Alumnus Robert Stitzel uses psychology to create characters on the big screen

Robert Stitzel pursued a B.S. in Psychology from Colorado State University because he wanted to understand people and their character, and he had an interest in clinical psychology. But after he graduated in 1969, he decided to put that understanding to a unique, creative use – filmmaking.

Today, after a range of experiences in film and TV, he is a successful screenwriter. His best known films include Brainstorm (1983), Eyes of an Angel (1991), and Distant Thunder (1988).

Opening your mind to learn

After earning his degree, Stitzel was unsure of what to do next. He connected with his distant cousin Arthur Stitzel, a professor in the speech department at CSU with an interest in film.

“I’m not sure where the interest in filmmaking came from, but it came over me,” Stitzel said. “Arthur supported me, and I started making Super 8 films. Then I made 16 mm films and one of them won a competition, which led me to film school and started my career as a filmmaker.”

Stitzel’s background in psychology played an important part in his interest in filmmaking, and was part of the reason he was known for writing good characters.

“One of the biggest aspects of a college education is that it opens your mind to learn,” Stitzel said. “I enjoyed understanding people and character. My experience at CSU opened that door to me for understanding psychological conditions that could be explored and written.”

Stitzel furthered his education with an MFA in cinematography from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, from where notable film makers such as John Carpenter and George Lucas have graduated. He experienced success during his program, making 15 films and winning awards at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Tehran International Short Film Festival.

Uncertain beginnings

Stitzel encountered some tough times immediately after graduating from his master’s program.

“My first job since graduating was cleaning urinals on a film shoot,” Stitzel recalled. “I was happy to have some work. You aren’t automatically given a job after film school, you have to fight for one and have enough talent to support yourself.”

Stitzel began creating films in the 1970s for BFA Educational Media based on short stories he had read in school. His best-selling short film for BFA was To Build a Fire, based on the story of the same name by Jack London.

He soon branched out into writing scripts for children’s television shows, including Jana of the Jungle (1978), Godzilla (1978), The Fantastic Four (1978), and Thunder (1977). Despite his success in TV, Stitzel realized that he wanted to do something different – film.

A calling card

Stitzel knew that he would need some groundbreaking ideas to get started in this new field.

“You need a calling card, which is a script that will open the doors for you,” he recalled. “I wrote Icarus and that was that script.”

Stitzel’s Icarus script, which he wrote in 1978, tells the story of Air Force pilot Albert Fiske, who is forced to retire against his wishes and hijacks an F-15. Although multiple studios showed an interest in the film, with Bruce Willis eventually being considered for the starring role, there were problems obtaining the F-15s and the film was never made.

Despite not making it to the big screen, the script opened the door for Stitzel’s 25-year career in screenwriting.

“It was a disappointment to me to say the least, but once you get in the door, you can stay in the door if you have enough talent,” Stitzel said. “I don’t have a grudge about what happened; the script was a little gold mine for me. It propelled my career for sure.”

His scripts include Brainstorm, Distant Thunder, Eyes of an Angel, and Better Late Than Never. Each script offered unique experiences and challenges. Stitzel recalled taking around two weeks to write Eyes of an Angel and around two years to write Distant Thunder.

“I found myself enjoying writing,” Stitzel said. “You’re literally creating a movie on paper.”

In addition to writing screenplays, Stitzel also taught screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles and College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita.

Although Stitzel describes himself as “pretty much retired” now, he is still writing. He is currently working on a screenplay about freeriding, which involves snowboarding on rough, un-groomed mountains without a set course. Just like the fearless big mountain freeriders, Stitzel continues to pursue his passion with grit and vigor.