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The State of Film School

The State of Film School

Articles - Directing

Left to Right: Kodak Deans Panel participants
Bob Bassett, Bob Fisher, Carolyn Pfeiffer, Robert Rosen, Elizabeth
Daley and Ray Fielding pose for a snapshot at the Sundance
event.

Just as the future of moviemaking itself is in a perpetual
state of flux, the methodology with which the craft is taught is
constantly evolving. The rules of film school are changing, as students
are getting easier access to the necessary instruction and equipment
early on-often forgoing a dedicated film curriculum altogether.
But as any successful film school grad will tell you, film school
teaches you more than history, criticism and technical know-how.
In fact, one of the most important lessons to be learned from a
tutelage in film happens outside the classroom: personal connections
with fellow students and faculty serve students well in their professional
lives. In a conversation that began in Park City, UT, as part
of the Kodak-sponsored Sundance Deans panel, and continued into
the editorial offices of MM, the heads of some
of the country’s top film education programs came together to discuss
the importance of an education in film and its relation to the state
of cinema. Moderated by Bob Fisher, owner of CCS
Communications, a public relations firm in Carlsbad, CA, and a freelance
writer who has contributed over 1,000 articles on the art of cinematography
over the past 25 years, the participants include: Elizabeth
Daley
, dean of USC’s School of Cinema and Television; Bob
Bassett
, dean of Chapman University’s School of Film and
Television; Florida State University dean Raymond Fielding;
AFI’s vice-dean and master filmmaker-in-residence Carolyn
Pfeiffer
; UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television dean
Robert Rosen; Dale Pollock, dean
of the North Carolina School of the Arts’ School of Filmmaking;
David Lyman, founder of the International Film
and Television Workshops in Rockport, ME; and David Pfeil
and Jack Isgro, executive director and director,
respectively, of the Motion Picture & Television program at
San Francisco’s Academy of Art College.

Bob Fisher (MM): Among your
student bodies, are you seeing more diversity than we’re actually
seeing in the industry today?

Elizabeth Daley (ED): As a
group, if we sat down as a faculty at USC and asked what we
were most concerned about, it would be diversity because we
have had 30 percent women for years and that is not enough.
It should be 50 percent, and in some programs it is 50 percent.

Ray Fielding (RF): I don’t
think it’s any secret that minorities and women have been
systematically excluded from positions in the film industry
for many years-and we have a long way to go to overcoming
that. At Florida State, about 40 percent of our students are
women and we’re pleased with that.

Dale Pollock (DP): Our student
body is 18 percent students of color, and 38 percent female.
We have a much larger number of female students going into
directing and cinematography than is the norm in the industry,
and the same is true for our black and Asian students. Because
we are a Southern school, we draw on a large African-American
population in the Southeastern United States, and many of
our graduates of color go on to work in the industry in far
greater numbers than the actual percentage of minorities working
in the film and television industries today.

MM: Are students today interested in
learning about moviemaking as auteurs, or as a collaborative
art?

Bob Bassett (BB): Students
often come to film school thinking they are going to direct,
but soon realize that they can’t do too much by themselves.
[They learn] that film is very collaborative and, perhaps
more important than that, that there is an art to collaborating.
If anything I think that what is good about film schools is
they create a community. It’s important that filmmakers be
part of a community-that they rely on each other, get the
best DP, sound designer, costume person and then rely on that
person to get creative input.

North Carolina School of Arts’ School
of Filmmaking Dean Dale Pollock looks on as his students work
on a film.

RF: A lot of it too depends on the mission
of the school and philosophy. Our school emphasizes teamwork. Our
mission is to prepare people for careers in the professional industry,
whether above the line or below. I guess the director will always
be the star performer, like a quarterback, but what good is a film
without artistry and cinematography and editing and writing and
all the other specialties? Auteurism can only go so far without
the support of other people.

Robert Rosen (RR): I was at
a program with Quentin Tarantino who asked an older, wiser
filmmaker ‘How do I put my vision on the screen?’ The filmmaker
said ‘You don’t put your vision on the screen. You talk to
and work with others who put your vision on the screen.’ One
of the important points is the ability to articulate what
you are doing, what your vision is, and to communicate that
to other people who may have their own vision and artistry
and ultimately get something that is coherent and personal
up there.

