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Is Film School Worth It?

Is Film School Worth It?

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The rush to film school continues unabated,

and considering the film industry’s growth and bright prospects

in the emerging Cable Age, the trend may be only in its infancy.

But is film school really worth the considerable amount of time,

effort and money it demands? Would it be possible to redirect those

resources and make an independent film instead, learning the ropes

in the process? How naive a notion is that, bearing in mind that

it wasn’t so long ago that hard-won apprenticeships were the only

"film schools," and that the quality of movies didn’t

seem to suffer. We decided to ask several prominent directors if

they believe changing times and new technologies have made formal

film school education necessary, or whether a young would-be moviemaker

might still be able to bypass the instructional leagues and jump

right into The Show.

If your goal, like most film students,

is to become a director, you should know that many working directors

believe that the best preparation is not film study at all but immersion

in the humanities and social sciences. Elia Kazan said: "A

film director is better equipped if he’s well-read. He should study

the classics for construction, exposition of theme, the means of

characterization, and for dramatic poetry." To make good films

you must explore life’s nuances and allow what you discover to inform

every frame of your work. Did Edward Dmytryk not understand about

the suffering of a sensitive outcast while directing Montgomery

Clift in The Young Lions? Was Milos Forman not keenly aware

when directing John Savage in Hair of the ironies swirling

around a Vietnam-bound farmboy lost on the lawns of a flower-powered

Central Park? The directors we spoke to agree on this point: Whether

or not you choose film school, having a rich life outside of school

is what gives you something to say once you have the opportunity.

The medium is already fat with examples of form without content.

What is needed now are more artists.

The directors who responded to our survey

offered some well-worn truisms, as expected, such as the notion

that you cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find

it within himself. There were also points of disagreement. But we

were struck by the unanimous admonition that while film school may

help you enhance your natural ability and focus and articulate your

message, do not expect it to give you that message.

The question of film school, they told

us, is secondary. First and foremost, if you wish to participate

in this unique and ongoing experiment in the visual arts; if it

is your desire to entertain, inspire, educate or subvert utilizing

the most powerful storytelling medium known to man, you must become

a dedicated student of life. Investigate history and literature.

Travel and explore different cultures. Teach, wait tables, sell

ads, practice law, join Habitat for Humanity; these and other tough

paths present the challenges that are key to formulating an artistic

vision. Commercially, the movie business is doing just fine. But

as an art form it is in serious decline. If film is to survive as

art, it is essential that people in cinema acquire a solid humanistic

foundation before expecting to excel at their craft.

Edward Dmytryk

(The Caine Mutiny; Back to Bataan;

Raintree County; Murder, My Sweet)

Eddie Dmytryk started his career in 1923

as a messenger boy at Famous Players Lasky, which later became Paramount

Pictures. Back then the studios were like small cities that employed

thousands of people and shuttled young apprentices through every

possible trade and craft related to film production, including writing

and acting. It was in this way, apprenticing, that young Mr. Dmytryk

learned the business. After some years working as a projectionist

he arranged a transfer to the editorial department and began a fruitful

10-year stint editing for such directors as Leo McCarey (The

Bells of St. Mary’s, Duck Soup) and George Cukor (David Copperfield,

The Philadelphia Story). This led to an opportunity in 1939

to take over direction of a B picture. Some 40 years later, when

he left filmmaking and entered the world of academia, he had directed

57 features, including a number of timeless American classics.

Edward Dmytryk (L) directs Kirk Douglas and

Paul Stewart in the 1952 film, The Juggler.

"The business today is completely

different than it used to be," he told me in a recent telephone

interview. "Today there’s no such thing as studio apprenticeship.

You go in full-blast, as it were. As far as film education goes,

both (formal and self-styled) approaches are good, and yet neither

makes you a filmmaker. Because if you don’t have the gift for filmmaking,

you won’t be successful. I don’t think Einstein, for example, would

have been a good film director, and he was bright as hell."

For many years in his position as adjunct writing

professor at U.S.C., Mr. Dmytryk has been working with some of the

brightest graduate students in the world, many with Ph.D.s from

places like Harvard, Yale, Oxford and the Sorbonne. But despite

their academic credentials he finds that many simply lack that special

talent. "I’m sure they are gifted in a lot of other areas,"

he explains. "I believe everybody has a gift for something.

