by Abigail Beshkin
Scott Halvorson, assistant dean of students at the School of General Studies, has won the Zaki Gordon Award for Excellence in Screenwriting for "Dakota," his screenplay about a U.S. army colonel who leads a massacre of Native Americans in Dakota territory.
Halvorson, who is finishing his M.F.A. in film at the School of the Arts, wrote "Dakota" on nights and weekends. He spends his days coordinating New Student Orientation, organizing Study Skills Workshops, and advising students on which classes to take.
"There's a lot of energy at GS," said Halvorson. "So much of writing a screenplay is telling the story orally, pitching it to see how people react to the idea. Students, faculty and colleagues come in and out of my office all day. I talk to them, and it generates an endless list of ideas."
Halvorson is originally from Jamestown, North Dakota, where battle sites from the Indian Wars are a normal part of the landscape. "I grew up around these ghostly signs of what happened to the Native Americans in North Dakota," said Halvorson. "I wanted to write a screenplay that told the experience of this time as an American tragedy."
"Dakota" is set in Dakota Territory in 1889 when the movie's main character, Colonel Gavin Caul, is sent to peacefully prevent a Sioux rebellion. Instead, through a series of tragic misunderstandings, he ends up leading his soldiers in a massacre against them.
Halvorson said he set out to portray Caul as a sympathetic character who has a strong connection to the Native Americans but winds up destroying them- and himself. Caul also ultimately betrays his father, who spent his life as a missionary to the Native Americans.
Halvorson traveled to Los Angeles this week to accept the prize, which carries with it $4500 and the chance to meet leaders in the film world. In addition, Daniel Nemet-Najat, a fellow film student in the School of the Arts, also received the prize for his screenplay "Houdini on the Pier." The Zaki Gordon Award was established by screenwriter Dan Gordon, who wrote such hits as "The Hurricane," starring Denzel Washington. The award, named in memory of Zaki, Dan Gordon's son who died tragically at a young age, recognizes both student and professional filmmakers. Each year, more than $25,000 in scholarship is given to students from the country's top filmmaking schools, including Columbia's School of the Arts, USC's School of Cinema-Television, UCLA's School of Theatre, Film and Television and the Zaki Gordon Institute for Independent Filmmaking and Viewpoint School.
GS Dean Peter Awn praised Halvorson and said his dedication to both screenwriting and his students are a perfect mix. "GS students come from a million different worlds and have rich and varied life stories," said Awn. "As someone who makes a career interacting with students, and pursues another passion by screenwriting, Scott is in a place where he can really understand the lives of our students."
Dan Kleinman, chair of the Film Division in the School of the Arts, praised Halvorson, calling his screenplay "moving and gripping." "The Film Division of the Columbia School of the Arts has a long tradition of screenwriting excellence, and Halvorson's success in this context really means something," Kleinman said. Kleinman added that he plans to teach "Dakota," in his screenwriting class, to show students an example of a well-crafted script.
Halvorson first joined GS in 1997 as director of the Learning Center and the assistant director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program. He has been assistant dean of students since 1999.