Peter Hansen— the movie wizard of Sonoma Valley High
Once a shining specter of innovation and rigor, an Oz-like land of pedagogical promise, California’s public schools are now reeling in the wake of some really bad weather: collapsed home values, DOA dot-coms, and the decades-long chokehold of Prop 13. The calculus, they tell us, has become catastrophic. We have reached, they say, the fiscal tipping point. Next year, warns Governor Jerry Brown, California’s schoolchildren might just enjoy an additional month of summer. To balance the books, the school year may actually shrink by an incredible 20 days. It seems that no matter who does the math, California’s education slope-intersect pencils out in red ink.
At the epicenter of all this fiscal misery and woe is the Wizard of Sonoma Valley High School. Where other teachers go begging for pencils and chalk, the Wizard has rooms full of expensive technology. On a campus with a hint of custodial neglect, the Wizard’s vast lair sparkles and gleams. There are six rooms in his castle, all breathtakingly grand: a soundstage with teleprompter and professional lighting, a Hollywood-grade editing suite, a studio stuffed with $40,000 worth of top-shelf technology, a classroom with Smart Board and Bose sound. There’s more swag in these rooms than can be found at some film schools. It’s an incredible collection of technological dosh, and it exists because of the Wizard. He turns no’s into yes’s, turns stop into go. And he does it because, quite simply, he has to.
Before he was the Media Wizard of Sonoma High School, Peter Hansen was a traveling salesman. He schmoozed and he golfed and he took guys to lunch. He wore Brooks Brothers suits and drove a company car. He made plenty of money and got two free weeks each year. But after a decade of selling, the schtick just got old. Hansen was dogged by ennui. “I was waking up at the Four Seasons Hotel, and I was miserable. I was eating hundred dollar dinners by myself, and I was miserable. So I’m driving down to the airport, and Barbara Sher comes on. She’s a motivational speaker, and she says, ‘You’ll never be brilliant till you do what you love.’ And I said, ‘God damn it! I wanna be brilliant!’ and I’m literally banging on the steering wheel, yelling ‘I wanna be brilliant!’ I wanna be brilliant!’” So, just like that, he quit and packed his bachelor life into boxes. And then the Wizard made his way to Sonoma.
Reading the newspaper in the Plaza one day, he spotted an interesting item. The Sonoma Film Society—then a loose collective of buffs and aficionados—was hosting a film workshop for a small group of high schoolers and needed fresh troops to assist. Hansen–a film fan but no kind of expert–showed up with the idea that he’d hang around in back and await orders. Instead, he was given the reins. So there he was, just a guy off the street, in a room filled with wide-eyed teenagers. There was one flash of paralyzing panic, and then a preternatural calm descended. “The proverbial hook went around my neck,” he says of his teaching debut. “I got the bug.” Through sheer serendipity, Peter Hansen had found his true calling.
In 2002 the Sonoma Valley Unified School District gave him a half-time position and the mandate to build a media program. Hansen rolled up his sleeves, ready and willing. Then he looked at the feeble assemblage of cast-off equipment, and thought “OK, but with what?” The ragtag collection of obsolete toys made the gig tough enough, but a position funded at 50 percent made it almost impossible. How was he supposed to succeed with no equipment and half a work week in which to maneuver? He was up a creek before he’d even dipped in a paddle, so Hansen did something most public school teachers would not. He privatized his classroom.
He did it with money gifted by the board of the Sonoma Film Society, and with cash pried from the pockets of Sonoma’s benefactor class. In short order he’d rounded up a who’s who of Wine Country heavies, guys who understood the transformative power of film: Lassiter, Donnelly, Nelson, McNeely, Vadasz, Ledson. One by one they came out and vetted his story, then they got out their checkbooks and began giving. And giving. And giving. In the decade since its inception, the program has collected more than $600,000 in donations from a long list of philanthropic individuals and groups. “It just takes someone willing to kick the tires and turn over rocks,” the Wizard says of his magic, “someone who’ll spend his time going before the various entities with the means and the will to help.” Someone who can turn nothing into something remarkable.
Now, there’s a working TV station at Sonoma Valley High School. There’s Final Cut Pro on the Macs. There’s motion graphics and an animation component. There’s an annual film festival hosting two sold-out showings of student work, there’s a slick Web site exclusive to the Media Arts Program (www.SVHSvideo.com). One hundred and fifty kids funnel through Hansen’s classes each year, and there’s a line out the door to get in. But the Wizard’s not finished, he still has big plans. If you see him coming you can make this safe bet: You and a bit of your money will part ways most certainly.
