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Ken Kwapis Went From Belleville To The Big (And Little) Screen

Ken Kwapis' new book, "But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct" is a guide to aspiring filmmakers.
Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME. Provided by Ken Kwapis
Belleville native Ken Kwapis' new book, "But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct," is a guide for aspiring filmmakers.

Director Ken Kwapis studied at Northwestern University and the University of Southern California’s vaunted School of Cinema-Television (now the School of Cinematic Arts). But his fascination with filmmaking goes back to Belleville, Illinois, where he marveled at “Lawrence of Arabia” on the screen of the Skyview Drive-In — and Maryland Heights, Missouri, where he saw “American Graffiti” at the Westport Twin Cinema.

And yes, he remembers the place where he saw each film. “Movie theaters, for me, are secular houses of worship, and it’s important to be specific about where I experienced cinematic revelations,” he writes in his new book.

That book, “But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Lessons From a Life Behind the Camera,” provides plenty of useful advice to would-be directors, but it offers much more than that. In it, Kwapis artfully discusses some of his favorite films and explains in layman’s terms why scenes in them work so well — and shares plenty of highlights from his long career in Hollywood. That includes directing 11 feature films, including “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Dunston Checks In,” and launching “The Office,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” along with six other TV comedies.

Belleville wasn’t necessarily a hotbed of cinephiles. But Kwapis fell in love with movies as a kid and never wavered.

“Early on, I found myself spending all of my allowance at the movies,” he explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And pretty quickly, I started to figure out that there was somebody behind the scenes, pulling the strings, making choices that either made a film more or less interesting. And I decided I wanted to be that someone.”

He briefly considered becoming a film critic instead. (In third grade, Kwapis recalled, he told his class about his ambition, and “this was met with nothing but blank incomprehension on the part of everyone.”) But beyond that flirtation, his path was set. Hired at 24 by Jim Henson to direct a feature film, “Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird,” he never looked back.

Kwapis discussed coaxing good performances out of actors, including (memorably) directing both Faye Dunaway and an orangutan in “Dunston Checks In.” And he discussed his work on “The Office,” which included directing the pilot, the final episode and the third-highest number of episodes of any director along the way.

During his work on the pilot, Kwapis cast both Creed Bratton (whom he knew as a stand-in on “The Bernie Mac Show”) and Phyllis Smith. A fellow St. Louis native, Smith was assisting as a casting associate when Kwapis noticed her.

“One day I found myself getting increasingly bored with the actors themselves, but more and more fascinated by this woman sitting next to me,” he recalled. “I didn't know her name; all I knew is that she had this kind of wonderfully earnest, I'll say a Midwestern, vibe going on. I had no clue where she was from. And after a session, I took the showrunner aside and I said, ‘This woman, the casting associate, I can easily see her as a Dunder Mifflin employee.’ And our showrunner Greg Daniel said, ‘Let's invite her in.’ And we did.”

Smith wasn’t the only St. Louisan to find stardom on “The Office” — both Jenna Fischer and Ellie Kemper also became breakout stars.

Asked why the show had such a heavy St. Louis presence, Kwapis paused. “Let's see if I can answer that question without making a misstep.”

He continued: “The goal was to populate Dunder Mifflin with people who looked like they didn't belong on a television show, let alone one on prime time. Part of the conceit is, you know, we're making a documentary about the day-to-day lives of paper company employees, but also people who just aren't obviously glamorous.

“It wasn't a show populated by sexy people. It wasn't, you know, Melrose Place. It was Scranton. Scranton by way of St. Louis.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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