During a recent trip home to Columbia, Ken LaZebnik and his brother Rob knocked on the door of their family’s old house in the Wilson Avenue neighborhood. They didn’t know what to expect.
When a college student answered and invited them inside, LaZebnik—who now directs a Stephens College program in Los Angeles for aspiring TV and screenwriters—discovered an enduring college-town truth: Some things never change.
“It was slightly disheartening,” said LaZebnik, laughing. On the one hand, the brothers found what you might expect in a house with five college guys—a beat-up couch and a beer keg in the middle of the room. On the other hand, they found plenty of evidence from their past, including a blackboard his mother hung in a second-story room and 1970s kitchen cabinetry.
“For us, it was fun,” he said. “It was like walking into an Egyptian tomb that’s been desecrated by tomb raiders.”
That kind of vivid imagery that he conjures with words has made LaZebnik successful as a Hollywood writer. His many accomplishments include having a seven-year run on “Touched by an Angel” and co-authoring the story of the movie “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor.
Yet for all of those accomplishments, LaZebnik is especially proud of his latest project: empowering women TV and screenwriters through the Stephens College Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in TV and Screenwriting, a program he oversees from California. Representation of women in all aspects of filmmaking is a hot topic in Hollywood, and LaZebnik will play an important role in shaping the next generation of entertainment with direct ties to Columbia and Stephens College.
Ever a master of time management, LaZebnik has other important projects in the works, too. His screenplay “Sterling,” about Columbia native Sterling Wyatt who died in Afghanistan in 2012, has had several readings in Los Angeles. LaZebnik is pursuing opportunities to turn it into a movie.
A Successful Career
LaZebnik is the son of Columbia educators and one of four children. His two brothers, Philip and Rob, also are successful TV and film writers. His sister, Cindy, is a magazine writer in Israel. LaZebnik’s father, Jack, taught English and creative writing at Stephens College and had many plays produced at the school. His mother, Vesta, taught fourth grade at Field Elementary School.
After graduating from Hickman High School in 1972, LaZebnik attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where he majored in theater and English. Upon graduation, he wrote, directed and acted in plays in Chicago and Minneapolis. After meeting his wife, Kate, the two moved to New York City and started an off-off Broadway theater company with friends.
The trajectory of LaZebnik’s career changed in 1990 with the birth of his oldest son, Jack. In New York, they lived in a four-flight walkup apartment. While visiting LaZebnik’s brothers in Los Angeles, they saw neighborhoods that reminded them of Columbia. They relocated in 1991, and within a year LaZebnik had been hired onto the short-lived TV drama “Jack’s Place.”
Over the decade that followed, LaZebnik wrote for a variety of TV shows and films. Yet his connection to Columbia never waned. After his father died in 2004, he became dean of the School of Performing Arts at Stephens College, a role LaZebnik held two years. He stepped down to be closer to home.
Three years ago, he was inspired to begin a new venture with Stephens after a friend began teaching a low-residency program in TV and screenwriting. “I thought, ‘That’s a great model, and it seems like something Stephens could do,” LaZebnik recalled. When Dianne Lynch, president of the college, suggested LaZebnik open a satellite campus in Los Angeles, it made perfect sense.
“It’s been really successful and really fun, and a great group of students,” he said.
Students involved in Stephens’ two-year low-residency program kick off studies with a workshop in August. They then work online during the fall. A workshop is held the following January, after which students work online in the spring. They repeat the process during a second year to complete the degree requirements.
The program had 20 students for the fall 2015 semester, including 17 women and three men. While Stephens is a women’s college at the undergraduate level, it is required by law to admit men to advanced degree programs.
Because of strong interest from prospective students, LaZebnik allowed first-year enrollment to exceed capacity. “I liken this to the elephant going through the boa constrictor,” he said. Enrollment will likely cap at about 12 students in future semesters to ensure each receives plenty of one-on-one time in the small space available at the satellite campus.
Future of Film
All core faculty members of the new Stephens program are working writers. Classes are held at Jim Henson Studios, and Muppets are everywhere, LaZebnik said. The famous facility’s prestigious history dates to the era of silent films.
“It was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1918, and it still has the soundstage where he filmed ‘The Great Dictator’ and ‘Modern Times,’” LeZebnik said.
During their time on campus, students hear from a host of respected professionals. LaZebnik acknowledges many of them aren’t familiar personally to the public because they often work behind the scenes. Yet their work is immediately recognizable. For example, past guest speakers included Linda Woolverton, the highest-paid woman screenwriter of all time whose 25-year career with Disney has included “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Maleficent.”
Through his work with Stephens, LaZebnik hopes he will help accomplish two primary objectives. First, he wants to get more women writing for TV and film. As viewers abandon traditional cable in favor of streaming online channels, there has never been a better time to be in the industry.
“There are a ton of opportunities right now in terms of getting into the workforce,” he said.
Second, he wants to raise the profile of Stephens College, its fine arts programs and its premier film events such as the Citizen Jane Film Festival, for which he returns annually. He views Columbia as a rich amalgamation of academic investigation, artwork, farming and more. Plus, it is home to his favorite Booche’s hamburgers.
A Military Tribute
One of Ken LaZebnik’s current projects is “Sterling,” a screenplay about Columbia native Sterling Wyatt, who died in 2012 while serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. The play has had several readings in Los Angeles, and LaZebnik is pursuing opportunities to turn it into a movie.
He became inspired to take on the project after his son Jack enrolled at West Point. Jack LaZebnik is now a first lieutenant in the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga.
“That experience changed me and added an additional layer to things I wanted to write about,” Ken LaZebnik said. “My father was a B-24 pilot in World War II, but I had no experience in the military, nor did my wife. All I had were preconceptions in large part formed by my own industry.”
When LaZebnik heard that a fellow Columbia native had been killed in the line of duty—and that Columbia residents had lined up in support to block out protesters from Westboro Baptist Church—he knew it was a project he had to pursue.
“I just thought what a wonderful, inspiring story, and it’s my hometown, and it’s the military,” LaZebnik said. “Sterling” is told from the perspective of the soldier’s mother, and Wyatt’s real-life mother, Sheri, visited Los Angeles to hear one of the readings.
“It was moving and successful,” LeZebnik said.