WHAT I LEARNED IN FILM SCHOOL

When I’m asked to speak at a film festival, or to a class at a University, aspiring filmmakers and students always ask me what I learned in film school.  Is film school worth the expense or the trouble?  I always tell them it depends on their goals.

I attended California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), in Valencia, California from 1993 until sometime in 1996.  For me, there were things I liked, instructors who inspired me, and some courses that held my attention.  But, there were also bad teachers, poorly structured courses, and things about it that I felt were wastes of time and money.  Lots of money.

If you are considering film school and have specific questions for me, let me know.  I’m happy to help.

LIFE LESSONS

The most significant thing I learned at CalArts was about life in general.  How to function away from home, being on my own, meeting new people… and how to take responsibility for myself.  All colleges are different, but when it comes to learning life lessons, I think any of them will deliver a good dose.  But are those life lessons that can be learned outside of film school?  Most likely.

TALKING ABOUT IT VS. DOING IT

I learned more on the set of my first film than I had in all my years at CalArts.  I’d been making movies since I was a child, but for the first time on a real set, it all clicked and made sense in a totally different way than it had before.  At film school they didn’t prepare me for what it would be really like directing a feature.  Running the set, managing actors and crew, egos and more.  I learned about none of those things in film school.  Of course, I didn’t know that until I was out of school.

SCENE ANALYSIS

I learned how to break down a scene, draw overhead floor plans of the set, showing where the camera is, lights are, where the actors are…  Was that a beneficial course?  Sure.  But, you’ll get the same thing by reading articles in this blog about how to do it.  And it won’t cost you $20,000 a year.

MOTORCYCLES ARE OKAY

I learned that driving a motorcycle through the hallways was acceptable so long as no one got hurt.  One morning about 10 AM, a girl named Whitney (I forgot her last name, and have no idea what she was studying) put on a Versace dress (one from his bondage collection), poured some Godiva liquor into our coffees, hopped on a motorcycle (she drove, I hung on from behind), and we drove into Tatum (the CalArts coffee shop), then roared out into the main school hallways and drove around.  It was exhilarating.  When we were done riding around, we went back to the coffee shop and finished the liquor.

CLOTHING OPTIONAL

I learned there was a clothing optional rule at the dorm swimming pool.

SEX IS OKAY

On one of my first days at film school, on the way to my class, I noticed two people having sex in the hallway.  Instructors walked by, no one stopped them.  I wondered if I’d missed something in the brochure, so I asked my Dean about it.  He informed me that so long as you didn’t hurt anyone, you were free to do what you liked whilst at CalArts.  If you don’t like something you have the power to shut your eyes and turn or walk away.  That began a fascinating study into experimenting with all kinds of sexual activity.  I’d slept with both men and women before CalArts, but never with an entire group.  It was also pretty common knowledge that after every art opening (which was always complete with a bar of some sort) came a kind of bizarre orgy.

CHARACTER STUDY

One of our classes had a textbook called “Men, Women & Chainsaws.”  We studied gender in the modern horror film.  It was a great class.  But, again, you can buy the book on Amazon for a lot less than a semester’s tuition.

TECH STUFF

I learned that if you’re interested in becoming a cinematographer (or DP), you’re better off going to Art Center in Pasadena.  If you want to learn how to edit a movie, you might be better off attending a seminar on the subject for a few days.  Again, an entire semester may not be worth it.  Unless of course, you’re interested in experiencing these kinds of life lessons.

GIVE THEM A NAME

When you’re writing a screenplay, it’s a good idea to name each character who has a line of dialogue.  Even if it’s just the “Workman” or the “Church Lady.”  I think every role deserves a personality even if their characters names aren’t ever spoken.  It’s a good habit to build.  Why?

Actors like to have names.  It’s much more fun to be in a movie when you’re playing “Cheryl” instead of “Woman #3.”  Furthermore, it looks better on the actor’s resume if they played a person who is named, instead of playing a mere number.  Think about it from the standpoint of a director or producer.  When you’re trying to find the best actor to play the “Bartender,” do you pay more attention to actors who have played “Man 2” or those who have a part called “Carl” on their resume?

Which resume below suggests a better actor?

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Jackie
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Rose
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Kathy

Versus:

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Woman in Alley
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Flower Shop Employee #2
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Travel Agent

Unless the actor is playing “Man 2” in the latest Spiderman movie, chances are the movie titles on people’s resumes won’t mean much.  For a big budget studio action movie, they probably see thousands of men for “Man 2,” so if this guy got picked, he must be great!  Whereas, say the actor played “Man 2” in a no-budget indie that you’ve never heard of… what message does that send?  Did they use him because they couldn’t get anyone else, or is he a decent actor?  Now, if he’d played “Roger” in that same indie movie, I’d be more apt to consider him.

When I’m casting a new movie, budget or no-budget, I always make sure to go through the script and give every character a name whenever possible.  I understand when there’s a scene, say, involving a drug bust, it would become problematic to name every single policeman in the scene.  So in that case, it’s okay to refer to the group as “Policemen.”  But, if there are a couple cops that have a line or two, why not give them names?  Officer Thad, or Officer Dave looks a lot better during your end credits, and also on their resumes, than Officer 1 and Officer 2.

Can’t think of a name?  No need.  Sometimes, I’m fresh out of names in my imagination database, too.  When that happens, I grab the nearest phone book, look up at the ceiling, flip through pages and stick my finger in.  I’ll rest it firmly on a page, then open the page and see what name I pointed to.  Usually, I’ll use whatever name I’ve picked.  I’ll try it now.

Let’s say I need a name for a waitress.  Okay, I’m opening the phone book, and… POINT.

Ronda.  What a great waitress name.  I think I’ll just use that.

I also need a name for the short order cook in the back.  Okay, I’ll open the phone book, and…  POINT.

Thomas.  Okay, that’s fine.  I could use “Thomas,” but I was hoping for a name with a little more feeling.  I’ll try again… and… POINT.

Delbert.  TOTALLY sounds like the cook in the back of the diner.

See, not hard at all?  It helps when you use a phone book from a big city so there will be many cultural names.  Telephone books are nearly extinct now, so anytime I’m in a big city hotel room and see a phone book, I make sure I accidentally drop it into my suitcase before checking out.