But not for pictures. It’s a very special thing. That’s why you

see so goddamned many ordinary pictures now so lacking in imagination.

The only thing (directors) do anymore when they get in trouble is

have an explosion or violent sex scene. They don’t know how to handle

things subtly and delicately and with taste.

"As far as where you learn (filmmaking), it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference if you’ve got the

talent. I’ve been teaching full time ever since I retired from filmmaking.

If you have somebody with talent, you can help them, give

them ideas about which way to go. But you can’t make a filmmaker

out of anybody.

"Everybody in school learns how

to load a camera. Hell, I never loaded a camera in my life. I didn’t

have to, because I had people loading them for me who could do it

much better than I could and much more cheaply. The same with lights.

I never set a light for a photographer. I knew exactly what I wanted

it to look like, but then he would go out and make it better than

I could have. Same with acting. I don’t tell a good actor how to

read a line, because his business is reading lines, and if he can’t

do it better than I can, then I don’t want him."

The key to directing successfully, Dmytryk

believes, is being able to work with a script and bring it to life,

which often means changing it. This requires a certain feel for

material that cannot be taught. But the technical disciplines are

another matter, and he feels film school is the best place to learn

them. "When I find a student who says she just wants to be

a photographer or an editor, I think that’s wonderful. You can make

a very fine living doing these things and make a name for yourself,

and you don’t have as much competition, he explains. But even these

fields require that one make an intuitive leap in order to really

excel. "When I was a projectionist," he explains, "I

never had a cutter tell me why he cut a scene a certain way. They

would just say that it seemed the best thing to do. When I was on

the set as a cutter and would ask McCarey or Cukor or another director

why they staged a scene a certain way, they’d say simply that it

seemed the best thing to do. Don’t let history crit people fool

you. Directors – I mean good ones – work on instinct and intuition

and don’t even know necessarily know why they do things the way

they do."

While discussing the subject of whether

or not a young filmmaker might be better off taking the time and

money earmarked for film school and making his or her own film instead,

he had this to say: "Making your own film without the benefit

of formal schooling is a sure way, even for professionals, to fail.

You’ve seen what’s happened, for instance, with Jack Nicholson.

His acting earned him the right to direct three different pictures

and all of them were horrible. And God knows he’s had a lot

of experience on the set and he’s an intelligent man and one of

the great actors of the world. This should convince people more

than ever that it takes a special talent. It isn’t enough just to

be around.

Randa Haines with Robert Duvall on the set

of Wrestling Ernest Hemingway.

"Look, there are a lot of good film

schools in the country that turn out hundreds, maybe even thousands,

of graduate students each year who think they can make films. Too

many people now think they’re writer-directors. But the problem

is, the two things just don’t go together at all, and it’s made

for a lot of bad filmmaking. Writers used to get a name – Dudley

Nichols, Jack Ford’s writer, is an example. He was considered the

finest screenwriter in the business. But he directed twc pictures

of his own which are absolutely terrible. He couldn’t edit his own

stuff the way a director does. A writer writes a story and falls

in love with it, then goes out and makes it exactly the way he wrote

it. That’s something no good director ever does, unless it happens

to be the perfect script.

"A director works with a cast and

crew of hundreds of people and in a sense is in charge of all of

them when a picture’s in production. He has to have a skill for

working with people, understanding them. He’s got to be a psychologist

whether he’s studied it or not. A writer works or his own, like

you do. If somebody’s looking over your shoulder while you’re working,

you are bothered, aren’t you?’ (Yes.) "A director has dozens

of people looking over hi; shoulder literally all the time, and

he’s got to make a thousand decisions a day. He’s got to know, `Must

I take this scene again? Was it good enough this time or can I get

it better?’ And when he finally gets it, ‘Do I print this scene

or do I go for another one? How do I stage this scene? Do the people

walk over here or over there? When do I cut it? Do I need a close-

up or don’t I need a close-up? Is the wardrobe okay?’ All kinds

of things. A writer as a rule doesn’t have that kind of personality.

His is more withdrawn. He likes to work on his own, likes to make

his own little decisions. It’s a whole different category."

Dmytryk laments another toll the current

stampede to film school is taking on the industry: the fact that

Hollywood professionals in their 40s and 50s, many of whom have

been working in film their whole lives, can no longer find work

because they have been priced out of the marketplace. "What

happens is the independents, and studios like Disney who are notorious

for being chintzy, take people right out of school and get them

very cheap. The supply (of workers) has become far far greater than

the demand, and that of course is always very weakening. It ruins

the unions, it ruins the business. And as a result, we don’t have

executives anymore who know what a picture really is.

