Before moving to Hollywood, Rob Lieberman promised himself that he wouldn’t become a jerk. He also promised himself that wouldn’t forget his hometown of Buffalo, even if he made it big.
Over 40 years later, it’s clear that he hasn’t.
The award-winning TV, film and commercial director — known for films like “D3: The Mighty Ducks” and “All I Want For Christmas,” and shows like “Dexter” and “The X-Files” — has a lot of love for the place that raised him, which is why he continues to come back to the Queen City.
“A lot of people look down their noses at Buffalo, but I never did,” Lieberman, a UB graduate of 1967, said.
This past weekend, Lieberman returned to his hometown to screen his cult-favorite film, “Fire in the Sky,” part of a fundraiser for the Buffalo nonprofit Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center. The screening was held at a place of great personal significance to Lieberman: the North Park Theater.
Lieberman credits the historic theater with sparking his passion for film. He saw his first ever movie there (“It might have been the Three Stooges or something,” he said), so the screening comes as a full-circle moment for the director.
“That’s where the whole dream of becoming a director was hatched,” Lieberman said.
Enamored with all things film and theater, Lieberman spent a few years as a child actor at Melody Fair, a musical and theatrical venue at Wurlitzer Park.
But Buffalo isn’t exactly a hotspot for filmmaking, and it definitely wasn’t when Lieberman was growing up.
In fact, UB didn’t even have a film program until Lieberman got there. After arranging a meeting with then-Provost Eric Larrabee, he put together a proposal and created the department now known as the Department of Media Study. In 1967, he became the first person to graduate from the university with a degree in film.
“I had decided I wanted to make films, and then I was trying to figure out how do you do that in Buffalo?” Lieberman said. “I mean, there was no filmmaking in Buffalo. Filming bar mitzvahs and weddings… that’s the only filmmaking going on in Buffalo.”
Flipping through the Yellow Pages, he eventually found a production company that worked with the Buffalo Bills. He applied and quickly found himself tagging along on all the team’s private flights and filming them in action. He fondly recalls befriending players and bringing them home to meet his dad, who was amazed.
After struggling to find filmmaking opportunities in Buffalo, Lieberman went to Hollywood and soon found work directing commercials and TV episodes. He eventually won the first-ever Directors Guild of America Award for Best Commercial Director.
Since then, he’s filmed over 200 hours of TV and seven feature films and directed a long list of stars from James Earl Jones to Yao Ming.
But what’s Lieberman most proud of? It’s not an award, it’s not a specific film and it’s not directing Lauren Bacall or Jon Voight. It’s the ability to communicate what it’s like to be a good person, he said.
The emotional impact of his films is what separates them from others. Even a film like “Fire in the Sky,” his terrifying 1993 alien abduction thriller, is at its core about friendship and what it means to be a human being.
“I get people saying ‘you ruined my childhood,’” Lieberman said. “It’s a pretty scary little event. But that’s not why I made it… I made it because there was a beautiful story about friendship.”
And as a self-professed “emotional guy,” Lieberman embraces the full spectrum of emotion in his films.
“I think one of the greatest contributions I’ve made is to give men permission to cry,” he said. “Somewhere in every Rob Lieberman film, a man cries. I’ve made it a point.”
As much as Lieberman’s accomplished in Hollywood, he maintains that he’s still the same kid from Buffalo — and that anyone can do what he did if they’re willing to put themselves out there and take a risk.
“You just have to go do it,” he said. “However you want to do it, you can have your dream.”
Meret Kelsey is the assistant arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.