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Is Film School Right for You?

Is Film School Right for You?

Articles - Directing

Once you decide that you want to be a filmmaker,
the next big decision is how to do it. Do you enroll in a university
film program, take a crash course at a tech school, or-if you’re
really crazy-decide to beg, borrow and steal to make a film yourself?
Hot indie directors Tom DiCillo, James Mangold and Kevin Smith
offer their opinions…

Before the 1960s, none of the above choices was an
option because film schools as we think of them didn’t exist and
the term "independent film" was an oxymoron. In those
days, directors came from many different backgrounds and worked
their way up in the studio system. David Lean started as an editor,
Elia Kazan as a stage manager, Billy Wilder as a journalist turned
screenwriter. But since Martin Scorsese hit the big time in the
1970s and became the poster child for film school, the idea of
getting a formal film education has become almost as glamorous
to would-be moviemakers as Hollywood itself.

Today just about every university and college has
some sort of film or broadcasting program, and crash courses have
sprung up in cities all over the country. While future auteurs
flock to the 500-plus film programs around the country, successful
directors debate whether the time and money invested are necessary,
and whether you get what you pay for.

To investigate the issue, MovieMaker talked with
three young directors-Tom DiCillo (Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion)
James Mangold (Heavy and Cop Land) and Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing
Amy), who describe their film school experiences -why they went,
where they went and what they got out of their training. Keep in
mind that these are just three personal experiences and any references
to institutions, positive or negative, may not be representative
of these programs today. Boston University Professor and independent
film pundit, Ray Carney, (see feature, page 45) also comments and
offers sage advice on how to find the training you want.

DiCillo directs Box of Moonlight.

Learning in Oblivion

An aspiring fiction writer, Tom DiCillo was an
undergrad majoring in creative writing at Old Dominion University
in Virginia when he realized he wanted to make movies. Fellini’s
La Strada was the hook that drew him in. "I thought it was
so exciting and I wanted to try to make films like that," he
explains. Not knowing where to start, DiCillo asked a guidance
counselor, who suggested he go to film school.

"What I wanted to do was at least learn some
of the technical aspects of film first because at that point I
don’t think America was as knowledgeable about filmmaking the way
people are today. In 1975, which was like the Dark Ages, filmmaking
seemed like something that only very experienced people knew how
to do. There was very little going on in terms of an independent
film scene. I think the only person making films was John Waters.
There was a kind of New York scene going on, but it was really,
really, tiny. There wasn’t all this stuff about film and filmmakers
that focuses your attention on how to get where you’re going."

Having a career marine for a father, DiCillo says
he was raised with the attitude that if you’re going to do something,
you do should do it right. And going to film school, "seemed
like the right thing to do." So after poring through catalogs,
DiCillo applied to New York University’s graduate film program.
Soon thereafter, he packed his bags and moved to New York to follow
his dream. But DiCillo’s expectations of what film school was all
about were not met. "It was a disappointing experience," says
DiCillo. "After my first four months there I was extremely
angry and frustrated. I expected a certain excitement from the
faculty-a certain precision, a certain imaginative approach-to
experiment with trying to make a film. But the faculty seemed depressed,
uninspired and unwilling to share any enthusiasm. I was just dumbfounded
to see how they were locked into a very narrow perception of what
a film is, what makes a good film, what makes a bad film. It was
very conservative and in many ways destructive. And if by any chance
your film was not 100 percent successful, they reinforced the failure
aspect of it."

The competitive nature of the program at the time
posed additional problems. "No one told us when we were accepted
that of 80 first-year students, only 40 would be asked back the
second year. So halfway through the year, you find this out and
realize that what you have to do to win the spot is to compete
against your fellow students, who up to this point were your friends." DiCillo
says some students cracked under the pressure. "People had
nervous breakdowns and had to leave. I know several people who
had to leave the school because of their psychological state. They
were literally humiliated out of the school. The result was that
any idea you had about the place being conducive to learning, a
supportive, creative environment, was not there."

DiCillo says that he and other students organized
protests only to learn that their predecessors had done the same,
and nothing had changed. When he concluded that he was only wasting
his energy, DiCillo withdrew from the politics and focused on making
films, without much help from the faculty, he says. "I did
not receive criticism about anything I’d done that helped me in
any way. Not a word about a single specific aesthetic reaction
to my films."

