AURORA | Mark Kassen could have passed for one of the college students he was about to lecture to about his long road to success — a road he doesn’t want to stop traveling any time soon.
The Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated actor/filmmaker/playwright, who will star in the upcoming Derrick Borte film “Stars,” also sits on the board of directors of Cercacor Laboratories, a medical technology company.
Wednesday afternoon, the jeans-and-T-shirt-clad Kassen darted around the Art Exhibit Room in Wells College’s Macmillan Hall, ensuring the projection screen at the front of the room would be able to display a pitch for a movie he created and wanted students to see. He fidgeted with the keys of a small electric keyboard that was connected to the console to make sure the sound would work.
Kassen was there as part of a lecture series through Wells’ new Sullivan Center for Business and Entrepreneurship, said Jonathan Greene, the center’s interim director.
“We thought Mark would be a great example of someone who has struggled a lot, but who has accomplished a lot through his struggles,” said Greene, who has known Kassen since ninth grade. “He created his own pathway. That’s a great entrepreneurship story.”
Kassen’s story did not start out as a tale of a wildly successful acting virtuoso. As a boy, the Fayetteville native was dyslexic, didn’t do too well in school, did not come from money and never went to film school.
But Kassen believes not having the confinement of film school and being forced to use what he had to make movies helped him become resourceful and stay fresh, creating ideas for filmmaking that no one had thought of before.
“I wasn’t burdened with the knowledge of film school, how it ‘should’ be done,” he said. “I’d never done it before.”
His goal was to make movies — to turn the stories in his head into something that other people could share.
“All I wanted to do, by the way, was make a movie ... make my own movie,” he said.
Without a large budget, Kassen turned to “karaoke videos” and started filming however he could, learning equipment by trial and error and using household items to get the job done.
Learning by pushing buttons on equipment, Kassen became intimately familiar with the various cameras and technology he used over the years, admitting that he’s “not actually an inherently technical guy.”
He described how much goes into filmmaking — the money and logistics and technology — and advised students to adjust logistics and access widely available tools like digital cameras and the Internet in order to control cost.
“Technology made the democratization of the film industry, almost,” he said. “You don’t need what I did. You can (make films) tomorrow.”
Through his willingness to try anything and his ability to network, Kassen found some success in the film industry. After co-directing the 2011 film “Puncture,” Kassen got involved in medical devices, politics and advocacy — just one more place his dream of filmmaking has taken him.
Kassen also shared with students some of his most embarrassing moments — moments that also taught him important lessons. He encouraged them to collect “battle scars” — instances of failure, humiliation and dead ends — as these experiences build a strong foundation of success.
Creative writing student Katie Eidem, a freshman, said she would like to pursue filmmaking and writing.
"I thought (Kassen's talk) was amazing," she said. "There's so much more to making movies than I thought. I might have to try to go this summer and make a movie with whatever I have."
Freshman art student Sonja Anderson said she identified with Kassen's practice of using whatever he has to make film: "I'm an artist and that's how my approach has been. I don't have access to great materials."
Anderson continued, "He kind of reminded me why I'm here. ... I just want to do art. It kind of got me more excited about getting out of college and going what I want to do."