As a shy, creative 13-year-old, Academy Award-winning director Peter Werner '64 had trouble fitting in at Hotchkiss. But his turning point came when actor Bradford Dillman '47 visited campus to give a talk about his career. "I was this insecure student, and here was this guy who went to Hotchkiss, then Yale, and who went to Hollywood and made it. So I really believed something like that was possible," Werner said.
On March 7, Werner returned to Hotchkiss to inspire students, just as Dillman had inspired him decades ago. He imparted the same message of believing in "possibilities." With discipline, resilience, and patience, he told students, it's possible to make it in the highly competitive film industry.
After Hotchkiss, Werner attended Dartmouth and the American Film Academy, earning masters degrees in education and filmmaking. While in Vermont, he met Frances Flaherty, widow of the great "father of documentaries," Robert Flaherty, who produced the first commercially successful feature-length documentary film, Nanook of the North. Werner directed a documentary on Frances that was produced by his younger brother, Tom Werner '67, who went on to create The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and many others. (Tom is currently co-owner of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club.)
Early in his career, Werner won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1977 for directing In the Region of Ice, based on a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. "We submitted it to the Academy, knowing we would never win," he said. The film cost $15,000 to make, while other films had multi-million dollar budgets.
Werner went on to amass a number of television credits, including The Ghost Whisperer, Medium, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, A Different World, The Wonder Years, Moonlighting, and Graham Yost's series Boomtown and Justified. He has been nominated for multiple Emmy and Directors Guild of America Awards. He won an American Cinema Editors cable Award for his HBO film, The Image, starring Albert Finney. Most recently, he has directed episodes of the NBC series Grimm. Currently, he is a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem, N.C.
"When I'm behind the camera I am so focused — on what the actor does, the color of the set, everything. Directing is so much about people, about relationships and communication," he said.
For more than 30 years, Werner has also practiced Buddhism, which helps keep him focused and balanced.
"I tend to be very easily discouraged. Sometimes, failure is the only option in my mind," said Werner, wryly. "But when you practice a philosophy like Buddhism, you bring out the best in yourself and in others on a daily basis. It takes all the gunk and fears of your life and transforms it into determination and motivation."
Werner's visit was made possible by the Visiting Lecturers and Filmmakers Fund.