Smith directs Chasing Amy.

Chasing Equipment

Nearly two decades later, Kevin Smith started out
on a similar path of inspiration. Like DiCillo, he had dreams of
beinga writer until he saw a film that catapulted him into filmmaking-Richard
Linklater’s Slacker. Unlike DiCillo, Smith had the advantage of
a booming independent film industry and a plethora of how-to books,
like Rick Schmidt’s legendary Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices.

"I saw Slacker on my 21st birthday and thought,
Wow! if Richard Linklater from Nowhere, Texas, can do it, I can
do it too," Smith explains. Up to that point, Smith says,
the thought of being a filmmaker never entered his head. "I
thought about writing scripts for a living, but I would’ve never
pursued that because I wouldn’t know how to get a script seen or
sold. But once I saw Slacker, I started getting into indie film
and suddenly it seemed very accessible."

Smith studied up on his own and then decided to go
to Vancouver for an eight-month crash course in filmmaking. He
chose the school because "it was quick and cheap: eight months,
nine grand. What they were promising in the ad is what I was interested
in-technical know-how." But like DiCillo, Smith was disappointed,
albeit for different reasons.

"They sold the school as a no-theory, hands-on
program. But when I got there, we did two months of theory. If
I wanted to go to school for theory, I would’ve gone to NYU or
USC. But I didn’t want to waste my time because I have my own theories."

Inspired by cheap and rough independent films, Smith
was shocked by the choice of films that were shown and incensed
by the professors’ interpretation. "They show you Silence
of the Lambs, and the professor tells you what Jonathan Demme was
trying to do. Number one, the only person I’m going to believe
about what Jonathan Demme was trying to do is Jonathan Demme. And
number two, don’t show us this; I can never make this movie. Show
us something accessible, like Laws of Gravity, Slacker, Stranger
than Paradise. Show us low-budget guerrilla movies because that’s
what we can do. We’re not gonna walk out of film school on graduation
day and be handed a movie to direct, or be handed a bunch of money
to direct our own scripts for a studio.

"By the third or fourth month," Smith says, "we
touched equipment, but it really wasn’t hands-on enough to warrant
the tuition." Smith dropped out after four months, in time
to recover half his tuition, which he put toward the making of
Clerks.

The Inside Story

Ray Carney, a former chair of Boston University’s
film department, believes film schools should "take the Hippocratic
oath and at least do no harm.." He believes one big problem
with many film schools is that there are too many critics and not
enough filmmakers on the faculty. The overemphasis on critique
may stem from the origins of the first film programs which, according
to Carney, came out of English departments and were staffed by
former English professors. "Most film programs are English-department
biased. Their whole approach to film emphasizes the metaphoric
and symbolic."

The point is both valid and trenchant as historic
overview. Yet perhaps film schools are beginning to come of age.
NYU film school, for instance, always considered to be among the
best, now has at its helm Christine Choy, a hard-hitting and hard-edged
documentarian who also happens to be self-taught. Vancouver is
employing working Yet Carney’s belief that filmmaking in America
would have been different if film programs had emerged from art
or drama departments is his most insightful and basic observation. "If
film had come out of the art department, the emphasis would have
been much more on visuals. The real tragedy is that because film
programs never made close ties to the theater department, what
has dropped out of most film study in America is the critical importance
of acting."

DiCillo agrees. "The one thing that I learned
at film school that helped me the most was that I knew nothing
about acting," he says. "They had some classes that supposedly
were introductions to acting and working with actors, but I found
that every time I was on the set talking to actors, there was this
real frustration. We didn’t speak the same language. The first
thing I did out of film school was to study acting very seriously." In
contrast with his teachers in film school, DiCillo says, his acting
teachers responded to actors doing scenes with positive criticism-no
matter how annoying or indulgent the students were. "The result
was amazing because the very next time they did the scene, it was
a million times better."

