Timothy Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In our first conversation you told me that in Europe you are not a “full artist” until you have “learned, done and taught.” You were trained as a director in Paris, emigrated to Canada and then directed and/or produced 29 movies before satisfying a lifelong dream by moving to Hollywood and working in the U.S. Eventually you came full circle back to academic life, first as dean of the LA Film School and now as founder of the Academy of Converging Arts in Los Angeles. I think it’s safe to say that even the Europeans would consider you a full artist now. You told me you envisioned creating a school for professionals. Can you tell me more about your initial vision for the Academy?
Daniele Suissa, Founder of the Academy of Converging Arts (DS): Yes, it’s true—you aren’t a full artist until you have learned, done and “given back more than taught.” Giving back is mentoring. It is nurturing and sharing the discoveries made through errors and successes so that the mentoree can transcend the work of the mentor for the benefit of the art we practice. Each of the masters of the High Renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian—began his artistic career with an apprenticeship to a painter who was already of good standing, and each took the same path of first accepting then transcending the influence of his first master. That is what I mean by a “school for professionals.”
Today’s advent of technology (to which I am a total addict, by the way), and the self-teaching book approach (which does not work for me), have dangerously threatened the passage of knowledge and experience in the art of storytelling. I see the same mistakes “reinvented” in film after film. How can young filmmakers transcend their “masters” if they always start where the master himself started?
MM: You said that your ideal student bears the scars from their early efforts at moviemaking or even at formal film schooling. Now that they feel like they want to go back and learn more, you want to be there to help. Is that accurate?
DS: They are not my only ideal students, but it’s true that it is easier to reach those who sincerely question the mistakes they’ve made. You also have tangible documents from which to work. When I screen students’ films, I put all my heart—not only my craft—into it, in order to read their intentions and explain why they may not have achieved them. As soon as they can see how much I can read into their vision without imposing mine, the mentoring can start.
I also love mentoring actors who want to direct because they already have such a sense of story and character. One of my greatest joys was to help Elizabeth Peña prepare for her first directing job on her series, [Resurrection Blvd.] and the greatest joy of all was when she called to say how free and prepared she had felt on the set.
MM: Who is your typical instructor? Can you talk about the strength of the faculty, and what they expect students to achieve at the Academy?
DS: Those who listen before they speak and when they speak challenge their students’ creativity. Young talents should not be forced to learn through trial and error and grow with the feeling that no one expects anything from them so “why bother?” The passage of knowledge must take place while there are still brilliant, experienced and generous minds as eager to give as there are young talents starving to receive. Gabrielle Kelly, the associate dean of the Academy who teaches writing and producing, has these qualities. Having worked in development and production (alongside Bob Evans, Sidney Lumet and others), she does not spare students any of the practical realities of our industry, but they are always in service of the art and passion of storytelling.
Our editing mentor, Reine Claire, is an Avid-certified instructor who has, herself, learned from the best: Alain Jakubowicz (Mack the Knife, Forever Lulu), who will also be teaching for us in the fall, and Donn Cambern, (Romancing the Stone, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show). Before she turns our students into experts at pushing buttons and splicing effects, she makes sure they know the thrust (“What is the story about?”) and the DAV (director action verb—how does the director want to affect the audience.)
You see, I come from the theater—I have directed 30 plays in 22 years—and to me it is all about the audience. You must make them laugh, make them cry and keep them “hooked,” as the storytellers of my native Morocco and the actors of the Commedia del’Arte used to do in the public places. John Hora (Gremlins, Twilight Zone: The Movie) waits to discuss lenses and stock with his cinematography students until they’ve read the screenplay, found the story the director wants to tell and what style will best serve it. All our faculty members go for the story first, and any respected professionals we invite to mentor have the same priority.
MM: You also have a program for young people, which is directed toward the growing number of youths who have an interest in moviemaking while still in high school. What requirements does the Academy have for prospective students of all ages?
DS: As you know, the Academy is preoccupied with the civic mission of our industry. In 1964 I was, with 300 other members of the film industry, the press and the academic world, a guest of Prince Rainier of Monaco. “Cinema and Civilization” was the theme of this three-day gathering. We were asked to reflect on “the responsibility of cinema on our civilization.” This idea has never left me. When I was dean of the Los Angeles Film School, one of our Italian students said in his graduation speech, in reference to terrorism: “when will we realize that our weapons are much stronger than theirs? They have 9mm weapons, but we have 35mm and 16mm with 24 bullets a second!” Yes! We have enormous power, but it has so often been used destructively in the past two decades. By reaching out to teenagers and pre-film school students we want to forge their intellect, their sense of creativity and their minds to higher artistic and intellectual levels so that during their film school studies the thrust of their stories goes beyond themselves and reaches out to others. We want to bookend the film schools, prepare their students for more in-depth studies and launch their graduates into the industry in a professionally mentored process.