"In conclusion I’d say that since

the studios are no longer set up to train people as apprentices,

where they go in, get a job and advance through the various crafts,

some kind of introduction to filmmaking is necessary; the schools

fill that need. So film schools today are almost indispensable,

even though – as in everything in our society – there are things

about them that don’t work exactly right and could use fixing."

Mark Rydell

(Intersection, On Golden Pond, The

Rose, The Cowboys)

Mark Rydell also worked his way through

the business while training in film’s various disciplines. He emphasized

repeatedly during this interview that intense, ongoing training

is critical and essential for anybody working in the professions

of theater or film. While training as an actor at the Neighborhood

Playhouse School of the Theater with Sanford Meisner, he was already

possessed of a serious respect for craft which he acquired studying

music at Juilliard and Chicago Musical College. Throughout the early

’60s, Rydell studied with Howard Clurman, Bobby Lewis, Elia Kazan

and Lee Strasberg.

"My training was extensive

but it was essentially in the theater," he says. "When

I came to California to be a director, I apprenticed on the Ben

Casey Show as a general schlepper with the promise that if I

worked hard I’d get an opportunity to direct." After directing

theater and performing on stage and television, the film directing

opportunities began presenting themselves. Rydell believes too few

of today’s aspiring film directors understand the nature and essence

of training, and points to insufficient recognition of craft as

the overriding problem. He remains adamantly pro-film school despite

his feeling that most are not equipped to do the job properly.

"I think film seminars are useful

only if you have already been trained as a filmmaker. As far as

whether one should sacrifice education to make a film, I would not

agree with any of that. I think that is misguided, unintelligent

and foolish. Now there are exceptions. But I would say that before

you make your first film you’d better study and learn what it is,

what material is, what a scene is about, what production design

is, what lighting is. To learn on the job, well, that’s another

way, but it’s not nearly as useful as formal skilled training, although

as I said before, there are not a lot of places that know how to

do that." Long a teacher himself, primarily of other established

film directors, Rydell is irritated by the prevailing attitude among

some independents of "no schooling" or "schooling-on-

the seeing it as inherently disrespectful of craft and art, and

suggestive of a sad lack of understanding of the processes of filmmaking.

"It requires a lot of exposure,"

he states, summing up. "There are people I know who have been

actors for 25 years and only then get behind the camera. To take

an inexperienced person and say, `Go make a film’ is like taking

somebody into brain surgery and saying to them, `Go ahead, try the

operation.’ I just hate that attitude of disrespect toward training.

It’s crazy, it’s foolish and it’s ignorant."

Barry Primus

(Mistress; actor: Night and

the City, Absence of Malice, Big Business, Autopsy)

Veteran stage and screen actor Barry

Primus, who directed his first feature film, Mistress, starring

Robert DeNiro, in 1991, did not attend film school either, though

he did make an attempt. He enrolled in the early ’60s at New York’s

City College Institute, one of the first schools to offer a program

in film, only to watch it close down for lack of money. He learned

the business performing in 30 movies and spending his free time

loitering around the studios observing people, asking questions

and making friends. One was Mark Rydell, for whom he has worked

as an assistant on three films, overseeing casting, second unit

shooting and editing. Primus is another example of a teacher (formerly

at the National Television and Film Workshop in Rockport, Maine)

who has seen the good and bad sides of film school play out in the

experiences of countless students, and who consequently feels ambivalent

about the subject.

"I’m amazed at the amount of people

interested in film," he remarks. "It’s so incredible.

I was a judge at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival this year and

got to see a lot of student films. I was amazed at two things: the

technical ability of these student filmmakers and the actual quality

of the films. Now, on the other hand, Renoir said something like:

`Film gets more and more dangerous the closer it approaches being

done easily,’ because then people begin to confuse art and reality

thinking that just by pointing a camera in a certain direction and

recording an action, that that in itself is going to be a movie.

