ERIC SHERMAN

Eric Sherman is my mentor and consultant and guru and… well, he’s just like Yoda.  Only real.  I first met Eric when I was a student at CalArts in the mid 90s.  Eric taught Film Directing and on the first day of class, as he arrived, I handed him my business card.  My attendance was spotty, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning what he had to share.

At the end of the semester, I left CalArts for a few weeks to direct a feature version of Anne Rice’s novel THE VAMPIRE LESTAT.  See, for another class, we were given an assignment to direct something with texture (or something about composition in general).  The assignment was supposed to be a short film, but I never thought in short-storytelling format, so I instantly thought I’d adapt and direct LESTAT since I’d just finished reading the book and was really inspired.  Anyway, I had to leave CalArts in order to get back to Kansas to make the movie.

When I returned, most of my instructors asked where in the world had I been and I replied, “I was doing the assignment!”  Then I handed them a double VHS set of the finished and edited movie.  (Yes, this was before DVDs were invented and the movie was longer than 2 hours, so I had to use a second VHS tape to hold the last part).

Eric gave me an INCOMPLETE on my report card.  I didn’t know what that meant, so I went to see him.  Evidently if a student doesn’t attend the class, there’s no way for him or her to learn what is being taught in the class.  Of course he was right.  But, no matter my plea, I still received an incomplete, and was forced to re-take the class in order to pass it.  So I did.

In my memory, it’s hard to tell exactly how many times I re-took Eric’s FILM DIRECTING class.  I’m pretty sure I only repeated it once, but it might have been three times.  After my stint at CalArts, I set off to direct my debut feature film.  To understand filmmaking as both a business and creative endeavor, I hired Eric as a film consultant to help me with my business plan and pre-production management.  He taught me how important it is to be ultra-prepared.

Eric’s father was Vincent Sherman, the last of the great Golden Age Hollywood directors.  Eric himself worked with everybody, including Orson Welles.  I knew he had the knowledge I needed to learn.  I was right.  Later on, as my first film became a real project, I asked him to come on board as a co-producer.  That film is PEP SQUAD.  It would be the first film to predict the soon-to-be onslaught of American School Violence.  Furthermore, it’s is a dark comedy and a subversive satire—an entertaining combination.

At one point, I decided against casting the actor I’d auditioned to play the sleazy principal who gets killed.  Instantly I turned to Eric to see if he’d consider it.  He eventually agreed to do it, and he’s just great portraying the wonderfully demented and evil character.  On the day we were to kill off the character, I recalled getting an INCOMPLETE in his class, and I couldn’t recall if I ever did, in fact, pass it.  Clearly, at this point, I didn’t need to worry about it.

Eric and I continue to work together and today I consider him more than a mentor and friend.  He’s family.  If any of you are in need of hiring someone with Yoda-like know-how on filmmaking, or in need of a mentor, or consultant, I’d be happy to put you in touch with Eric.  He’s the best!

TAKE THAT HAT OFF

To exist in The Industry where specialists reign, one must be the best they can be at one thing.  This is how it is in Hollywood, or at least major cities across the globe.  If you want to be a DP, or script supervisor, or line producer, or gaffer, and live in a major city, chances are the only way you’ll be able to do it for a living is by being a specialist.  This means that as you work and learn, you become very good at the one thing you know everything about.  And because of this, you’ll have no idea about anything else.

To exist in the rest of the world, to be an independent filmmaker, one must wear multiple hats and be many different things.  One day the line producer is also the gaffer, and maybe the next day the script supervisor is a camera assistant.  By having your crew wear multiple hats, it can save a lot of time and money.  Unless you’re making a studio movie, no one needs 30 people on their crew.  I don’t see any reason to have more than 10.  I prefer to keep that number under five, but on occasion I can see where eight or nine might be nice.

The trouble happens when you bring a specialist into a project designed for people to wear multiple hats.  The specialist will struggle with this, and the majority of the time will either be horrible to work with, or cause friction on the set.

Of course some specialists out there can do different things, but my advice is to make sure these things are talked about before you start filming.  Once I had a guy from Los Angeles on my crew who refused to do anything except the activities in his job title.  There could be a sudden downpour, people rushing to get the equipment covered or inside, and he’d just stand around and watch everybody.  Why didn’t he help out?  Well, he’d say, I’m a focus puller.  That’s not my job.

Yes, sometimes specialists can come off being total jerks.  Which is why I prefer to hire aspiring filmmakers who have little to no experience.

Aspiring filmmakers or interns tend to work harder and have more passion.  They are also moldable, agreeable, and excited about all the aspects of movie making.  When someone is excited about learning, and thrilled to experience different things, the environment is always enjoyable.

If you do end up hiring an intern or aspiring filmmaker with little experience, be sure to show them how to do different things.  Teach them.  One day they can work in the art department, another day they can work with the camera, and the next day in production sound.  This way, they will leave your shoot a bit more knowledgeable about filmmaking.  It’s also possible they’ll learn more on your shoot than they would have spending thousands of dollars on tuition at a film school.  They may not understand the value of their experience right then, but later on they’ll be very thankful.

Creating a movie’s opening or closing credit sequence is the only bad part about having a small crew that wears multiple hats.  It’s nearly impossible to do traditional rolling credits unless you list each of the jobs and assign names to them.  Problem is, with just a few people on your crew, you’ll end up seeing the same person’s name a dozen times.  And that’s a bit exhausting.  Be proud of your work, but do people really need to see that you directed it and edited it, art directed it, organized costumes, wrote it, produced it, choreographed it, DP-ed it, sketched the storyboards, etc.?  No, they just need to know you directed it.  So keep that in mind.

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.