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Famous for his film Puppet Master, retiring film prof David Schmoeller is revered for mentoring a large cast of local auteurs

At a retirement ceremony on May 1, UNLV film professor David Schmoeller was presented with the first-ever Schmoelly award, a trophy designed by special effects artist Tom Devlin (also proprietor of Boulder City’s Monster Museum). The award perfectly encapsulates the duality of Schmoeller’s career: It’s modeled after one of the killer puppets from Schmoeller’s 1989 horror classic Puppet Master, with the evil toy wearing a cap and gown and holding a textbook in his hook hand.

Schmoeller spent decades directing indie horror films such as Puppet Master, Tourist Trap, Crawlspace, and Netherworld, becoming a major figure in underground cult cinema. “His career runs deep in my blood,” Devlin says. “I’m living my childhood dream, and that doesn’t exist without Schmoeller’s Puppet Master.”

“Before I got to film school, I knew (Schmoeller’s) movies,” says Justin Bergonzoni, who was one of Schmoeller’s first students when he started teaching at UNLV in 1999. “That was one of the big selling points for me to end up going.”

“I think what I enjoyed the most was watching a student work and seeing what their strengths were, and then helping them recognize it in themselves and then getting them to develop it more,” says Schmoeller, who’s established himself as the mentor and benefactor to a generation of Las Vegas filmmakers. The results of that process are regularly on display in short film programs at nearly every local film festival, as well as in feature films such as Mike and Jerry Thompson’s Thor at the Bus Stop and Robert Shupe’s Damn Yankee Day.

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“He was everything you want a mentor to be,” says Jerry Thompson, who runs Light Forge Studios with his brother Mike, and has worked on dozens of local film projects since graduating from UNLV’s film school in 2001. In addition to teaching both Thompsons in multiple classes, Schmoeller worked as a producer on 2009’s Thor at the Bus Stop, and provided the inspiration for them to make the leap to feature films. “I don’t know what better gift a mentor can give a person than just saying, ‘Yes, you’re ready,’” Mike Thompson says. “And it made it true.”

“He just gave us, at the beginning moments of becoming filmmakers, the right pushes to make us keep growing,” says local filmmaker and UNLV alum Adam Zielinski. Both Zielinski and Shupe mention that Schmoeller donated the use of his own house for films of theirs when they needed a location. “That’s how supportive he was,” Zielinski says. “We had like 30 people in his house.”

For May May Luong, also a film professor at UNLV, her association with Schmoeller began by working with him on the former UNLV Short Film Archive, and she’s produced almost all of Schmoeller’s own Las Vegas-based film projects, including his 2012 feature Little Monsters. “What I learned the most from him is how much stronger a project is if you collaborate with people, instead of owning it as just yours,” she says.

As Schmoeller heads back to his hometown of Austin, Texas, to work on a novel and contemplate future projects, he leaves behind a lasting legacy of creative filmmaking in Las Vegas that transcends genres. Appropriately enough, future Schmoelly awards will be given to the most promising first-time filmmakers at UNLV’s annual Spring Flicks showcase. “He played the bus driver at the end of Thor at the Bus Stop, and I really feel like he was the bus driver for everyone in that film, and everyone who he interacted with,” Mike Thompson says. “He was so quiet and thoughtful, but he’s getting you where you need to go.”

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