Filmmaking, Moxie, and the Deep Sillies

Meet Shapiro Fellow Maryanne Culpepper

January 10, 2014

In a dark sinkhole 200 feet below the waves off the Florida coast, Maryanne Culpepper laughed.

"It was pitch black dark and I should have been scared, but I was happy—way too happy," said Culpepper. "I didn't realize it until my scuba guide gave me the sign that I had a case of the deep sillies (nitrogen narcosis), a temporary effect of breathing under high pressure that makes you feel giddy."

Following that deep dive, one of Culpepper's first, she would go on to become an avid scuba diver and develop a respect and concern for the natural world. Her fearlessness about exploring nature ignited her on a career that would take her all over the world writing and producing films.

This spring the award-winning writer/producer joined the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) as a Shapiro Fellow. Her course "Tales from the Natural World" focuses on the history of nature films, how to develop stories, and why the audience consistently loves films about the natural world.

"We should be excited and inspired by the planet," she said. "I started making films to help others connect with nature and experience places like the Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica, and Chile through that imagery and story-telling."
After spending 18 years with National Geographic Television and an impressive career writing and producing film, video, and web productions for Disney, Universal, Time-Life, Discovery, and her production company Graffiti Works, Culpepper has a few lessons to impart on her students.

"It's all about story-telling," said Culpepper. "Think of yourself as a writer first—whether you're working on film, a book, the web, or an article—and then adopt the story to the medium."

She advises students just starting out to find a story they want to tell. She said not to be afraid to approach filmmakers or companies they respect with a story idea as that moxie is the key to getting projects off the ground.

"When I was working with National Geographic on story development, I was rushing through a lobby in New York and a French man approached me saying, 'My team wintered-over in Antarctica. I would like to show you some footage,'" said Culpepper. "Nobody 'wintered-over' in Antarctica, so I was intrigued enough to stop rushing and see what he had."

The man was Emmanuel Priou and the footage he showed Culpepper eventually became the award-winning March of the Penguins produced by National Geographic and Priou's company Bonne Pioche.

Beyond her work at SMPA, Culpepper is currently producing a film about oil and gas reserves in Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, working on a natural history television series, and developing a new book.

About the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Fellows in Media and Public Affairs

Established in 1997 as part of the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Charitable Trust, Shapiro Fellows in Media and Public Affairs are active, respected professionals in a field related to media and public affairs who are invited to campus for an academic semester to teach and participate in school activities.