The Payoff

Despite their criticisms, DiCillo and Smith agree
with Mangold (see below) that they got something out of their programs.
In his four months at Vancouver, Smith says he accomplished what
he intended, "which was to learn a little bit but more importantly
to meet other cats who wanted to make movies too. That’s where
I met my producer and my DP." Smith, who says he’d do it over
again if only to meet his "genius producer," recently
finished writing the script for Superman and is starting production
on his fourth film, Dogma.

After writing and directing eight short films during
his three-year program at NYU DiCillo says he developed confidence
in his ability to tell a story with a camera, learned to think
on his feet and cultivated the ability to diffuse tensions on the
set. Today, DiCillo is putting the finishing touches on his fourth
and biggest budget ($10 million) film, The Real Blonde, and has
just published his own "how-to" book, Notes from Overboard:
The Diary of Box of Moonlight. He says he had access to equipment
and acquired the technical skills he needed. "I can remember
being alone at night at the film school cutting my film with those
old Moviolas. It was a very exciting thing. I’m still involved
in the editing of every frame of my films."

School Daze

The question remains: Should you go to film school?
Tom DiCillo is on the fence. "I can’t really advocate one
way or the other," he says. "For me, at that point in
my life, it was the right thing to do." He views it as an
individual decision based on the person’s needs, experience and
personality. "It depends on a person’s temperament. If someone
wants to go out with a Super 8 camera and make a movie, and they
have absolute confidence in themselves, that’s what they should
do. Filmmaking has become the profession of the decade. People
entering it should ask themselves what kind of movies they want
to make. That decision will help you figure out if you want to
go to film school or feel you don’t need to."

Maverick director Kevin Smith is adamantly against
going to film school to be a writer-director, though he feels it’s
useful for DPs, film critics and film historians. "If you
want to be a screenwriter, either you can write or you can’t write.
It has nothing to do with what you can be taught in film school.
They can teach you about margins, like where to write EXTERIOR.
They can perhaps teach you the three-act structure, but even that
is negligible. Plenty of films don’t adhere to it." On directing,
Smith advises, "Watch other movies. With video, you have at
your fingertips hundreds and hundreds of examples of other filmmakers’
work." Like writing, directing is a skill you either have
or you don’t, in Smith’s opinion. "Either you can impart a
thought to an actor or you can’t. Or you can guide a performance
or you can’t. Either you’re good with a person and can maintain
a conversation and recruit them into seeing the script through
your eyes or you can’t. And that’s not something they teach in
film school."

Not all film schools are good and not all students
are artists, but Ray Carney believes a good film program can enhance
a person’s artistic potential. "Film school is a terrific
leg up. If you are an artist, film school can help you professionally
and spiritually." A good film school, according to Carney,
shows masterworks of both film and other works of art, including
literature, dance, music, painting and comedy. "It offers
a supportive, nurturing community and a cadre of wise minds to
consult when you’re discouraged or out of ideas. It teaches technical
skills and provides equipment that would be too expensive to buy
or rent." But it’s not the only way. "Without film school,
the great artist will still make a film.."

Mangold (second from left) directs Copland.

Another View: James Mangold on Film Schools and Mentors

by Tim Rhys

"I have no horror stories to tell," said James Mangold, director of
Heavy and Cop Land. "I had two film school experiences, and I was very lucky.
I think the value of a place is determined by the power and brilliance of the
faculty. At Cal Arts, where I did my undergrad. work, I was taught by Sandy (Alexander)
Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success, The Ladykillers). Cal Arts was a real art
school. I was attracted to the less super-Hollywood quality there. My sense was
that at USC and certain other traditional film schools there were a lot of briefcase-carrying
people out to become HOLLYWOOD FILMMAKERS. I wanted to be different. I wanted
to make classically narrative films in an eclectic environment instead of slick,
narrative shorts.

"I think the negative aspect of film school
is the quest to "get discovered." That becomes the primary
reason many students are there. They think they’re on an on-ramp
merge into the business. They look at film school as a placement
program instead of an opportunity to get better at their craft.

"Our whole culture is about people trying to
make it at an incredibly young age. There’s so much pressure to
launch your first feature by the time you’re 32.

