Unreal on Reel, with Director James Kerwin

James Kerwin photo

By Will Zimmerman

If tasked to ascribe the prerequisites for a career in science-fiction film, what might you choose? A major in Film Production, a minor in Astrophysics? How about a dash of art history? Russian and Physics, thrown in for good measure?

Directing credits for James Kerwin (ΦBK, Texas Christian University) span short films, features, web series and theater, and for nearly 25 years, he’s worked almost entirely within the science-fiction genre. But for Kerwin, with a science teacher for a mother and a history teacher for a father, a career in Hollywood, much less as a sci-fi filmmaker, was never a foregone conclusion. 

Instead, the St. Louis native said his parents encouraged him to find what he loved, and to study hard so he could make a career there, wherever there might be. “[My parents] recognized the importance of scholarship in a competitive world,” Kerwin said. “They got me interested from a young age.”

Those interests were wide-ranging and ardently ambitious, at least by typical elementary school standards. Kerwin was a well-read second grader—so well read, that his teacher at the time, Ms. Nicholas, plucked him from her standard class lectures and let him choose a course of study he might find more engaging. Seven-year-old Kerwin selected the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci.

While his classmates were adding and subtracting on their fingers, singing songs, and stumbling over multi-syllable words, Kerwin remembered spending much of second grade writing his kids-level da Vinci book.  

That penchant for studying independently evolved throughout middle and high school. Teachers recognized Kerwin’s initiative, and in turn, provided ample encouragement and support, allowing Kerwin to make his studies his own. Conversations with his parents deepened, too. At the same time, science-fiction films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were enrapturing the teenager, cementing his burgeoning infatuation with the celestial and the filmic medium. When high school teachers assigned written reports, Kerwin would make short films instead.

With senior year approaching, Kerwin began to think seriously about universities where he could pursue his scientific interests alongside film.

Enrolling at Texas Christian University, a double-major seemed like the logical choice. That is, until he realized the disciplines would require two entirely different course plans. “I would have been in school until my late-30s,” Kerwin said. 

In the end, his film studies took precedence. The intimate nature of the film program at TCU had been part of the reason he chose the school in the first place—this wasn’t USC or UCLA, with hundreds of students clamoring for coveted equipment or the bandwidth of besieged professors.

At TCU, and much in the same way Ms. Nicholas had done nearly a decade earlier, the film department faculty recognized Kerwin’s ambition. If he could write a biography in the second grade, why not write, direct, and produce a feature-length film as an undergraduate?

Once again, the support and encouragement came hand-in-hand, this time with Kerwin endeavoring to transpose those lessons gleaned in lecture halls onto his first film set. “It was a real group effort,” he said, recalling the team of professors who guided him along each step of production—from scriptwriting through color grading—as well as the other TCU film students who rounded out his crew in exchange for course credits of their own. Filmmaking is a deeply collaborative art, and Kerwin found himself developing people skills and business skills along with his growing technical dexterity.

The self-described “Indiana Jones rip-off” Kerwin produced, with classmates but without a budget, was an invaluable learning experience. It was a labor of love, albeit quite a complicated one given that he had an equally fervent love demanding his time and attention on the other side of campus, that is, “learning quantum mechanics and particle physics and writing papers on chromodynamics and Higgs Bosons,” Kerwin recalled.

The scientific proclivities hadn’t been abandoned, they were riding shotgun in the form of a minor in astrophysics. 

Math had never been a strong suit, so when presented with the opportunities of upper-level courses, Kerwin found himself gravitating towards the theoretical and cosmological side of things, “the realm of ideas,” he explained.

The closer Kerwin looked—the more microscopic his studies into the fundamental workings of the universe became—the more fluidly discussions seemed to slide into murky waters. Within the classroom and during his professors’ office hours, he probed the inextricable links between these forces and questions that seemed to offer no answer—questions about the nature of consciousness, about time and reality. He was stupefied. Enthralled. A giddy kid again, back inside the cinema of his youth, at 2001, watching apes screeching and clawing, the sun setting over an austere black monolith on a planet that couldn’t possibly be his.

Whatever further impetus Kerwin needed to dive whole-heartedly into the messy and confusing scientific underpinnings of the universe and their intersectionality with humankinds’ most profound and open-ended questions, Kenneth Lawrence provided. Lawrence, former chair of the religion department and TCU professor emeritus, instructed Kerwin in classes spanning religion and art history.

“He continued that tradition of teachers, as far back as in elementary school, who encouraged me not to lose sight of the artistic side of things,” Kerwin said. “In fact, he showed that those aren’t even two different sides . . . we spent many, many hours in his office discussing how academia and art go hand-in-hand.”

In one of those office visits during Kerwin’s senior year, Lawrence told his mentee he’d be recommending him for Phi Beta Kappa. “I was shocked,” Kerwin said. “I didn’t think it was something that I would ever be invited to. And it meant a great deal coming from him.”

Lawrence passed away 10 years after Kerwin’s graduation, but their conversations continue to influence his work. 

Currently in development is Contre-Coup, which Kerwin calls a “spiritual successor” to his feature debut Yesterday Was a Lie (2009). “It’s a film that deals with some very fundamental questions of reality as they relate to human experience and human relationships.” 

It’s an exploration Kerwin could only conduct within the realm of science fiction.

“It’s such a rich genre,” he said. “We can shine a light on these concepts we may never find answers to from the hypothetical outside.”

As is almost always the case, with Contre-Coup, Kerwin is working with material he developed, exploring with ever-increasing depth the biggest questions prompted by his education, and his educators—mom and dad, Ms. Nicholas, and Dr. Lawrence, too. 

“That’s where my passion is,” Kerwin said, “I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an interdisciplinary degree in journalism, film, and creative writing. He was inducted into the Delta of North Carolina chapter several weeks before his graduation.

Photo at top by Heather Grace Young.