MM: You’re also interested in attracting foreign students to the Academy. Why this emphasis? Is there a gap you recognize that you’d like to fill?
DS: A multicultural environment is the most enriching challenge for film students everywhere. In Europe you can fly for one to three hours and be in a totally different culture with a different language and different traditions. In the U.S. you can fly for six hours and still speak the same language and own the same history. Foreign students benefit from American know-how and pragmatic standards. American students benefit by being confronted with the Cartesian mind of the French, the art-driven vision of the Italians, the passion of the Spaniards, the pain-ridden fantasies of the Russians and the poetic rhythms of the Asians.
MM: The Academy of Converging Arts is located right in the heart of Hollywood, which itself is experiencing a period of remarkable revitalization. What advantages did you see in locating the school in Hollywood, and is geography an additional “draw” for prospective students and faculty?
DS: The main reason we are in Hollywood is our corporate affiliation with Post Logic Studios. A year ago, sharing with me the same values and need for film education, Barry Snyder, president of this state-of-the-art post-production facility, offered to launch the Academy of Converging Arts at his Post Logic Studios facilities. We find ourselves in a unique situation and Hollywood is only one of the advantages of our presence. We will soon outgrow our space, but we are determined to stay in Hollywood and close to Post Logic. Film students around the world dream of Hollywood. We want to be there for them and, while helping them realize their dreams, realize ours: having the world’s foremost academy where all the arts converge.
MM: Your goal is to bridge the gap between film schools and the industry. How do you propose to do that? What gaps do you see as existing now?
DS: The Academy will be a talent scout for independent producers, as well as the studios, constantly scanning the national and international student body for artists who will make a difference. A marketing director from a major studio who took my directing class at UCLA marveled at how much more she could do for the launch of films now that she could share the director’s vision in his own terms. This is how mentoring can interface successfully with the industry.
MM: You’d like to keep classes—and the size of the entire school, really—quite small. How will it be possible to achieve this goal and also grow the Academy?
DS: That is our main challenge. The kind of mentoring and tutoring we intend to provide has to be custom-designed. Right now, one of our main objectives is to create alliances with colleges and universities nationally and internationally to be their Hollywood “finishing school.” I propose that in the right partnering context, the Academy of Converging Arts and its faculty can also be the development body for many in our industry at a much lesser cost and under the mentorship of some of the most experienced and recognized professionals in the world.
MM: Tell me about the residency program you’re launching in September 2004?
DS: I came here for the first time in 1963 and became very close to Anais Nin and all her artist friends. It was the most creative stimulation I ever had. On Monday nights we would all go to the workshop at Desilu Studios where I saw Ray Bradbury test The Pedestrian with some actors in the group. After that, we would all go out and eat together. You know, I’m French, and I believe in the joy and value of food and meals for the nurturing of friendship and creative exchange. So my dream of the residence is not a nostalgic one, but a thrust to give a large spectrum of artists a place to drink, eat, read, watch films together and, along with their guest mentors, redevelop a healthy, “live” creative sense of competition.
MM: I’ve heard it said from film school graduates that school didn’t really help them grow in terms of becoming better storytellers. I know you believe the Academy can absolutely accomplish that. How will your curriculum be different?
DS: Our curriculum is deeply rooted in fine art, literature, music, and choreography. It is in the convergence of these arts that better stories will be written. A lot of our work with the writers will also be combined with work with actors and directors in developing scripts where the characters, more than the action, drive the story. A few years ago, while teaching at the Jewison Film Center in Toronto, I insisted that a writer prepare and direct a scene from her script. Her comment afterward was: “My god! The dichotomy between what a writer wants and what a director needs!”
MM: One problem I’ve seen with film schools is the lack of support they offer to alumni. Grads tend to not get much more than a pat on the back and a hearty “good luck!” when they leave. What support will the Academy offer?
DS: The doors of the Academy of Converging Arts will always be open to those who have studied with us. Our newsletter and alumni organization will hold events all over the world so we can keep the members of the “family” in touch with each other. Mentoring does not stop at graduation. For myself, I spend 17 to 18 hours a day with current and past students, following their every step to success. Additionally, our mentoring production arm will produce, still under mentored guidance, some of our students’ first feature films.
MM: What do the individual programs cost? What hard costs (film stock, cameras, etc.) do you offer students, if any, as part of their tuition? Is there any financial aid available?
DS: We want artists to come here for the experience and the mentorship, not solely for the equipment. We have deals with facilities around town as we have with Post Logic, however, the majority of the cost pertains to the mentorship process. Our primary objective is to help filmmakers save money by avoiding the mistakes they may otherwise make and leave us not only with a product of the highest standard, but with their entire marketing package. MM