A chat with School of the Arts' Dean Pullen

Spring semester is in full swing, the new Noorda Center for the Performing Arts is open, and it’s a brand-new year. With all these exciting changes swirling around, we thought it was a great time to get to know Dean Stephen Pullen!

Since his arrival to the school in late 2017, his enthusiasm for the UVU School of the Arts has been apparent in the directions he has taken the curriculum and relationships with faculty and students. Pullen said he makes an effort to attend as many performances as possible, and wants to get to know even more students.

“I am a champion for their dreams,” Pullen said. “I don’t see a life in the arts as an ephemeral, unachievable dream. I see it as a complete reality, and I want to make that more concrete and more tangible for them.”

He cites hard work and smart work as two of the keys to making it in the competitive and challenging field of the arts.

“If that’s your goal, you can’t just wish it and dream it. You have to seek out mentorship, find information you need, understand the industry and make a plan to get from here to there. Then: you have to keep dreaming and believing, and overcoming all the rejection that comes along the way, and overcoming the self-doubt,” Pullen said.

Pullen is a model of this hard work, having spent his career furthering his education and making connections that allowed him to act, write, produce and direct films both in Hollywood and in connection with academia. As a multi-hyphenate who has had to pull in a number of different skill sets to achieve his creative dreams, Pullen said he has several models for this, like Kenneth Branagh.

“You don't have to look any further than (John Krasinski's) A Quiet Place - a TV actor who wrote, produced, directed and starred in his first film,” Pullen said. “I think it's very important for students to be ambitious and create their own opportunities, and that’s really what it boils down to."

Flexibility and exploration within his field are what made Pullen such a multi-talented filmmaker. Although he entered college with the intention of studying acting, he discovered a penchant and passion for writing. He wrote two plays during his undergrad, which were presented as main stage theater productions, along with the professional shows. Then he studied acting at LAMDA, where he wrote a script for a contest that was judged by Dame Judi Dench - and won. His master’s degree at USC was in production, so he focused on writing and directing, including sound design and cinematography.

“I wanted to be in control of my destiny, and I thought actors didn’t have that whereas directors and writers do - but I was mistaken in that. Whoever has the money has the control,” Pullen said with a laugh.

When he was at USC, he had a professor and mentor who worked as a TV director in Hollywood. During a class where Pullen was the director of a sitcom for the semester, his professor offered him some real-world experience.

“He took me to several sitcom tapings - Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Friends - and gave me the opportunity to shadow the director for the full day. I shadowed Gary Halvorson, and even though my professor had taught me so much in class, I didn't really get it until I watched Gary Halvorson doing it in a professional setting.”

He wanted to give that experience to his students years later when he was teaching in Virginia, which is how his acclaimed film ‘The Ballerina’ came to be.

“It was a professional film production, with 20 film professionals, mostly from LA, as a part of the crew. All of them had long IMDb pages and how to run a professional set, and they put together a professional production unit and let students fill in lower-level positions with mentors every step of the way,” Pullen said.

The time was invaluable for students, who told him they learned more on the three-week production than they had in four years at the university.

“Its not at all an insult to the university, there’s just no way to teach those things in a classroom. We had several of our students go directly from that experience to jobs - and they were hired because they had this professional experience.

Pullen has put an emphasis on “soft skills” being taught at UVU as well, including marketing, legal, industry best practices and more. He said the fact that so many of the faculty are accomplished and currently working in their fields gives students an advantage. He wants to create opportunities for students to work in a professional capacity. Beyond guest artists and master classes, involvement in productions that include working professionals from outside of the community to give them weeks of experience, rather than an afternoon.

“So that the leap from academia to industry isn’t so scary, and so unknown,” Pullen said.

Films that inspire him

Requiem for a Dream

Citizen Kane - “you have to piece the pieces together in your mind, and do a little work, and then it’s incredibly emotional”

The Revenant - “an absolute masterpiece”

Dean Pullen received his MFA from the School of Cinema & Television at the University of Southern California and did his undergraduate work at BYU. He also received a diploma of drama studies from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

An accomplished screenwriter and producer, Pullen has worked on 17 full-length screenplays, including “The Ballerina,” which he wrote directed and produced and which was shown at the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals and the American Film Market.  He has also contributed to numerous television and theater productions.