Matt Zoller Seitz on the Split Screens Festival, Advice for Aspiring Critics & More!

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Critic, author, editor, festival producer. Matt Zoller Seitz wears a lot of different hats for a lot of different purposes. As he puts it, he has learned to juggle. From where I stand, that's an understatement.

Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. He's also the artistic director for the Split Screens Festival taking place at New York City's IFC Center from Wednesday, May 30 through Sunday, June 3, 2018.

I had the opportunity to pick his brain about the festival, criticism, and more. Enjoy highlights from that conversation below.

Matt Zoller Seitz

One of the highlights of the Split Screens Festival will be a segment called Damn Fine Coffee, and it's one of Seitz's "babies," if you will.

"I'm a huge fan. Well, that was my number one show of last year, Twin Peaks: The Return. And also that's just totally a Matt Seitz kind of event. It's weird.

"It's a little weird. It's a little off center, and it's very geeky. We've got Twin Peaks scholars from all over the country, and one guy from Denmark are gonna present videos and slide presentations arguing for their own grand unifying theories of what that show was about.

"And I love the fact that the show aired ... it premiered over a year ago, and people are still arguing about what the hell it was that they saw exactly."

To get the panel into the atmosphere of all things Twin Peaks, at the time of our conversation, they were hoping to work out shedding a harsh, Blue Velvet style spotlight onto presenters.

MZS TP Photo

He's also responsible for an Outer Limits fan experience as well as the fan screening of The Americans finale and a debriefing with Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg. That's a coup given the timing of the finale.

While we shared our love for Killing Eve given Sandra Oh as the festival recipient of the second Vanguard Award, Seitz also put in a good word for Amazon's Picnic at Hanging Rock, suggesting a double feature with Picnic and The Terror would be like a trip into the male and female subconscious.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock, he said, is. "very creepy, it's very unsettling. There's a little bit of David Lynch and a little bit of Jane Campion in the way they tell the story. I also think it's an ... it's a great contrast with The Terror.

"Yeah, because The Terror ... I think The Terror is very much about an externalization of the world that men would live in if there were no women. And it's like ... it's icy, it's cold, you freeze to death. You aren't eating properly.

A Vulnerable Situation - The Terror

"You get Scurvy and Rickets, and then every once in a while a monster comes up out of the ocean and eats one of you. And in the meantime, everybody's obsessing about honor. You know, like people are getting dragged overboard and eaten by sharks, and the captain is worried about his reputation."

It's pretty clear Seitz never fails to watch TV with a critical eye, and he has a lot of balls up in the air. How does he manage to do it all?

"Well, I don't know. Well, for one thing, I write fast. I don't have writer's block, and I write fast. It's very helpful, and I've also learned ways to maximize my time. Like I'm writing my review while I'm watching a TV show. I've trained myself to ... I can take legible notes without looking up from the paper that I'm writing on.

"And I write complete sentences, and I also can draw storyboards. Rough storyboards, without looking at the paper, so I can remember what a shot looked like.

"And then when I'm done -- like if I spend an hour or two hours watching a television show -- when I'm finished, I just have to transcribe all of my notes and put them in the right order. By that point, I'm on the second draft."

Seitz also surrounds himself with great team members at all three of the organizations where he works. At Vulture the other two television columnists, Jen Chaney and Kathryn Vanarendonk, also review, and while Seitz has seniority and can review what he likes, he splits the work equitably and in a way that makes sense.

A Perilous Operation - The Americans

And when a show like The Americans comes to a close, everyone with a byline is welcome to take a swing at it, so there is as much coverage on the critical darling as possible.

He also feels lucky that he works for publishers who have a sense of what their publication is, as well. "I don't get the impression that they're up at night, wondering what their mission statement is," he said.

With as much as he's been able to achieve, Seitz does have some advice for aspiring young critics.

"Well what I tell younger writers is, in this, in what passes as journalism economy now, you've really got to just write, and hopefully, you get the good kind of attention, which is attention's that paid because you are a good writer and you have original ideas.

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Some people cut to the end of the line because they are good at gathering the bad kind of attention, which is where they just spit out ill-informed, contrary, and hot takes, but I found that people who jump right to the top doing that, they don't tend to have careers that last.

And I can't tell how many "bad boy critics" I've seen come and go in the 30 years that I've been doing this. The shelf-life on people like that is really short, and I think playing the long game is the better strategy and there are a number of people out there who are playing the long game, like Angelica Bastién who's at Vulture now.

"She's somebody whose work I think is gonna be read 20, 30 years from now; they're gonna read her to see what television was really about.

Seitz puts in a good word for his writing partner, Alan Sepinwall who he calls "half-man, half-machine, all critic," and whom he would like to beat at getting a review out at least once in their tenure as rivals in the industry.

MZS and AS on SM

As writing partners, though, they're highly complementary. Their second book, The Sopranos Sessions, will be coming out soon. When doing publicity for their first book together, TV (The Book), Seth Myers knew his critics very well because of their incredibly different style.

"I was really impressed, because Seth Meyers was asking us incredibly specific questions about our opinions on certain shows, and they were, in a lot of cases, they were shows that where we both wrote, we both worked on the entry, and he correctly identified which of us wrote which part of which entry.

He added, "But of course, it's not actually that hard. It's like, if there's a run-on sentence that goes for 12 lines and there are two semi-colons in it, that's me."

And for those of you who are still not sold on trying to get to the Split Screens Festival if you live in the New York City area, Seitz put it in layman's terms for you.

"Well, I think the main thing is ... the main thing to distinguish from split screens from all other television festivals is we're actually in there explaining how things work on you as a viewer.

"Like why did you feel that, why did you think that when you were watching the show?

Split Screens Art

"And we're not so much there to talk about the behind the scenes fascinations that brought a particular group of people together, or whether or not they fired the showrunner or whether or not they're moving from Vancouver to Los Angeles next season.

"We don't really care that much about that, we're more interested in the storytelling, the characters, and the filmmaking and we're looking at it from a craft standpoint.

"I did an interview with Ava DuVernay that's up on Vulture from a couple of years ago, and it really was a great vindication to me because she was doing two days of press for Queen Sugar and I did the very last interview with her.

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"And they were running two hours late, and she was exhausted, and I started asking her questions about her directing, her actual directing like, 'Why did you shoot this scene in a head-on close-up as opposed to from the side', and 'How come there are no cuts in this scene?' Questions like that.

"And her face brightened, and she said, 'you know, I could probably count on one hand the number of times somebody's interviewed me and actually asked me what I do for a living, and I wouldn't use all the fingers of that hand.'

Rami Malek Split Screens

"And there's a tremendous unexplored frontier out there for critics and journalists in talking about what people actually, what people actually do. Like the actors. I did a whole hour last year with Rami Malek of Mr. Robot.

"And we selected five different clips which illustrated five different aspects of his performance on Mr. Robot, and we showed them, and then we did a play by play. We did a breakdown. And we had him acting silently, like reactive acting.

"We had a kind of romantic banter, we had Elliot, the character is Elliot as he appears at work, we had Elliot in voice-over, and we had Elliot in a psychedelic dream space like talking to the title character.

"And he talked about how he modulates his performance for all five of those kinds of scenes, and that's something, if you're watching the show, he's doing his job, and it affects you but you may not be aware of it, it's invisible.

"What we're trying to do here is we're trying to make the invisible visible."

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There are still tickets available for some events so if you're in the NYC area, visit the Split Screens Festival page now for the full schedule and get your tix before they sell out!

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA), enjoys mentoring writers, wine, and passionately discussing the nuances of television. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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