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.
(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
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
|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."
(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."
(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."
(Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
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,
(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
"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."
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."
(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