Filmmaking can only reflect where people are as human beings,

and a lot of 19- and 20-year-olds in these undergraduate programs

that I’ve seen don’t have a lot of experience in life. That’s not

to put down what experience they do have…

"What was wrong with what I saw

was that the teachers had helped them tremendously in technical

areas, but the reason for making films had not been imbued in them,"

Primus says. "They were ready to work, but they were not equipped

to use the form in the way it was intended. The reason for filming

– the fact that one has to be saying something that one knows about

– was not present in the films."

Primus assails the auteur film culture

prevalent at the film schools and himself believes writing and directing

are two distinct disciplines that require some space between them.

"These students were all asked to write their own films,"

he explains, "which is a problem at the outset because writing

is already one skill. They’re asked to be auteurs right away, equal

parts writer and director. It’s a complicated question because there

are wonderful teachers around. You just have to hope you’re taught

by real human beings who give you not only film but also a point

of view about life. If your program applies that, that’s great."

Primus is also concerned about the industry

not being able to hold all the students coming out of the schools.

"I guess with all these CD ROMs and things like that, maybe

there will be a lot of venues some day," he says, before turning

philosophical. "I’m not sure people wouldn’t be making these

films even if they hadn’t gone to film school. It always seems to

me that true artists, be they actors, dancers, or painters, they

emerge anyway. One way or another, they find their way."

After mentioning how "horribly competitive"

some schools are, Primus specifically decried the practice of dropping

some students after the first year. "There are an awful lot

of people who are talented and don’t emerge right away," he

explains. "What they want is people who have that personality

that fits into the industry, because the industry people run those


"The good side about film school

is it can give you film culture. If the film culture it gives you

is one steeped in values and a philosophical point of view about

living, one that attempts to have a humanizing effect upon

the students, then that’s great. If it’s a school that just has

a technical/industry point of view, I think it can be very detrimental.

There are values that film should uphold. One way or another, when

a filmmaker goes out to make a film, he should be trying to save

the world in his own Peculiar way."

Milos Forman

(Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s

Nest, Ragtime)

Multiple Academy Award-winner Milos Forman

did attend film school, at the esteemed four-year university program

in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he chose to focus on screenwriting.

He recently gave me his thoughts regarding the importance of film

school for any aspiring filmmaker:

"(Attending) film school has one

advantage because for quite a substantive amount of time you are

in the friendly competitive company of other students, and you have

time enough to find your own vision rather than starting as an assistant

and immediately having to serve other filmmakers’ visions. You spend

enormous amounts of time (in school) talking endlessly about movies

with your fellow students. It’s a wonderful time when you have a

chance to find and formulate and put on screen your own vision.

"As far as whether to go to film

school or make (an independent) film instead, this is individual.

Anybody who wants to make films who feels he needs to conform his

ideas and opinions with other people’s to try and make up his own

mind and find out where his head is at, these people should go to

film school. Otherwise, if they are more secure on their own feet

and in their own vision, then it might be a good idea for them to

go ahead and try their hand at making a film. It depends. For somebody

who already has a certain technical knowledge and practical knowledge,

that’s fine. At school you get that certain kind of necessary technical

knowledge which is always helpful, so it depends. It’s very individual,


Randa Haines

(Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Children

of a Lesser God, The Doctor)

Randa Haines did not attend fihn school,

but did participate in the Directing Workshop for Women at the American

Film Institute back in 1975, before it evolved into the fully-blown

instructional program that it is today. Since at the time she attended

it was merely a program which encouraged students to use the equipment

and experiment with issues/09/images, she does not consider it a true film

school experience.

"I really worked my way through

the business," she explained to me recently. "I started

out as a struggling actress. Then I worked in production for a long

time in different jobs, working as an editor, and finally ending

up as a script supervisor for about nine or 10 years. After that

I had a brief stint as a writer, so I really had exposure to every

facet of filmrnaking before I became a director."

Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman lines up a shot.

Haines feels fortunate to have had the

opportunity to learn film by moving through its various core disciplines

in a manner reminiscent of the studio apprenticeships of the past.

Favoring such an approach but aware of the odds against making it

happen, she considers film school a viable alternative – superior,

even, in its emphasis on film history and theory. Her self-education

in film aesthetics, which she began while living in New York, included

weekly visits to the Museum of Modem Art to see the films of Truffaut

and Goddard and the rest of the French new wave. While this approach

bore fruit for her personally, she believes a more formal, structured

approach might work best for others.

