Wednesday, 4 November 2015

I didn't go to film school...

Let's get the shameful confession out of the way first. I didn't go to film school
So what? you ask. The issue came up recently in a reported comment, supposedly made by Terry Gilliam: "Film school is for fools." He did say:
Live and learn how to make films. I didn’t go to film school. I just watched movies in the cinemas. And probably my greater education was actually making films, so that’s all I would ever say: watch movies, get a camera, make a movie. And if you do it enough times, eventually you start learning how films are made. 
George Lucas went to film school, and he's done okay. Mind you, James Cameron didn't, and his movies out-gross, well, everybody's. Martin Scorsese went to film school. Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Bernardo Bertolucci, Quentin Tarantino, and Alfred Hitchcock did not.

David Mamet didn't go to film school, either. He wrote copy for a girlie magazine instead, learning to combine words with pictures.
I would be given "the blues," blue-and-grey first runs of what would later be glorious color spreads of the said naked women, and I would tack them on the cork-lined walls, and I would strive to have fantasies about them. For it was all a fiction, all that stuff; their names were made-up, their biographies, their likes and peeves. It was whole cloth, like the letters to the editor. Someone made it up, and that year, that was my job.
   I think my personal best was "Katya with her pants down"; and there was also "Anna is a palindrome," but I'm not sure if that was mine.
                                                David Mamet, Make-Believe Town, 1996
The regular reader will have observed I'm fond of David Mamet, partly for the truth of this observation of his:
Working as a screenwriter, I always thought that 'Film is a collaborative business' only constituted half of the actual phrase. From a screenwriter's point-of-view, the correct rendering should be 'Film is a collaborative business: bend over.'
But that's a digression.

Not only did he not go there, but Mamet questions the value of anyone going to film school.
Of what use is this graduate film diploma, then? As evidence of the bona fides of the applicant. For someone capable of putting up with X years of the nonsense of school would be odds-on willing to submit to the sit-down-and-shut-up rigors of the bureaucratic environment.
David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla, 2008
Robert Rodriguez, director of Sin City, Spy Kids, El Mariachi and a bunch others, has this advice about film school.
If you want to be a filmmaker and you can’t afford film school, know that you don’t really learn anything in film school anyway. They can never teach you how to tell a story, or all you’ll do is tell stories like everyone else. You learn to tell stories by telling stories. And you want to learn your own way of doing things.        
                         — Robert Rodriguez, Rebel without a Crew,1996
Werner Herzog has been quite vocal in arguing against film school. 
You don't need to go to film school. You can learn the technical things in less than a week. All the rest you can learn by traveling on foot. You have to have fundamental experiences in life, like solitude. You have to experience it to know what it means.
I asked Brian McDonald what he thought about the line: "Film school is for fools."
That sounds kinda harsh. But there is something weird about film school. None of the old masters of film went to film school because such a thing did not exist. For example, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, William Wellman, William Wyler, David Lean, Victor Fleming, George Stevens, Charlie Chaplin, Leo McCarey, Elia Kazan, Orson Wells, King Vidor, and Raoul Walsh never went to film school. Those are all directors, but I could list as many screenwriters, editors, and other crafts people who did not get their film education in schools. 
   I didn’t go. Many of my friends who did go say they felt it was a waste of time in most respects. There are often some basic storytelling concepts they are either not taught or not taught well. I think basic skills of communication are sometimes seen as pedestrian in academic circles, so they favor the avant-garde.
   I’m not telling anyone not to go the film school, but to understand that your school may not be making you familiar with all the things that might help you become an effective communicator in the film medium. It will still be your job to seek those things out. Storytelling is not something you can ever fully master. To be good at it you have to have a ravenous appetite for information about your craft.
For every case against, there will always be one for. In this instance, it comes in the form of a book from Steve BomanFilm School: The True Story of a Midwestern Family Man Who Went to the World's Most Famous Film School, Fell Flat on His Face, Had a Stroke, and Sold a Television Series to CBS. 

You can read a review of that book by Jonathon Zimmerman (who himself went to film school and has things to say on the subject) in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

First posted:  3 February 2012

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