The new chair of the University of New Haven’s Department of Communication, Film and Media Studies returns to his alma mater to expand opportunities for students and change their lives much like the program changed his a generation ago.
by Mark J. Drozdowski, Director of University Communications
Tom Garrett is a name-dropper, but not in an obnoxious way. He mentions stars such as Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, John Travolta, Molly Ringwald and Rod Steiger in the normal course of a conversation about his 30-plus years as a film producer and director.
In fact, he’s such a name-dropper that he dropped his own. Fellow University of New Haven alumni—Garrett graduated in 1983 with a degree in communications—would know him as Tom Gniazdowski, which doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily. “Garrett” comes from Pat Garrett of Billy the Kid fame, “the bad guy who turns good,” he said.
This fall he returned to the University as associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication, Film and Media Studies. Most recently at Sam Houston State University in Texas, Garrett came back because the area is home to family and friends. But more important, he says, he wanted the chance to build the program, engage the community, expand opportunities for students and change their lives much like the program changed his a generation ago.
Raised in North Haven, Garrett followed a circuitous route to the University of New Haven. He originally enrolled at the University of Miami. While home for the summers, he took intensive workshops here in the newly created communications department, led by M.L. McLaughlin. He studied children’s television and documentary filmmaking. After his second summer, Garrett decided to transfer “because I was getting a better experience,” he said.
He did so in 1980. His arrival coincided with that of Jean Bodon, a professor who would become a mentor and lifelong friend and who would put Garrett on the path he’s followed ever since.
“I noticed him right away,” said Bodon, now chair of the Department of Mass Communication at Sam Houston State, who recruited Garrett to join him in Texas. “He was a great student.”
‘It Changed My Life’
Bodon took Garrett to the Cannes Film Festival in France, an event to which Garrett has returned almost every year, often with students in tow.
“It changed my life,” said the fast-talking Garrett, who sports a lean runner’s build and an ’80s hair band shock of brown locks.
Bodon also suggested Garrett apply to the film program at New York University. He did, was accepted, completed his MFA and stayed on for five years to help supervise undergraduates and produce student films. While there, he was summoned back to New Haven by Bodon and Paul Falcone ’83, a former classmate who’s now director of instructional and institutional media at the University. They wanted to make a movie.
Garrett’s directorial debut was titled Tin Star Void (aka Death Collector), a futuristic western that’s become a cult classic. “One reviewer called it ‘the greatest sci-fi action adventure movie no one has ever seen, heard of or celebrated,’” he quipped. They shot on campus and around West Haven and New Haven, enlisting students’ help. The movie aired at film festivals in Florence and in Berlin and “got a lot of traction,” Garrett said.
A Master Storyteller
For the next few years, Garrett produced films in the U.S. and in Europe, while Bodon left for Florida State’s film program. The two would soon collaborate on another movie venture, this one indirectly involving Quentin Tarantino. Garrett weaves together strands of the tale like a master storyteller eagerly describing his latest flick.
‘A big champion of experiential learning’
Garrett stayed in Florida because it’s fertile ground for filmmakers. Some states and municipalities offer tax incentives to attract film productions, which in turn benefit the economy. The crews, often on site for many months, spend money on hotels, office space, dry cleaners and restaurants. Producers hire locals as extras, employ accountants and pay location fees. It’s a big machine, Garrett said.
“What drives producers is one thing: money, and whoever is giving it away,” he said. “Some states pay 40 cents on the dollar. That’s why there are more movies being made in Georgia than in Hollywood, more in Louisiana than in Hollywood. I always tell students don’t go to Hollywood. Go to Louisiana or New Mexico or Connecticut. Go there first, and you’ll have a better chance. Find a local production company and get your foot in the door. That way, you’re not a small fish in a huge pond like L.A.”
‘Our Students Will Most Certainly Benefit’
He’ll also be bringing to campus big names from the world of entertainment to interact with students and draw in the community. Garrett already has an A-list slate of speakers lined up, including producer Christine Vachon and Martha Coolidge, the first female president of the Directors Guild of America and a New Haven native. Perhaps he’ll even land Spike Lee, who worked in the equipment room at NYU when he and Garrett were students together.
“He’s an acquaintance and an inspiration,” said Garrett of Lee, who’s now the creative director for NYU’s film program.
All this activity undergirds Garrett’s aim to build the Communications program substantially and attract more majors. When Bodon recruited him to Sam Houston State in 2012, that program had no students. Three years later, it had more than 200.
“What I remember about Tom, from when we first met as classmates in 1980, is what a lot of folks here are about to find out,” Falcone said. “He has a lot of positive energy, is super creative and has a ‘we can make things happen’ attitude. Our students will most certainly benefit from his experience and impressive network of industry connections.” Falcone said.