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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.