After a career in screenwriting and film directing, Emily Weissman Schindler '89 switched gears. She and her husband followed their shared passion and opened their own wine import business, focusing on wines from Austria, Germany, Italy, and France. Despite her busy schedule, Emily took the time to tell us about her path since graduation.
Tell us about your post–Walnut Hill journey. Where did you go after graduation, and how did it lead you to where you are today?
My first stop was NYU Tisch as a film major. When I started at Walnut Hill, I was a dancer, but a back injury ended that path. While I was technically a theater major after that (but a terrible actor!), I knew that I wanted to pursue filmmaking—specifically, writing and directing. I had a Dorm Parent who taught me how to write in screenplay format, and I joined the creative writing gang that Steve Durning put together. My English teacher, Firkins Reed, also pushed me to write, and as she happened to be my College Counselor, she encouraged me to apply early decision to NYU. I honestly can't even remember which other colleges I applied to; it was pretty much NYU or bust. The program was fantastic—you're thrown right in with lots of film classes mixed alongside the usual basics needed for the degree. I took a "gap year" halfway through to study poetry and creative writing at the Lacoste School of the Arts in France, which bolstered my idea of myself as being a writer and creative soul—in those first years of NYU film, you have a lot of technical classes that are absolutely critical, but it can dampen the creative spirit if you let it. I would love to tell you that I learned to speak French while I was there, but I am absolutely useless at learning languages. I did, however, continue my appreciation for wine that my parents instilled in me from a young age, as the school is located smack in the middle of Provence. A seed was planted—again, if you are educated with the idea to be open to anything, a whole bunch of lovely seeds are likely to be planted as you wander through the world.
Upon my return to NYU, I was given the opportunity to take some creative writing courses in the graduate writing program, which was great and, again, absolutely inspiring. I completed my B.F.A. with an honors certificate and the screenwriting award, and after that I spent some time working as a screenwriter. What I was paid to write were scripts based on other people's ideas, and rewrites of other scripts. This took its toll, and I admit that I completely lost one of the key things that it takes to move forward in that world: the discipline to sit down and work on one's own things—to get it done, rather than complain about not getting it done. So I kicked myself in the butt and applied to the American Film Institute to get my master's degree in directing. I was accepted and I loved every minute of being back in a culture where you are free to experiment, study, and grow. It's really like being a kid during summer vacation—your "job" is to do what you want to do! After AFI, I hustled around for a while, followed my thesis film from film festival to film festival, and picked up jobs here and there. I won't tell you the name of the trailer I was paid to write and direct, but I will tell you that I dragged along two Walnut alumni to act in it (thank you, Benny and Eddie!), and frankly, sometimes even when the project isn't exactly the gritty black-and-white independent film you thought you'd be making when you started college, it's still a damned good time to do that thing you love (especially on somebody else's dime).
I had the great good luck to meet my husband while at AFI. He was in the producing program, and we worked on a few projects together before deciding to start our own little company. We hacked away at it together for a few years, but started having a couple of thoughts: first, we did not love the work we were doing that paid the bills; and second, the jobs often meant being apart for long periods of time. So we would sit together in the evening, drinking wine, wondering what to do next. Because my husband is from Austria, we spent a good deal of time trying to hunt down Austrian wines in Los Angeles wine shops but couldn't find many, so it was on one of those nights spent swirling and sipping that we had the "eureka" moment and decided to start our wine import business. Looking back, each step I took seems like the natural progression to exactly where I am today. I'm doing something that I'm passionate about, and when I'm not doing the boring bits that just need to get done, I get to travel to different wine regions and I'm back to those moments where my "job" feels like being a kid on summer vacation.
How have the skills you learned at Walnut Hill been useful in your career, in the art world as well as in your current vocation?
At Walnut Hill, I was taught to think outside the box—to push myself to try new things without fear. I knew nothing about the wine business when my husband and I decided to start our company, but it never occurred to me that that might be a problem. We just went for it and didn't give up, and even though it took a few years to get it off the ground, we're now importing wines from Austria, Germany, Italy, and France as well as making our own wine here in California. In 2016, we were inducted into the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Sacavin in the Loire, and it was utterly surreal. Men in striped tights marching with trumpets blaring. Others in long robes and pointy hats. Being tapped on each shoulder with a staff that was a 100-year-old vine, followed by a grand dinner at a château. It could have been the Boar's Head Feast! You really never know which situations in life you are being prepared for during your time as a Walnut.
What is your favorite memory or experience from your time at Walnut Hill?
My friendships—both with my peers and with my teachers. Most of us are still in touch, and thanks to Facebook we're actually still in touch quite a bit. They all continue to amaze me as I follow them along their different paths.
Do you have any advice for our aspiring young artists?
Persistence, persistence, persistence. You'll have setbacks and you'll have to take jobs that are not exactly the dream. But the people I see who have "made it" are the ones who never gave up. And if your heart leads you in a different direction? Follow it.