Rose’s book is partly responsible for Akselrad’s role as a writer for the show. “When I was first looking for a job, Craig Silverstein (also a UM grad), was working on a script about cyber terrorism. He called a former professor of mine, Jim Burnstein of the Screen Arts & Cultures Department, looking for recommendations and he gave Craig my name. During our first conversation, somehow the book Washington’s Spies came up. I just happened to have the book with me, and I mentioned how I thought it would make a good TV show. Craig said that there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news was that someone already sold the idea [to turn it into a TV show] to AMC. The good news, ‘You’re looking at him,’” Akselrad shared. Silverstein asked him to join the team and work on the script – the youngest writer of the group.

In an article in LSA Today, Akselrad discusses what it’s like to be the youngster in the room. “It’s like being the younger brother in a family,” Akselrad says. “I’m working alongside people who have been doing this for 5 years and for 20 years.  I feel like I’m always learning.”  And he wants to be learning all of the time, which he credits partially to the Honors Program – both the Screen Arts & Cultures Honors major, as well as the LSA Honors Program. “I desire to constantly be exposing myself to new things, which certainly applies to my field – and I take that from Honors experiences,” he shared.

“In the screenwriting sub-concentration, you have to earn your way into each next level. It’s a good process to learn,” explained Akselrad. “I was in an advanced class by my third year, so I was writing the Honors Thesis in my senior year.” For his thesis, Akselrad wrote a new script and produced a short film. Overall, he wrote three full scripts during his undergraduate career.  He submitted them to writing contests, winning the Hopwood Award for Screenwriting, the Lawrence Kasdan Creative Writing Award, the Arthur Miller Award, and the Peter and Barbara Benedek UTA (United Talent Agency) Award. Peter Benedek (BA 1970, History, a generous supporter of Honors and SAC, and an agent in Hollywood) founded UTA. Akselrad says that this is how he initially got interest by agencies. “As the script was passed around, it wound up on the desk of an agent at CAA [Creative Artists Agency] and, in part because I had won the various awards, I was able to get a meeting and ultimately sign with them.” Akselrad spent summers interning at HBO and at Kelsey Grammer’s company, Grammnet Productions. “The [SAC Honors] program was helpful. Grants, et-cetera, but even just the education! I came in knowing nothing. Everything I know I owe to them,” said Akselrad.  The LSA Honors Program had its role, too. “[LSA] Honors balanced out the education. All of the things I wanted to make movies about, I learned about in all of my other classes, from Great Books, for example. And I loved my history classes.”

Interested in many things, Akselrad says he always has projects on the docket, “but not just one project, more like twelve. I throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks,” he said.  Eventually, he’d like to write a big-budget action/sci-fi movie that can be serialized and run his own show. He also wants to get back to directing, which he is doing by working on two “shorts” this year. We’re excited to see what Akselrad will come up with next.