The Artist's Path
Alum Jeff Rutherford’s commitment led him to the big screen.
For Jeff Rutherford (’14), part of the appeal in choosing Gonzaga for his college education was doing the unexpected.
He grew up Overland Park, Kansas, and most of his family members and high school friends went to the University of Kansas; he wanted a different experience. Most of his family members are lawyers; he was more interested in writing and storytelling. His brother went off to a small liberal arts college on the East Coast, so when Rutherford started exploring where he might want to go, he naturally looked west, “just a normal 18-year-old looking to be different,” he says.
Those Kansas roots come with a serious interest in college basketball, and the Zags’ increasing national profile at the time led Rutherford to visit during his junior year of high school.
“I just remember walking onto campus, it was a super nice day, and I kind of had this instinct,” Rutherford recalls.
That impression lasted as Rutherford’s exploration into different academic avenues eventually led him to creative writing and an English degree, and later to New York University’s film school, one of the most prestigious in the country. His feature film debut, “A Perfect Day for Caribou,” has landed spots in film festivals like the 75th Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in 2022 and the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and will be available on-demand starting April 2. Before then, though, Rutherford returns to Gonzaga Feb. 29 as part of the Visiting Writer Series to screen and discuss his film.
The homecoming of sorts brings the 32-year-old Rutherford back to where he first felt comfortable exploring the arts as a potential career path, encouraged by his professors as well as the liberal arts approach that pushed him to examine his life and academic ideas through myriad lenses.
“I was a little self-conscious for the first two years, almost too afraid to admit to myself that I wanted to pursue a life in the arts,” Rutherford says. “There was no pathway that I knew for how to get there. But I was really excited to explore what my interests were away from home, to get to Gonzaga and meet people who had different experiences than mine. And I very quickly became inspired by the professors I had.”
Rutherford rattles off GU professors who encouraged him as he delved into creative writing and dramatic writing, including several still at GU like the English department’s John Eliason, Ann Ciasullo and Tod Marshall. He also took several theater classes that let him explore acting and directing as well as writing for the stage, all tools that would come into play in his future as a filmmaker, even if he didn’t yet know that was where he was headed.
“I learned a lot, and those were the things that started to help me see what I wanted to do,” Rutherford says. “It was the time I got more invested and also kind of stopped pretending that I was interested in anything other than this stuff.”
Encouraged to keep writing and pursuing his creative passion after graduation, Rutherford found himself cycling through some retail jobs, doing freelance work and a little teaching. After a couple of years, he didn’t feel like he was on precisely the right track.
“I got to the point where I thought ‘if I’m really going to do this, I needed to change something about my situation,’” Rutherford says.
Enter film school.
NYU gave Rutherford the opportunity, like Gonzaga had a few years earlier, to work alongside people with vastly varied life experiences. His cohort had a wide age range, a large international presence, mid-career folks looking to change their paths, “people from truly all different backgrounds,” he says. Rutherford was one of the few with a more traditional background as an English major to join the home of noteworthy alumni like Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”).
"Jeff is one of those people who exudes enthusiasm—and his enthusiasm is tied to talent,” says Tod Marshall, GU English professor. “At Gonzaga, whether he was writing poetry or fiction or drama, he nearly always put the utmost effort into each work. So, I wasn't surprised when he got into NYU, one of the best film schools in the country. I wasn't surprised when he excelled there, and he started making films."
Towards the end of the four-year program, Rutherford knew he wanted to make a feature-length film, but his original project was waylaid by the pandemic. During lockdown he starting thinking of a film he could conceivably make under the strict restrictions, and “A Perfect Day for Caribou” was the result. The meditative film involving multiple generations reconnecting in remote countryside required only a few actors and a small crew. It’s a poetic and emotional journey, and looks incredible thanks to both Rutherford’s chosen visual techniques and the rolling hills of the eastern Oregon location for the shoot.
Rutherford is excited to share his experiences with GU students both at the Visiting Writer Series event and in classes he’ll visit, discussing the life of an artist, the exciting acceptances and disheartening rejections that come with it, and reflecting on how his life as a Gonzaga student led to where he is today, pursuing his passion.
“A few professors, I wouldn’t have ever really believed this was an option without their very straightforward encouragement,” Rutherford says. “Maybe they could sense I really wanted to do this and was serious about it.”
Screenwriter, director and producer Jeff Rutherford will screen “A Perfect Day for Caribou” and discuss the film on Thursday, Feb. 29, at 7:30 p.m. in Hemmingson Auditorium as part of the Gonzaga University Visiting Writer Series. The event is free and open to the public.
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