Besides providing an intellectual education,

it hopefully gives a student something to show others, because when

you want to be a director, it’s very hard to get that first chance

if you don’t have something you can show. That’s what I got through

the AFI workshop: (a reel) which I could show that very, very gradually

led to some writing work and ultimately to a directing job. But

I think to get at directing everybody makes their own path. There

is no dear way.

"I think if someone can go ahead

and make their own film independently, that’s a great thing to do.

If they have the resources and the friends to help them, if they

can call in all those favors, then I think it’s great, provided

they feel ready. The main thing is to find out beforehand whether

you can really do it. I would recommend taking acting classes, and

in those classes seeing if you can communicate with actors. That doesn’t cost you anything. But once you get all the

equipment and all the friends and the bank account involved, and

then find out you don’t know how to communicate with actors, then

you’re really in trouble."

Haines is a big believer in paying your

dues, working hard and being ready when your opportunity arrives.

She stresses the importance of working in the business, even for

those who attend film school, and working outside the business as

well. "I think that people who go from high school to film

school to going right to work as directors tend not to have much

to say," she remarks. "I think it’s real important to

have some life experience in addition to whatever training you have.

To feel you have to "make it" by the time you’re 23 or

whatever is foolish. Because when you’ve spent time working your

way through the business and through life, then the stories you

choose to tell theoretically have more meaning for a lot more people.

That’s the kind of filmmaking I’m drawn to, anyway."

Whit Stillman

(Metropolitan, Barcelona)

Aside of two night courses in film production

under Thiery Pathe at New York University School of Continuing Education,

Whit Stillman did not study film formally. Nevertheless, he did

earn an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for his first

film, Metropolitan, proving that such a feat is possible

for a relative neophyte. A graduate of Harvard University where

he studied American History, Stillman broke into the film business

in Barcelona in 1983, working as a sales agent for Spanish film

producers eyeing the American market. He says he would have loved

to have gone to film school during his first ten years out of college,

but that it just wasn’t in the cards for him.

"I favor a more self-styled approach

to film education," he comments, "but I admit that I don’t

really know how great film school is, or what you might learn there

that you wouldn’t get otherwise. I would think it’d be good in a

personal sense in terms of making friends in the business who you

could call on later, but I really like the work approach. It’s great

when you can learn something through real work experience and also

get paid for it."

Stillman, who hires film school graduates

to work on his own pictures ("As the director, you don’t really

have to know anything, so there’s a real advantage in that sense."),

sees a wealth of opportunity for aspiring filmmakers looking to

get a foothold in the industry. He advises working with the key

personnel on as many small productions as possible and maintaining

high standards so they are inclined to continue hiring you for future


"I think there are great avenues

open within film for people who work really hard – far harder than

anyone should work – and who are loyal. Hard work and loyalty are

at a premium in a film shoot, because it’s kind of an anarchic and

chaotic situation. Those two virtues tend to really pay off. I’ve

seen people in shoots go from P.A. to associate producer just because

they’re so good. But you have to be really committed to the project;

you can’t doubt it and stand back.

"I believe one of the disabilities

people get from film school is that they tend to become too big

for their britches. Once you begin feeling you’re kind of too important

and too talented, you no longer have the right attitude to make

a contribution on the set."

John Sayles

(Passion Fish, Matewan, City of


John Sayles did not go to film school

and believes that if he had, it would only have been for about a

week, with every minute spent absorbing as much technical information

as possible. Coming into film by way of a budding career as a novelist

(Los Gusanos, Anarchist’s Convention) and storyteller, Sayles was

naturally inclined to tell his own stories and control the processes

by which they are brought to the screen, so he writes, directs and

edits. He believes film school can be very beneficial for those

looking to establish a network of industry contacts, as well as

those looking to discover their own specific interests and talents.

"Film school would be good for someone

who really doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do in film,"

he says. "If you’re career oriented and interested in getting

ahead in the Hollywood film world, probably you should attend a

major film school. But if you just want to learn about making good

films irrespective of Hollywood, then there might be great schools

all over the place.

"As far as whether you should make

your own independent movie instead, I think that depends on your

level of confidence in yourself. Look, if you have $200,000, you

probably can make some kind of film and learn an awful lot doing

it. If that’s the way you like to do things, by jumping into them,

then that’s what you should do instead of going to film school.

But if you’re somebody who needs to think about things more and

decide, for example, which aspects of filmmaking you want to focus

on, then film school is probably a good idea." MM

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