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A Letter To My Students About To Graduate From Film School

A Letter To My Students About To Graduate From Film School

Editor’s Note: Steve Collins has taught filmmaking at UT Austin and presently heads the production department at Wesleyan University. He’s also an accomplished writer/director whose feature film “You Hurt My Feelings” was a New York Times and New York Magazine critics pick, while his first feature “Gretchen” won Best Narrative Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Indiewire recently asked Collins what advice he had for those about to leave the insulated world of film school and he shared with us this insightful and soulful letter to his students.

Dear film graduates,
My undergraduate education in film was an immersion in love for film as an art form. In hindsight, it was an oasis. Not until returning as a teacher many years later did I ever find an equivalent concentration of energy on the sheer glory of film. I’ve always felt our job as teachers was to incubate students in the beauty, potential, splendor of this medium, long enough that they can develop their own relationship with film, so that it might keep them alive in the harsh professional landscape, like a scuba tank snuck in their carry-on, as they travel to make their wares in Los Angeles, NY, Austin, New Orleans, et al.

You do need a scuba tank to work in film: something that feeds you when you’re not getting nourishment.

For those of you who want to be filmmakers and by that I mean really, really want it in your very core, you have my deepest respect. I’ve often thought it must be easy to only casually want a life in film, because it would be easier to casually drop it. But what, exactly, is the point of easy? I wanted to write a few words for the other humans on the planet addicted to that mystery of putting two images together and creating that spark, for the poor sods hooked on the wonder of showing that spark on the screen and seeing it spread out into an audience, all eyes watching, united, feeling a little less alone.

So as you strap on your scuba tank and go out from your incubator, here’s some advice that I didn’t know when I graduated in 1996.

Your challenge is not only to make your films, you have to build a whole oasis.  

Invest in the relationships that work for you. They are your oasis. Do not take them for granted.

If you fall into a negative or bitter state of mind, you’ve essentially lost, go back to the things that work for you and re-incubate.
Loved ones are collaborators. For an artist, work and love are the same thing. They are the soil that your work grows in. The film set’s grueling sixteen hour day can be if you let it, a place to avoid figuring out what matters to you. If you hide from the big questions, you risk getting to the top and having nothing to say. Have you noticed how much emptiness is coming from the top?
You are off the track now, no one is steering. You must direct your life toward what is important to you, and how you do that, where you put your concentration and  emphasis, is who you will become. 
Your relationship to great filmmakers of the past counts. If art is real, you are actually communing with them when you re-watch their films. This is part of your oasis. Nicholas Ray really does love you, it’s not in your head.
Your obstacles seem to be external, tactical, they are actually internal, emotional. This realization will also help your screenwriting. 
You must make your work. Do not get caught up in scale and what is good for your career. The priority is that you’re working and growing. You have to commit to the value of your work.
Do not fixate on the response to your work. This is not under your control. Take a breath of air from your scuba tank to re-incubate.
Do not fixate on the response to your neighbors work. There is nothing to be gained from this. Take another breath.
If you can figure out how to make the work itself the reward, you will be unstoppable.
You must embrace your restrictions. What could you do with a VHS camera, a cardboard box, and some crayons.
Don’t wait until later to be who you want to be. Be it today, any way you can. Get out of the mindset of “when I make it big, I will do this” and into the mindset of “I am making this now.”
Be open to the thing you don’t know. You have to be actively open and searching for the piece to your puzzle. Just like in a screenplay, it will surprise you and yet make perfect sense once you’ve found it.

READ MORE: Is Film School Necessary? Top Indie Filmmakers Respond

It is fine, and even necessary to make wrong turns, as long as your readjust your course. The only thing to question is your compass: are you following your true self or only your idea of what you should be? Your idea may be wrong.  
As you readjust your course, it will feel like you’re starting from scratch each time, but if you have your compass properly set up, perspective and time will show that you were moving upward.
All the things you read about and saw in movies are true: there are legions of people living completely false lives, Citizen Kanes are up there at the top, dropping snow-globes, uttering, “rosebud” in their last breath. Look at yourself with open, honest eyes, follow your true self.
I wish all of you love and cinema and that they may become the same thing. I look forward to seeing your work.
Sincerely,
Steve Collins

Collins’ latest feature is a lyrical documentary about childhood called “The Secret Life of Girls,” while his new series of absurdist shorts, called “The Black Eye Symphony,” is playing as part of Rooftop Films’ opening night festivities this Friday night at the Bushwick generator. 

Watch Donté Clark perform at Rooftop Films’ screening of “Romeo is Bleeding”:


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