It’s noon, and it’s Monday, and the Wizard is hungry. Despite his resolution to eat better this year, with all those kids at his heels all day long it’s catch as catch can. He shoots the dregs of his morning coffee and crams a handful of carbohydrate into his mouth. He won’t find his way home until well after prime time. “I work upwards of 80 hours a week,” Hansen says. “Saturdays I’m here 8 or 10 hours. What am I gonna do, go home and watch TV? I’m single, you know? As long as I get to the gym a couple of times a week, I’m all right.” He rolls into his workstation and pulls up his Web site, and his face shines with happiness as he surfs. His kids’ films are beautiful and funny and polished and raw; they astound with their range and sophistication. Each one the celluloid love child of imagination and heart, each one a mirror into the mind of a child. Each uniquely conceived and ripe with exuberance, whether manifesto or anthem or simple ode to beauty. For the Wizard, the films are the real magic. He’s just a conduit, a point of conduction; his job is to amplify what is already there. Peter Hansen clicks on a short film produced by a long-ago student. “Look at this one!” he says, leaning in.
“The greatest reward for me is when a parent comes up and says ‘Thank you’ because their son or daughter is talking to them again”.
Kids on Film
Story Jamie Ballard
Peter Hansen and I meet in his media arts lab, surrounded by stage props, various lights, professional-grade film equipment, and wires running every which way. In the next room is a control center worthy of a spaceship, with blinking lights and many, many buttons. In the adjacent million-dollar lab, students edit their films on Mac computers. The walls are plastered with movie posters. The place is, in short, a film geek’s dream.
“Students should be able to use great equipment,” Peter Hansen says. “Good equipment motivates students. Much of the time in school, they’re just bored. This takes them in a new direction. You give them lighting kits, show them their video on screen with really crisp audio, and they just light up. It’s all about the kids,” Hansen’s reason for building this cinematic pleasure palace? “The greatest reward for me is when a parent comes up and says ‘Thank you’ because their son or daughter is talking to them again. They’ve gone from moping around with no direction to being excited about something. I love seeing that connection.”
For a good number of Peter Hansen’s kids, that connection proves powerful enough to give shape to their adult lives: He estimates 10 percent of his students go on to pursue careers in media. “Even those who don’t become filmmakers later in life still learn and take away something from this class. This program is about using media to help teens. A lot of them find it very cathartic–it helps them figure stuff out in other aspects of their lives. You’ll have a kid making a movie, say, about a boy who’s under a lot of pressure to succeed, but all he really wants to do is pursue his own personal dreams, and then you’ll realize that the kid is telling his own story through film, and it’s really amazing to watch.”
Hanson’s young filmmakers tell stories of yearning and angst; they tell the tale of adolescence in the way only kids can. Teen pregnancy, disfunctional families, the quest for love, the painful, often cruel, social hierarchy of high school. One student film, The D.D. by SVHS graduate Mike Lee, dealt with the specter of teenage drunk driving so impressively that it was chosen to premier in the lineup of films at the 2009 Sonoma Valley Film Festival.
SVHS alum Mike Abela credits Hansen’s program for effectively charting the happy course of his life. “If it were not for Peter Hansen and the video production program at Sonoma Valley High, I would not be where I am today. I would probably be in a totally different field of work and quite frankly, not as happy as I am right now with my career choice and lifestyle,” he says. “Since I was 14 years old, Peter Hansen has helped guide me and my path. Now, I make my living off the industry.” Abela, who graduated from film school just this year, travels the globe producing music videos, documentaries and promotional/nonprofit films. With Andres Rico, another 2006 alumni, Abela produced a documentary titled En El Salón de la Pormesas, which chronicles the education system of El Salvador. He is currently at work on a film about Thailand’s Tibetan monks. Hansen remembers his early encounters with Abela well. “He comes in, this 14 year old kid, and says, ‘Mr. Hansen, I want to be a cinematographer, help me get a plan for my life.’ I still remember. I was a new teacher and it scared me! How do I do this?” But in the end, the guru confesses of his student, “He taught me so much.”
And there’s Luke Lasley, too, a senior this year, whose gorgeously shot film, The Lemon Tree, will screen at the 2012 film festival. Lasley, like Abela and Rico before him, is hopelessly smitten with the idea of filmmaking. He will travel to Africa this summer to shoot a documentary about the lack of clean drinking water in the villages surrounding Lake Victoria, Uganda.
Hansen admits that all the bells and whistles may draw the students in to the program, but if they don’t respect the class or equipment, and if they don’t develop a passion for the art of filmmaking, he’s failed them somehow. Well-equipped as it may be, the lab’s true magnetism seems to come from something deeper. Perhaps it’s the passion for film Hansen exhibits, perhaps it’s the creative outlet many students seek solace in, or perhaps it’s the thrill of opportunity that runs through the room like a quiet current.