What is the attraction of film school? Buoyed in part by the well-publicized tales of the scholastic paths forged by elder statesmen such as Spielberg and Scorsese (left and right coast film school grads, respectively) and the more recent anyone-can-make-a-hit-film æsthetic popularized by such cheapo blockbusters as “Clerks” and “The Blair Witch Project,” more and more young students are choosing to enter into the incestuously cloistered micro-society of the film school. Even at a relatively small-scale college such as San Francisco State University, instructors are having trouble finding enough seats for all of these aspiring auteurs, and the limited number of seats available are fought over with Joan Crawford-like ferocity. As a veteran of these battles (I served a year in the Cinema program at SFSU before going broke, and am heading back for my second tour of duty in the fall), I’d like to offer a few tips to any potential new recruits on surviving the film school wars.
1) BE REALISTIC. Let’s make this perfectly clear; you will not be handed a three-picture deal at Miramax along with your diploma on graduation day, I don’t care how poignantly ambiguous and technically proficient the videos you shot of you cousin’s wedding are. A mere B.A. does not excuse you from intern/production assistant hell, with only a slight chance of ever working your way out of it. Yes, Scorsese is held up as a bright, shining testament to the possibilities of the NYU film department. But remember that there have been thousands of students who have taken the same classes with the same professors and only one of them turned out to be Martin Scorsese and then only after years of paid dues. Your professors will be, more often than not, unsuccessful filmmakers, and thus will greedily lunge at any opportunity to despoil any Pollyanna-ish notions of instant success. On Orientation day, an incoming freshman made the mistake of asking if movie studios ever went on recruiting missions at SF State, and I was half afraid the professor was going to stab the poor kid with his keys.
2) TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. The fallacy most common to film school beginners and most infuriating to film school veterans is the idea that Cinema is just a “fun major” (which certainly helps account for its perennial popularity). And it is fun, but in the same way that Accounting majors get their kicks sweating over a 1040 formyou have to be hopelessly dedicated to it. For those who approach the filmmaking process as a dilettante rather than an obsessive, as a diversion rather than an imperative, the film set will seem an endless series of mundanities (e.g., claustrophobic soundstages, menial labor, and interminable waiting, waiting, waiting) and the atmosphere of the film school society (e.g., the aggressive toadying, humiliating dues-paying, bloated egotism, etc.) will be a study in brackish frustration. You will drop out, so just save us your seat and go watch “The Sixth Sense” again.
3) DON’T TAKE IT TOO SERIOUSLY. After all, there’s nothing more revolting than a vainglorious “artist” who’s never actually done anything. On the first day of a Cinema Studies class, our professor asked us to name our favorite American movies of the 1970’s, our focus of study for the semester. As we all tossed about titles such as “Chinatown” and “The Conversation,” one gray-eyed, trench-coated, self-styled “gutter poet” snorted derisively, refused to mention even the titles of any American films. Instead he spoke at length about the sublimity possessed (solely, it seemed) by foreigners such as Bunuel and Godard. Eager to retort, I couldn’t decide whether to contradict his myopic snobbery by citing the favorable studies Andre Bazin and Cahiers du Cinema made of the classic American cinema, or by simply leaping over the desk and beating him to death with my fists. As it was, I maintained an incredulously hostile silence, a move that hardly rallied the troops to my cause. Which brings me to my next tip
4) SPEAK UP! Raise your hand, offer your opinions, go see your professors in their offices, and ask questions even if you know the answers. A college-grad friend once told me that the best advice she ever got was to make buddies with her teachers. They’re in the best position to help you out, and if they can place a name to your face you’ll be in a favorable position to receive special assignments, assistant teaching positions, and precious seats in prized classes. Figure out who can be of use to you and make some allies. Acting aloof, smug, shy, or superior is no way to make friends with anyone, much less someone who is supposed to be teaching you. Stroking a few egos never hurts, so remember this; if you’re virulently opposed to a*s-kissy schmoozing, you’re heading into the wrong business, fella. Much of what seems so frustrating and wrong about film schools (the cliques, the cozying, the capricious favoritism, the insulated self-importance) is merely a microcosmic reflection of the film industry. So don’t think of your most demeaning humiliations as shameful or embarrassingthink of them as your career.
5) VOLUNTEER FOR EVERYTHING. More than any other form, filmmaking is a collaborative medium, and as such, you’ll need collaborators. Take any job on any film crew that you can get, whether it’s holding the slate, building sets, or fixing meals. The important thing is gaining experience, getting a feel for the film set atmosphere, and making some connections. The same casually cozy schmoozing you use with your professors can be employed when dealing with your colleagues. Get to know the technical crews and the students in the advanced classes. Pick everyone’s brain, get some phone numbers, and try to make friends. These associations will prove invaluable when you’re ready to make your own student films. That sweaty guy in the tanktop hammering nails next to you on the soundstage could end up producing your script two years from now.
6) BE PATIENT! This is the most crucial piece of advice I could possibly give you. If you haven’t made your feature directorial debut by the time you’re 22, do not panic! Take the time to learn your craft, get on some film crews and make some connections. Remember, those $60,000 high-concept horror flicks made my 26 year-olds that look like home movies from your drunken uncle’s camping trip; which wind up grossing over a hundred million dollars are the exception, not the rule (in fact, never ever the rule). So don’t lose heart. However, if I’ve done nothing but discourage you from ever enrolling in film school, that’s alrightI needed your seat.