Hey, everyone! I had taken some time off for holiday stuff. Hopefully you shared lots of good times and food with the people who mean the most to you...I know I did! :)
I decided to make this is a two-parter, and there are lots of fun links to explore. Enjoy Part I, where you'll learn about my first interest in filmmaking, as well as my first step into the industry.
This question comes up often: Is film school worth it? Can’t you just, you know, teach yourself? Well, yes and no. Here’s my story:
I look back on the ‘90s and must admit, it was a great time to be an adolescent. The radio and MTV were actually playing music I loved, and TV shows like The Simpsons and Roseanne dominated the airwaves. The Internet was catching on, and we had Bill Clinton in the White House! Our country had a sense of optimism: there was economic growth, opportunity, and a promise for an ever- better tomorrow. These ideas would spill over into the film world, creating an indie film phenomenon with an expiration date I was too young and naïve to see. However, my naiveté would prove useful, as this road turned out to be longer than I previously thought.
New York winters depressed me, so during my spare time in high school I would hole up and watch movies. I used to repeatedly watch scenes, obsessing over how actors said their lines, how it was filmed, what it sounded like; you get the picture. At night I would sit in my room and write short stories about lonely people (duh), trying desperately to put into words what I was feeling. Some friends read my stories, with the same repeated note: “Man, I was able to really see everything you wrote about.” Apparently people were sensing these short stories felt more like little movies, and I quickly signed up for the Super 8mm filmmaking course the art department offered. We would shoot a short and then splice the film together for a rough edit. Next we'd project the film onto a white wall and simply videotape it (VHS). Now you were ready to edit VHS-to-VHS, adding music via cassette tape. Hooray, a film is born! I would work on my little film until the teachers locked up and kicked me out. I'd ride those long bus rides home, always feeling so accomplished (for the record, the only time I hated that bus ride is if my Walkman ran out of batteries).
I would come home late and be greeted by irate parents who felt the arts were a playground for the rich, and ultimately, a complete waste of time for someone like me. I begged for their support to enter SUNY Purchase, and even my art teacher went to bat for me. But I was just a teenager up against her PARENTS, the ultimate stonewall, without the first clue as to how to be my own advocate, so I went to SUNY Albany and studied English, Education, and Theater. For many years I was as bitter as vinegar over this move, though time has offered more mature perspectives, and I will be blogging about how important it is to leave yourself open to different paths. Believe me, nothing is an accident.
You’ve heard this before, but I’ll reiterate: You don’t have to go to film school to learn how to make movies. This is true now, and it was true in the ‘90s when nobodies were finding themselves with multi-picture deals based on a film or script. Some people can just pick up a video camera, shoot little movies, and figure out how to make them “better” through practice. And lucky you, your iPhone is pretty much a handheld studio. Seriously, go grab an iPhone with a lens app, then edit on iMovie for almost no money (borrow from a friend)! This is a much different world from our indie heroes, who had to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to realize their film wasn’t "working." Use. This. To. Your. Advantage.
Let’s jump to 2002, when I graduated college and moved to Brooklyn. I had been steadily reading books on independent filmmaking since I was a teenager, but now it felt like a serious self-education! A 15-minute subway ride would lead to The Strand Bookstore, which boasts "18 miles of books." It gave me such comfort to read success stories by people who didn't seem all that different from me...and man, I needed that comfort.
This may seem like a huge understatement, but life in New York City after 9-11 was hard to acclimate to. I moved back down there 8 months after the attacks, and the city felt nervous, on edge. I hated our president and his administration, and for everyone who keeps citing 2007 as the start of the Great Recession, I'd like to remind them how the job market tanked back then, too. Very few of my peers had employment after graduation, and those with degrees in finance, marketing, or law faced the same dismal job prospects as someone with a fine arts degree! :) Hey, the state even froze my teacher's license, and lots of people who signed up for those "Teach NYC" jobs found themselves on waiting lists. I should add that I did manage to unfreeze my teaching credentials once ready to enter the field, but that's a blog post for another time.
The goal back then was to find a job to cover my expenses while leaving enough time to learn about filmmaking, be it on my own or by working for others. The first job people think of is in food service for its flexibility and higher (yet less stable) pay. I scored a bartending gig at an East Village dive, grateful to have an interesting on-your-feet job that allowed for savings...but working 8:40pm-5:30am five or six nights a week left me exhausted and dysfunctional during my non-consecutive "off" day(s). Did you get all that? People pointed out that I could have switched jobs, but my fear of the dismal economy kept me slinging drinks. Anyway, adhering to these hours made me less functional writing-wise, so in my “free time” I watched as many movies as I could. This was also around the time cable TV got really interesting, and once Netflix popped up, leaving the house merely became optional.
All of those books I highlighted above never minced words regarding how tough filmmaking can be. You really need to love the process, because it always seems like you're enduring an uphill battle. Anyhoo, seeing as I had no script or film, I decided to try to "work" my way in. It feels next to impossible to find a way into the industry without a family/friend contact, so I began taking internships and PA jobs, though lack of opportunity mixed with my lousy attitude didn’t yield much. While a few of those experiences were helpful, I hated working for free, especially for companies that could afford to pay me something. But I did it because the ubiquitous advice of “having to pay your dues.” For the record, I have lesser issues with educational (course credit) internship programs; they can be more useful than some of the bullshit film classes you’re forced to $it through because, tuition! The internships that mentor and allow for learning (without having a stapler thrown at your head) are in fact, valuable. This doesn't eliminate the general unfairness and class divide of an unpaid workforce, mind you, but it does provide the possibility of opportunity.
The trick is being able to sustain yourself during these unpaid gigs, and for most young people that’s going to be their parents. Sometimes a spouse supports you as you’re struggling, or maybe you’re fortunate enough to have enough savings to tide you over until the next paying job. I sold my car upstate and moved into a Brooklyn share, choosing the 6'x12' room with no heat or closet because it had the lowest rent. This allowed me the brief luxury of interning, and while it didn't lead to a paying job, it was my first step into the film world, a tricky place that educates through experience.
I interned in a production office part-time while pounding the pavement in search of steadier work. What I was asked to do was pretty run-of-the-mill: making copies, deliveries/pickups, lunch orders, trash collecting, cleaning bathrooms, etc., nothing I hadn't done before. Nevertheless my anxiety got the better of me, since I was aware of how horrid these film jobs could be. I was so anxious about pissing someone off or making some huge mistake that I probably drove myself (and anyone within ten feet) nuts. I didn’t know anything about film etiquette, or saying “yes” to everything, etc. Eventually I improved with time and took paid PA gigs here and there, but I always had to give priority to my day job. With no vacation time, health insurance, or job security, I had to turn down temporary film gigs or risk permanent unemployment. It was a constant compromise, one that left me exhausted, confused, angry, and demoralized.
Stay tuned for Part II, where you'll learn how my employment history led to graduate film school.