James Grey, Gregg Araki and Rian Johnson studied filmmaking at USC; Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts; Paul Schrader, Catherine Hardwick and Gina Prince-Bythewood studied at UCLA Film School. The list of filmmakers who attended film school at USC, NYU, UCLA and elsewhere is long and impressive. But how essential is a film school education these days?
Given the increasing costs of tuition and the decreasing costs of film production, does it make more sense to spend money on making a movie rather than studying filmmaking? We reached out to some of our favorite indie directors to ask them whether they went to film school and whether it was essential (or at least helpful) to their subsequent careers.
Here are their responses:
Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”):
I’ve already been quoted saying that “filmmaking is like sex, there’s no one way to do it, and the only way to learn it is by doing it.” I think that’s true. I also think a place dedicated to helping artists make art is a good place and can be a tool. I went to film school for screenwriting at UCLA. It gave me a reason to move to L.A., and I met several great friends there, including Alex O Flinn, who is now my editor, and I wrote five feature length screenplays in two years. But I never expected film school to teach me how to make films or tell a story, because I believe you can’t teach that.
I think film school is a tool, and a tool by itself is useless. A tool needs many other things in order for it to have a purpose, it’s there to create something else. There are so many tools. You can watch movies, you can read scripts from your favorite movies, watch bonus features of your favorite directors and see how they do things, get a camera and try filming things, you can travel the world, read books, listen to music. Use everything and anything to put yourself in the place where you feel creative and fascinated by what you’re doing and by life. Films really are about living life, and that part doesn’t happen inside a film school. Herzog said it best: “A boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he graduated from one of the ‘best’ film schools in the world.”
Doug Block (“51 Birch Street,” “The Kids Grow Up,” “112 Weddings”):
I’m sure film school is helpful for many, I just know it would have been my ruination.
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As the last of three children spaced four years apart, my parents couldn’t afford film school tuition, and being forced to pay back huge student loans is the last thing an aspiring filmmaker should face.
Also, I think I intuitively understood I wasn’t ready to make films at that young an age. I didn’t want to find out that I wasn’t nearly as good as I desperately wanted to be. I would have been way too vulnerable to criticism.
So instead I went to a state school at Cornell, which didn’t have a film program but had Cornell Cinema, probably the finest exhibition program in the country. I went to movies every night and that was my film school. My teachers were Welles and Bergman and Truffaut and Buster Keaton and the writings of Pauline Kael.
And for me it’s been a headlong love affair with movies ever since.
Marshall Curry (“Point and Shoot,” “Street Fight”):
I didn’t go to film school — I studied comparative religion on college — and I was working at an Internet company when I decided I wanted to make a documentary film. I had saved up some money and realized I could either go to film school or just spend that same money and time trying to make a film, so that’s what I did. I got a camera and spent months shooting with it, studying my footage and trying to figure out how not to make the same mistakes twice. Then I took a weekend course in Final Cut and spent the next year sitting in my apartment day after day, learning how to edit by trial and error. The result of that exercise was my first film “Street Fight.”
I am sure that there are lots of things that I could have learned in film school, and sometimes I’m jealous of my friends who went. I know I beat my head against problems that someone could have simply explained to me in school. And there are probably holes in my film education. But ultimately, whether you go to film school or not, there’s no substitute for going out and spending hundreds of hours trying to make a film.
Robert Machoian (“Forty Years from Yesterday”):
This is a hard one: The short answer is yes, if you look at all the major players and smaller players, many went to film school. Can someone not go to film school and still build a career without it? Yes, definitely. I went to film school. Why? Because I already was married and I couldn’t afford to go down to L.A. and try and make it. Also, I wasn’t aspiring to make “Bad Boys 3,” or make a $100 million in a weekend as a filmmaker. I think if you want your mind expanded, and want to look at film in a deeper way then Hollywood, then yes, film school is good. For those wanting to make the next big films, then NYU, USC, UCLA are the schools you need to get yourself into. The smaller schools are for people who want to be in control of their careers as they grow.
Aaron Katz (“Land Ho!”):
For me, attending University of North Carolina School of the Arts was important in two ways. First, it gave me a good practical idea, technically I mean, of how to make a movie. The school was pretty conservative about the approach to production, which gave us a good sense of the way things are traditionally supposed to be done. I’ve often departed from the way we learned to do things in school, but having that foundation has informed my choices in a way that I’ve found very useful. The second, and most important thing, was meeting many of the people who have become my longtime collaborators.
Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army”):
I didn’t attend film school, although I thought about it many times. In hindsight, I know now that I had great training on all the essential elements of filmmaking and more from my past life as a lawyer and then working for ABC News. As a lawyer, I learned to write, to tell a good story in a clear and simple manner. But my real education came from working alongside the many talented journalists at ABC. I saw how pieces were scripted, edited and refined. I read hundreds if not thousands of interviews in the five and a half years on the job and I saw how the best interviewers got their subjects to open up. Of course, I saw the importance of good shooting and editing, the importance of not rushing and allowing a story to unfold. But the single most important thing I learned was how important it is in non-fiction to let the situation speak for itself. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to remove myself from the film, even when I have a strong point of view. I like the audience to make its own decisions about the characters and if i do my job correctly the film allows the audience to create its own connection with the characters.
