Getting rejected from film school as an undergraduate may have been the best thing that ever happened to Zack Morrison.
He decided in 2010 to enroll at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, a few miles from his home, where he truly discovered himself as a filmmaker.
“I was one of the first film students at Rutgers, which was an incredible opportunity.” said Morrison, 24, who graduated from Rutgers' School of Communication and Information in 2014 with a degree in journalism and digital filmmaking. “It was a right place, right time sort of thing.”
Morrison was among a group of students and faculty who helped build a comprehensive film program under the Mason Gross School of the Arts, which has since launched a BFA filmmaking degree. While studying at Rutgers, he produced several short works that got him to film festivals across the country, including the acclaimed Cannes Film Festival in France during his junior year.
Now he’s made it to film school, living in New York City as a third-year graduate student at Columbia University School of the Arts, and this semester he is also a writer’s room intern at NBC.
“College was such a maturing process,” said Morrison, who was also involved with the Rutgers’ Cap & Skull honors society as well as the Student Life media team. “It helped me grow into my own and come out of my shell. But even more so was the self-confidence to keep moving forward and the ability to identify the next step.”
As a young boy growing up in East Brunswick, Morrison was fascinated by movies. But it was a Steven Spielberg LEGO set that his parents gave him for Christmas when he was 12 that convinced Morrison he wanted to be a filmmaker.
“It was the coolest thing ever. You would build your city with all these buildings, and then you’d have a dinosaur come in and squash it,” said Morrison. “It came with a little USB webcam, so you could shoot your own movie. And it came with this little editing software too, and you could put it all together, so it just blew my mind.”
Ever since then, Morrison has been the family documentarian, spending his high school years taking every media and video production course offered at East Brunswick High School.
Then came the disappointment of rejection. Gearing up for his college education and hoping to get into film school, Morrison was rejected from the likes of NYU and faced financial troubles as well. Rutgers became his best choice for success.
“Life will always have its twists and turns,” Morrison said. “And things won't always go the way you expected. But if you can take those opportunities and ‘yes, and’ them, to borrow an improv term, you can always build off of a situation and take the ball and run with it.”
Once at Rutgers, he thrived. As a freshman, Morrison lived in a broadcast television community, working with RU-tv, a student-run television network. It was there where he got a glimpse of what it was like to work with a dedicated and creative team.
“Living with 40 some people who all wanted to get into TV, who all wanted to make stuff… it was a party,” said Morrison. “The whole year was great. As a freshman in college at such a huge school, to have that tight community, that’s what really got me going.”
He has now found a similar community at Columbia, working on an MFA in screenwriting and directing. On his way toward the ultimate goal of selling a television pilot or completing his own feature film, Morrison has other projects to boast about in the meantime.
Starting as an assignment for class in April of 2015, the YouTube variety show “We Have A Show” took off as another way for Morrison and his friends to create and get involved. The crowdsourced sketch comedy and variety show is a new and exciting medium, he said. And creating web content in addition to filmmaking has been a positive learning experience.
While studying at Columbia, Morrison has written screenplays for two feature films in addition to writing two television pilots, all while creating more short films along the way.
A busy and driven graduate student, Morrison still makes time to return to Rutgers to show support for his fellow Scarlet Knights.
“Rutgers was the best four years of my life,” says Morrison. “There’s never a time when I think, ‘Oh, I wish I had done this, or I wish I could’ve done that,’ because I feel like I’ve done it all.”