Carolyn Pfieffer (CP): AFI
believes strongly in collaboration. Even though you choose
your discipline when you come in, each thesis film goes with
its full team into each discipline for a thorough discussion,
both prior to production and after production-so that it’s
seen by the entire team. You can’t make movies if you don’t
collaborate, period.

DP: Our program is based on collaboration,
and we do not embrace the auteur theory. Students have to
fill all production positions in the first two years of our
program, and that builds a strong sense of collaboration.
We also prohibit writer-directors from directing their own
screenplays in years three and four of our program. In one
of those years, they must direct someone else’s work. We do
not allow the ‘film by’ credit, and we insist that the producer,
director, screenwriter and editor all have a strong say in
the final cut of a student film.

David Lyman (DL): There is
a lot of ignorance-and arrogance-among film students. They
do not know how motion pictures are made, but think they do.
Some of this is good, but it does lead to a lot of frustration
on the part of these students when they cannot realize their
vision because of a lack of technical know-how and awareness
of methodology. Collaboration is certainly a part of it, and
getting people to work together is always a challenge of any
educational institution.

David Pfeil & Jack Isgro (AAC):
We overwhelmingly stress collaboration in filmmaking. Each
motion picture student is required to take a core curriculum
of studies which will put them in specialized classes focusing
instruction separately in producing, directing, cinematography,
etc. However, they are encouraged from the beginning to approach
filmmaking collaboratively-to form their teams and to work
on their projects focusing on that skill which they perform
best and to depend upon each other to hold the standard in
each of their respective areas. By each team member focusing
on a specialty and working collaboratively, the overall standard
of work can be held much higher.

MM: On the subject of collaboration:
the pressure for students to get into festivals like Sundance
is high. How does this competitiveness between students affect
whether or not they can work well with each other?

ED: What I hear a lot is ‘You don’t survive
if you don’t learn to collaborate,’ so people tend to collaborate
with each other if, for nothing else, enlightened self-interest.

RF: As far as the film schools are involved,
someone once said there is more hype in running a film school
than there is in running a studio. There is a good deal of
competitiveness and sense of family amongst graduates; they
do stick together. I recall when I was at USC and George Lucas
was talking to a group of students. You don’ t realize it,
but the people that will be most important to you for the
first year or two or three are sitting right next to you.

RR: There are two parts to the question.
First, I think there is a certain reasoning that says if people
are put into a highly competitive situation, it will replicate
the experience they will have in the industry. I think that’s
bullshit. I think it stifles creativity and risk-taking. Basically,
we try to minimize the competitive situation because everyone
is going to make their own movies. They’ll have other people
that work with them and will work for other people, but everyone
will make their own films. The goal here is to make people
take risks. If you are going to fail, fail spectacularly and
do it in film school. Move on and learn those lessons and
continue to take risks-though with more intelligence-in the
future as well.

The second issue is somewhat different and it
is among the various areas of study. The biggest problem we
have is that directors, producers and writers tend to operate
within their own worlds. To get the producers to realize,
when they are putting together scripts they’re going to sell,
that some of the best scripts are being written by our screenwriters.
That ‘a ha’ experience has come to a few and they have had
some amazing success. And later on people will tend to find
one another, but actually getting people to work across those
boundaries is a bigger challenge for us.

CP: Our Fellows put together their own
crews, so they go through collaborative selection and we give
seminars each semester on the importance of collaboration
and we emphasize and emphasize it. But another thing we do
is have a lot of visits and guest seminars from established
alumni. They talk at length about how the film school experience
was particularly important because they bonded with people
that they have worked with their entire careers. It’s really
good for them to hear that and understand that they are probably
going to meet the people they are going to work with their
entire career at film school.

