Making His Mark: From College Television Award Winner to Shooting Netflix’s Interactive "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" Special
For three decades Director-Cinematographer John Inwood has been bringing TV favorites to life.
We can learn a lot from director-cinematographer John Inwood. Since winning a College Television Award for comedy in 1987, the Emmy-nominated TV veteran has persevered through early career challenges while making some of life's hard decisions. "When I decided to go to NYU grad school, I didn't care about going into debt, it was my life and I was worth investing in," Inwood says "I worked hard to put myself through it." Determined to succeed, he took a chance and submitted his 33-minute single-camera comedy to the Television Academy Foundation's College Television Awards competition - and won! "It was hugely important that I won that award because it gave me career confidence that directly impacts me today," he says.
After graduation, the NYU alum continued working for free on student films while also shooting music videos for artists such as R.E.M. In 1994, he received his big break when he was hired to shoot Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete and Pete and later, eight seasons of Scrubs. His latest project, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt premieres its interactive finale special today on Netflix, and he tells us all about it.
You are a College Television Award winner! Do you remember the excitement of that experience?
It was incredible. I won the College Television Award for comedy in 1987 for my comedy-drama, What Then. Susan Dey, the star of The Partridge Family was a big star at the time, and she presented me with my award. I was so excited and very nervous. I remember I wore a suit, and told myself, "this could be my start in television!"
The Television Academy Foundation flew me out from New York to Los Angeles for the show and the reception which was filled with other student filmmakers and working industry professionals. I took their business cards and enjoyed networking opportunities. I felt like I was a part of the industry. I was still in school then. At the time, I was going to the graduate school at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and graduated as a writer-director.
What made you then decide to be a cinematographer instead of a director?
I wanted to direct, I loved directing and would eventually direct. But, at the time I saw how hard it was to get a film made. I saw many students a few years out of college still trying to get their big indie film made. I immediately saw the writing on the wall that this will take a while before I could pull a film off. After putting myself through undergrad and graduate school, I wanted to get to work in the industry immediately and not have to wait years. Cinematography was a pathway to do it.
How did winning the College Television Award impact your career?
As a student, I worked very hard. But after I won, I felt I could actually compete in the industry now. My experience directing What Then, which won me the College Television Award gave me some of the skills I needed later on for when I was tapped to direct Scrubs. It made the transition from cinematographer to director easier.
Growing up, did you always know you wanted to be in film and television and were your parents supportive of this career path?
I always loved television shows and movies. I was born in Santa Monica but grew up in Brooklyn in a family of artists who were always supportive of my career choices because they knew I was driven. My mother is a composer, my uncle is a violist, my brother is a guitarist, my sister is a painter; I wanted to be a writer actually. I went to Vassar and studied literature during my undergrad. But as an avid photographer from an early age, I realized since I loved both photography and story - it made sense to combine the two which would be film and television. So, my senior year at Vassar, I took the history and theory of film which was a full year course of the history of filmmaking and I loved it. Even though I graduated from Vassar with an English degree, I kept film and television in my mind. I didn't know how to get into the business. It was a friend of my brother's that suggested I work on student films. That's how I ended up hanging out at NYU and working on student films for free, just to get my feet wet. Shortly thereafter, I applied to NYU grad school and continued working on student films for free, even after I graduated.
What TV shows from your childhood inspired you the most?
My favorites growing up were TV shows such as Hogan's Heroes and Bewitched. I didn't like sitcoms as much as I liked the single-camera comedies which are shot more like movies.
You shot every episode of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt! Describe your job/role on the show.
The cinematographer is the keeper of the look of the show, part of my job is to work with the producers to shoot and maintain the style of the show, and to make sure that they get all the coverage they want.
What was it like working on today's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive finale special?
After the interactive Black Mirror episode was widely successful, Netflix decided they wanted another interactive special but with a comedy. They chose the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for that. Working on the interactive finale, "Kimmy vs. the Reverend" was very challenging as the episode was very ambitious. The script was 155 pages and had to be shot in 23 days. The director Claire Scanlon, assistant director Stuart Feldman, and the script supervisor Mary Kelly were incredibly well-planned which made things easier. It was a team effort to keep everything efficient and on track. All the preparation and organization allowed us to maximize the number of shots and execution of all the special moments that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock created in their incredible script.
During the special, you're going to be able to choose your own adventure; there's going to be many instances where you'll have to make a choice between two or three things. For example, the characters Kimmy and Titus come to a fork in the road, and they have to decide whether to go left or right and the viewer will make that choice.
As a former student nominee, what advice do you have for this year's College Television Award nominees?
Remember what it is that you want to do; if you want to be a director, producer or writer, try and get a job in the business where you can make a living. But always remember your goal. Even if you're working as a PA, keep writing and working on that script or whatever the project is. Never lose sight of what you aspire to do. Make the sacrifices to go after that goal and use your resources wisely.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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