No Apples for Their Teachers: IFC's Film School Starts its Semester
by Brandon Judell
If you are a reality TV addict and you subscribe to indieWIRE, this new series is made just for you. Here's a no-holds-barred look at the sadistic yet joyous plight of four NYU film students embarking on the directing of their first shorts.
Over ten half-hour episodes, we get to watch them serve chicken dinners in bars to raise money, fight with girlfriends and air-headed producers as their deadlines approach, plus suffer from multiple ego-meltdowns, all while still trying to attend class.
No doubt the unmitigated success of this series is due to its executive producer/creator Nanette Burstein. This Oscar-nominated co-director of "On The Ropes" and the acclaimed "The Kid Stays in the Picture," now proves she has staying power of her own.
Her selected four subjects for "Film School," two of each sex, relentlessly allow her into their bedrooms, bathrooms, and psyches. You often wonder why? But then nowadays who has any personal boundaries?
Anyway, after watching six episodes in one thrilling sitting, indieWIRE sat down with Burstein, herself an NYU film attendee, plus her producer Jordan Roberts, who himself previously directed second unit on the feature film "The Weekend" (Buena Vista). The locale: Manhattan's IFC offices.
indieWIRE: There are four film students in the picture? How many did you start out with? More than four?
Nanette Burstein: Yes.
Jordan Roberts: We had six people at periods.
NB: But only at the very beginning though. Like the first couple of weeks. We were very clear up front that we needed to film every aspect of your life because this is going to take over your life. I was very clear up front if you're not comfortable with that, you shouldn't do this.
There was one woman who really wanted to do the series, but she had a personal relationship that she didn't feel she could expose to the camera, and that personal relationship was actually like with her DP. So I didn't want to do that because I thought it would be a disingenuous story. She was upset about it, but in the end you have to really expose everything about people or it's not going to be interesting. Audiences sense it. They know something's going on that you're not telling them.
iW: What about the one woman who dropped out in the middle of the series? Was that a shock? Or did you go, "Thank God!"
NB: (Laughs) No, I was so hoping that she succeeded. I wanted her to be like the underdog who really comes through magically in the end. But when she did drop out, it happened in such a dramatic way, that it didn't make it so disappointing in the series. I mean it actually made it really, really captivating. The most amazing part of it is she allowed this very intimate footage of her dealing with a death of someone who's basically like her mother, who raised her. You rarely see that on television, someone really honestly depicting her mourning like that.
JR: Our filmmakers became incredibly intimate with these students. They slept on their couches. We shot 2000 hours of footage. That's amazing when you have 2000 hours of footage that you can compress into five hours.
NB: Was it really 2000 hours?
JR: Yes, it was close to 2000 hours of footage.
iW: Do you think too many people are enrolling in film school? That too many people are wasting their money? Is it a weird American Dream?
NB: You know I think there're many ways to go about becoming a film director. I think film schools are one of them. I don't think it's a necessary thing to do, but for some people it can be a great experience. If you can get scholarship money to go there, it's a great opportunity because you get equipment, you get supportive crew, and you just have this... You know, when you're in life, you can just blow off doing this stuff. "Oh, I want to make this film," but life sort of takes over. But when you're in school, you're like: "Okay, now I have to do it. I'm assigned it, I'm in it. I'm inspired." It's all organized, so it pushes you to do it.
If you're a really motivated person and with the technology now, you don't have to go to film school. But I do think it's a great opportunity if you can get loans. If you can get scholarship money, and if you really have a good plan, like "this is what I want to do when I'm there." You really have to think about the long-term plan of it. I think it's probably a bad idea to just go there and see what happens.
JR: It's wonderful for them to be surrounded just by creativity the whole time which is an advantage of film school. The two things to me is just being engulfed in the creative process and not necessarily as much in the business side. Even though you need to raise money to make your film happen, it's all for the creative. [And there's] the networking that it can provide you. But I completely agree with everything that Nanette said, that you don't have to do film school.
NB: But I also think that there's a lot of film programs now in the U.S. I think the great American dream now is no longer to write the "great novel" as maybe in Fitzgerald's time. Now it's to write the "great screenplay," or make the "great short film."
Everybody loves movies. Not even just in this country, but everyone wants to be a film director. Little kids [want to as well] now. So there's a lot of undergraduate programs where people come and dabble and stuff. But I think graduate programs, like especially the top ones, still remain highly selective. I mean NYU only picks 36 students a year. Look at the number of applications and the number of the acceptances. It's harder to get into NYU grad film school than into Harvard Law School.
So it's really very serious people who have a good shot at doing it, and these are people who are teachers, doctors, lawyers, or opera directors as in Vincenzo's case. I mean they had other careers that they gave up, and they're pretty serious about this. It takes a lot of guts because you're going to end up with huge debts, and there's no guarantee of a job.
[If] you go to law school and you take out loans, [then] you know you can pay them back and go work as a corporate lawyer. [If] you go to film school, you might be lucky if you're waiting tables when you're finished, and you have $65,000 in debt.
iW: But the students you spotlight have been attending NYU, and they all seem unprepared to make their films. What has film school taught them? They're totally like "Arghhh!"
NB: It's like training camp. It's like when you get into the army... It's grueling. This is where they sort of like just push you into the pool, and you got to figure it out because no one can sit in a room and go to a blackboard and teach you how to make a film. It will just all go over your head. The only way you learn is by doing, and so yeah, you struggle, you flail, you swim about, and somehow out of all this can come greatness. But that's how you learn, you just gotta dive in blindfolded [with] arms tied behind your back. And then figure out how to do what you need to do.
iW: Since your publicists are taking you away from me, do you have another project set, or another ten projects?
NB: Yeah well, I would love to do another season of this maybe at a school in L.A. I'm also developing a documentary called "American Teen" which is going to be the quintessential teen documentary. You see all these great teen fiction films? Well, this is going to be capturing what it's like to be a teenager in high school and following the same sort of narrative you see in fiction films, but capturing them in reality. So it has much more edge to it. I'm also developing a film that will be capturing the great characters who are in the retirement home, the Motion Picture Retirement Home in Los Angeles.
iW: Since I first interviewed you years ago for "On the Ropes," you have become much more glamorous.
iW: Your body is more petite and you hair is cut well. You are wearing classy jewelry. Is that because you're a success?
NB: No, I think it's just getting older. You got to make up for it as you get older.