DP: Our program is designed to reduce
competitiveness among students. We believe in a level playing
field, which is why the School of Filmmaking pays for all
production costs on all film and video projects made at the
school. In addition to supplying all equipment and access
to our three stages and location “house,” we supply all tape
and film and all processing costs. Additionally, we give each
filmmaker a cash budget, which ranges from $250 for a 10-minute
video production to $5,000 for the 20-minute senior thesis
16mm film. We also make all festival submissions and pay for
them on behalf of our students. We believe these policies
greatly reduce the rampant competitiveness I have observed
at other film schools, and bonds our students more closely
together.

MM: Who are the current or past moviemakers
who are the role models for today’s students?

DP: We teach the works of all the great
filmmakers because we have an unparalleled motion picture
archive, with 35,000 16mm and 35mm prints and 6,000 videos
and DVDs. Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford and Howard
Hawks are considered classic directors at our program, along
with countless others. While Martin Scorsese, David Fincher,
Baz Luhrmann, David Lynch and the Wachowski brothers are favorite
contemporary directors.

ED: Our students would probably answer
you that they look to a lot of filmmakers, depending on who
they are. One of the things that happens at USC is that we
make everyone-we don’t care who it is-take a lot film history,
international cinema, film theory and criticism. So I would
say the students are enormous admirers of the great European
filmmakers, the French New Wave and Italian cinema. We teach
an entire course on Hitchcock, so they’re all great admirers
of Hitchcock. They’re also admirers of younger filmmakers
and some of the more radical filmmakers. I think what we’re
pushing is variety so students can look at lots and lots of
models.

BB: I would say there are a mix of people
that students admire. Alumni may say Clint Eastwood or Robert
Redford, people who can get the picture made. It’s interesting
how their heroes change once they get out into the business.

Students at the International Film &
Television Workshops collaborate on a project.

RF: Students are idiosyncratic. They will fasten
individually upon someone that excites them, that has something
to say to them and says it well. I’m not sure if there is a pack,
an agreed upon collective on who is important to the film industry
in the past or present. Also, film students being the arrogant carnivores
that they are take a certain amount of pleasure in attacking and
criticizing major filmmakers-that’s part of their education. They’ll
get over it when they make films in the business.

AAC: Each of our students takes film
history as part of their core requirements. They develop a
respect for all the usual milestone filmmakers from the industry’s
inception to now. We hear a lot lately about Aronofsky, Fincher,
Nolan, Ritchie, Boyle, Linklater, Jarmusch and the Coens,
among others.

DL: That’s difficult to say. There is
still some “star power” and interest in listening to the older,
more established filmmakers. But the students also want to
listen to the new, younger filmmakers who are outlaws, and
have succeeded by not following the rules.

MM: Can you talk about how you are
trying to integrate your alumni into your program?

DP: Since our school has only graduated
six classes (including this year’s), we can keep close tabs
on our relatively small number of alumni. We do an email
newsletter twice a year, and host an alumni panel when we
take our graduating seniors out to Los Angeles for an industry
screening of their films and a week of panels and seminars
each June immediately following commencement. We have an active
and involved alumni group, which provides invaluable contacts
for our new graduates each succeeding year.

DL: Many of our alumni are now teaching
here. Others serve in support roles on campus, helping the
newer film students make their own films.

AAC: Alumni are brought back each semester
to speak to students about their post-graduate experiences-their
successes and their difficulties. We do this in an event called
“Career Seminar.” We also have regular visits by graduates
wanting to stay in touch with former classmates and us. Often,
as well, they are in touch with each other, regularly working
together on professional projects.

ED: USC is the alumni’s school. I take
care of it, but it’s their school. It always has been
and always will be. Major decisions about the school are made
in concert with alumni. They come back and teach; they have
an enormous sense of ownership, which we want them to have.
We created a brand new Website for them, trying to help them
stay in contact with each other? I can’t conceive of the school
without the alumni.

CP: We have a breakfast for each discipline
and invite the alumni from that discipline to meet with the fellows
so that they can talk of their experiences post-AFI and allow fellows
to discuss their fears, desires, whatever they want. The best ally
that any school has is a happy alumnus. There’s no one that is going
to sell your school better than someone who has had a good experience
with your school.? MM

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