Negin Farsad (“The Muslims Are Coming!”):
I never went to film school. I went from doing a whole bunch of theater, writing, and standup to making a feature film with not a single YouTube video in between. It was a crazy move but all that other arts experience certainly helped with the essentials of storytelling. So if you have experience in storytelling and even more basic than that, if you have experience entertaining people, you’ll have that part of film school covered.
What I always wish I had more of is more technical know-how and quite frankly, more jargon. I’m finishing up my fourth film and I’m still like, “I want a two-shot — no, wait, I mean a double shot — no wait, what’s it called?” It’s hard looking cool when you never learned the words. But DPs always seem to get what I’m talking about so in some ways, who cares if I don’t know the right words?
But one thing film school does not give you is an understanding of how audiences will respond to your work. I feel like that’s missing from a lot of folks that have the deep film-school-straight-into-production type experience. But don’t worry, just do some standup, fail miserably, and then you’ll figure out the spectrum of audience reactions and what it is they want.
Tom Dolby (“Last Weekend”):
I didn’t attend film school, though I did take a lot of film theory classes in college. I think film school is great if you have the time and inclination (and money). But mostly, I believe the best way to learn how to make a film is, quite simply, to make a film. Not only will you have made something that can be a calling card, but you’ll meet your first set of real-world collaborators — it’s an invaluable experience that I’m not sure can be properly gained in the classroom.
Robert Greene (“Actress”):
I believe in film education strongly enough that I’m uprooting my life and heading to Columbia, Missouri to help launch the Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri, but what I’m hoping to bring to students will be informed by my basic belief that proper “film schools” are a waste of time. Well maybe not a complete waste – it’s always good for young people to have time to explore and work and that’s the best thing a film school can offer — time. In my experience, though, it’s probably better for students to find ways to apprentice with other filmmakers. There are exceptions — like Cal Arts and Harvard with its Sensory Ethnography Lab, for example — but most film programs feel like they’re just engines to capitalize on kids who want to be the next Christopher Nolan. I hope to do better in Missouri. I went to graduate school at the CCNY and it was not a great experience.
Alex Ross Perry (“Listen Up Phillip”):
I fear that reducing the argument to binary questions like whether film school “is” or “isn’t” helpful is a bit reductive. Anything can be helpful to one person and useless to another. I think that beyond a doubt giving people who think they are or may be interested in filmmaking a few years to have the luxury of just “being a student” where you have nothing else to do is absolutely a great position to be in. Whether or not people chose to take advantage of having years to “want to make films” without “having to actually have a real life, a job, or real responsibilities” is up to them. For me, it was a great time to balance class with discovering repertory cinema as well as augmenting my education with a job at a video store. If I treated film school the way most people treat regular school (the obligation you have to endure in order to live the fun life of a student with friends, parties, no real commitments, etc.), I probably to this day would never have made a film. I would just have a degree.
Hal Hartley (“Trust,” “Ned Rifle”):
I attended the State University of New York at Purchase Filmmaking program from 1980 to 1984 (undergraduate). It was an affordable art school created for lower middle class families supported with robust state-guaranteed student loans. It was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. (I wrote my last monthly student loan check of $185 sometime in the year after I made my second feature film, “Trust” — so, sometime in 1992 — seven years after graduating.)
Learning the various crafts associated with filmmaking at that time was the basis of our day-to-day work. But our teachers were concerned that we have other interests other than filmmaking. Our creative work was aimed at helping us discover for ourselves our own interests and the appropriate voice in which to express them.
I think education is important and worthwhile. Any education. These days, when the techniques of filmmaking can be acquired so easily on a laptop and with inexpensive cameras, I don’t think film school is so important for that alone. (Access to equipment was important back in the ’80s.)
But young people should have an opportunity to develop their craft for a while outside the rat race — to develop as people and discover their real interests and sensibilities without the pressure to succeed as a commodity — to be somewhere they are allowed to attempt and fail! Because that’s how you learn things. A safe haven. Just for a while. The pain and the suffering, the compromises and the degradation…that will happen afterwards, anyway.
And, of course, there’s always the chance to study and work surrounded by well-intentioned and informed older people who have greater experience of things…
It took me years to get over the feeling that I had somehow gotten away with murder for being allowed to have an affordable education like that.
Saar Klein (“After The Fall”):
Is film school essential or even helpful to aspiring indie filmmakers?
I didn’t go that route. I decided I had enough theoretical learning and wanted to be hands on. The problem with this approach is that you start at the bottom doing things that you may feel you’re overqualified to do after four years of higher education.
“Do you know how to collate?” was the type of question I was often asked on my first film jobs when I was hoping for: “would you like to take over the shoot?”
But unless you have a family fortune and can convince daddy to finance your first film, you will probably also be doing the same grunt jobs I did but doing it after four years of film school and now with student loans. But the opportunity to play around and make films for three to four years without the scrutiny of the “real” world may have great value in itself. It may build you confidence and give you the opportunity to explore and make mistakes in a private arena. I have not seen many good student films, but I’ve seen incredible films from directors after they graduated from film school.