I did my undergrad at Cal Arts from ’81 to ’85 and
my graduate work at Columbia from ’89 to ’91. One thing that changed
in that time is that if you’d told your parents in ’81 that you
wanted to be a film director they’d probably say "Oh, no…can
you get another degree at the same time? Something to fall back
on?" Now it’s almost the same as if you said you wanted to
become a doctor. Now there are more kids who want to be filmmakers
than be the President, or Tiger Woods. So this situation has created
a glut of people who want to be movie directors but have no stories
they feel compelled to tell. The ideal film school is a conservatory
of film, not a placement program.

Of the young, passionate artists who are at film
school, I’m convinced that their happiness will be based on how
much the faculty is involved. Sandy Mackendrick was an incredibly
involved mentor. He was involved from the writing to the cutting.
He even encouraged me to enroll in acting school. At Columbia I
was also very fortunate to have Milos Forman for an instructor.
He helped me tremendously when I was putting Heavy together. I’d
bring him every 10 pages I’d written and we’d discuss it. He was
deeply inspirational to me; he gave me a lot of personal attention.

Film institutions need to protect in young artists
their purpose, and ego, and confidence. That’s different than their
entitlement to a job. That’s what I found valuable in film school.
Sandy couldn’t care less if I got a job. He and Milos wanted me
to get my work to a higher level. When it works like that, film
school is a great thing.

Film school can also be a great shelter from economic
concerns when you’re growing as an artist. That’s what Columbia
was for me. You have to endure both smart and stupid feedback all
the time, but the goal is to help you find your voice, not to be
a programmer for a film studio. My parents were both fine artists
who started out poor, making their paintings, living on the Lower
East Side of New York City. They had no plans to get rich. Maybe
because of that I believe that to be successful you have to make
a commitment to get obsessed with your craft. Not necessarily a
commitment to starve, but a commitment to take the art seriously.

My struggle is to do the best work that I can in
a hostile and difficult world. When you’re on the outside of Hollywood
it sometimes seems like if you can just meet the right people,
if you can just make the right connections, then you’ll make it.
That isn’t true. I learned early that talking to every "name" you
can is pointless. All that got me noticed-all-is the work. If I
were teaching I’d tell students there is no fucking point on wasting
their energies like that. Do they have an amazing script? Do they
have a script that stops people dead in their tracks because of
its originality and uniqueness? The dark side is that it’s hard
to make something really cool. But generally speaking, the better
work stands out.

When I go to auditions with actors, one out of 10
inevitably blows me away. And it’s because these people are really
good. Because of their original talents and physiognomy. Because
they’ve worked really hard. That’s what it’s all about-the ideas,
the passion and the activity.

The other thing to remember is that even a mediocre
film school in 1997 offers its students equipment more technically
advanced than anything Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock used. So
shut up and stop whining about equipment. When I see a short film
with Steadicam shots I almost want to gag. I find these "calling
card" films with all their implied ambition just repulsive.
It’s a sad misapplication of someone’s creativity.

Tom DiCillo and Kevin Smith are unstoppable artists,
full of persistence and force. They are committed to expressing
themselves, and that’s why they’re successful. No business referrals
or personal introductions can instill that. I know if I weren’t
making movies then I’d be putting on radio shows, or puppet shows,
or something. My ambition did not start and stop with my desire
to get paid handsomely and have a studio logo above my name. At
Cal Arts every filmmaker there anticipated a life of struggle and
starvation ahead of them. As opposed to trying to make their own
voice palatable to the business. I made a nearly silent film about
a fat man. Kevin made a movie about hanging out at a convenience
store. Tom made a surreal film about a guy named Johnny Suede.
These films weren’t crafted to launch financially rewarding careers.
They’re original works that show there are other ways to tell a
story. That’s important. Because if you only make one film, if
the assembly line doesn’t then pick you up and take you in, you
can still say you did the best you could do.

The most important things I learned at film school
were from my two mentors. Sandy taught me how hard you have to
work on the craft and that, no matter how hard you work, the medium
is doomed to disappoint you. Your goal is to stay ahead of that
curve. From Milos I learned a kind of wisdom. I learned to trust
my instincts about something being true or unique; to create films
that are uniquely my own. An audience may snicker at my style,
but with my relentless commitment to that style, I will wear you
down.

Film schools are institutions, so as institutions
they are going to have a "committee" quality to them.
None of them are perfect, but they serve a function. And that’s
no different than the world. MM

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