Film school or no film school? I won’t begin to give my own answers to this debate, and any answers are almost decadent after the spoken words of Paul Thomas Anderson: “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it.”
This is very true – we live in an age of information overload – but is this a good or bad thing? Hence ‘overload’! Can film schools not condense such information and give you a clear direction? Information to one side, the practice is probably the best thing you are likely to get out of film school, so let us look in more depth at the practice film school can offer.
I caught up with Dan Montanarini – who has consumed all of these experiences – and was fortunate enough to pick his brains on the subject of film school and filmmaking in general. Dan is a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, so this article will be outrageously bespoke towards the NFTS film school. First-hand apologies.
Dan’s first short film The Guest, starring Olivia Williams, premiered at the Krakow International Film Festival and his graduate film Seahorse will be making the rounds later this year. Below is my (very particular) interpretation of this conversation with the very occasional quote from Dan thrown in to testify his presence.
From 14 Dan knew that he wanted to direct films, but what was the next step to be? There are two things to take into consideration when approaching such a mammoth task as film directing: how to crack the industry open and secondly, perhaps most importantly, how to ground yourself in the craft and the magnificent history that precedes you. Film is an “art form” – study the history and theory of storytelling and aesthetics. Dan expresses a hungry appetite for the world that film occupies, which means watching a lot of films and exploring film culture. You can’t get away without watching lots of films folks. This should be a task to relish in. Of course, a director should enjoy the physical elements of life on a film set, but equally essential as to finding your feet as a film director is being able to talk of your place in the surrounding culture.
Like anything in life that requires making something happen, it won’t transpire at the flick of a switch. Dan graduated in English literature and film from Warwick University and went on to find a full-time job. While earning his living, Dan produced and directed his aforementioned film The Guest on the side. And here is where film school comes in; it is a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once i.e. maintaining a ‘normal’ living. However, Dan had never planned on the film school route because he had the sense that if one needs £10,000 to spend on film school then why not make a film yourself? Along the lines of the old Rodriguez and Tarantino motto I believe. But isn’t this a restricting approach to the matter? As Dan explains, film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft then the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds at NFTS!
Getting into NFTS is almost entirely based on your short film. It needs to be good. If it is good enough then you get an interview. Dan says that the interview was actually a very pleasant experience; NFTS looks for honesty in their applicants and play to a focused, yet relaxed environment. A quality any great director needs is surely to remain relaxed with an all-pervading sense of focus. Once at the school, you are free to explore your craft with great freedom. While the contact hours are very decent, Dan is sure to note that the tutors do not impose regulations. They do, however, provide detailed feedback and hold an intense reviewing process. From rushes to sound lock, every step of the phase is thought-out and given attention to detail. It looks like film school must do one thing well: harden you to feedback! When was the last time you received a fleshed out piece of feedback on your own film? Go to film school and you will never have to force someone to watch your film again!
But, how does one keep their own direction with all these opinions? Well, as Dan clarifies, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers, be honest and you will learn quickly. By staying flexible you will eventually be lead towards your goal – “Know that it is going to come, it is going to happen.” A director does not need to always provide the answers, they just need to be confident in what they do and don’t know. This sounds well, but what happens when a director says, “I don’t know?” Quite simply, remain open to an idea and take it on board sensibly. Directors are not super-humans, but super-talent does often surround them – use it!
What’s the best method for working with actors? Give them the script, understand their interpretation, let them rehearse it and then work with them towards your vision. There is no right way to do this, the environment, the story, and personality of the actor will inform this. This is Dan’s view and he goes on to talk about other directors, including a screening he attended of 12 Years a Slave with Steve McQueen who gave some miraculous advice: “I am a director and not an illustrator”. I.e. you cannot be too rigid on a film set; rather you should work with what you have, in the moment, so to speak. A film director needs to direct on the day, not everything can be done before (unless you are Hitchcock). Every director has his or her own way of working, which must be a paramount reason for the source of beauty and wonder that comes with this craft. Each director is unique – an art form, indeed.
Here’s an interesting method of directing that Dan picks upon, but, let’s be clear, does not salute to himself: letting the actor working it out for themselves until they inevitably reach a point were they become desperate for direction. Who else would play these psychological games but Lars Von Trier, or so it is rumoured. But, have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? More likely, the answer is to be a blistering performance of harrowing proportions – a very good thing for drama! Film directing is a form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. There is some honesty in this approach however, not least in the opportunity to wholly understand what your actor can bring to the scene in his or her own capacity. Nevertheless, it is up to each director to eventually find their own way.
Dan continues to talk about his love of movies and directors, moving on to the one and only Martin Scorsese – an obvious choice, but a choice that makes sense for a first-love. Hearing Scorsese talk about the movies is like spreading jam on toast or taking a close shave with a clued-up razor. It raises cinephiles to an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend on hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema – but, if you aspire to be like Paul Thomas Anderson then make sure you stay equipped with John Sturges also!
Perhaps the next step to reignite your imagination with dreams, memories, and alternate realities would be to stop in with Fellini. Dan talks about his first 8½ experience as akin to being “stabbed.” Not quite spreadable, but an experience far closer to reality, as Dan explains the mixture of memories and textures of reality on display are for more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – undeniably, a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curious and sometimes laborious cinema will serve well.
Can you think of ten minutes that changed your life? This question was asked to Dan during his time at NFTS and is a great way to connect with your beliefs and potentially re-write your past. Film directors must find something personal in the material that they work with. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they must understand the nuts and bolts of their own lives and the various transformations occurring within. You might be thinking why ten minutes and not, more likely, a split-second (a tragedy) or a few months (a romance), but ten minutes of change and we have a movie scene! Give this one some thought.
What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt (bear in mind NFTS has super scholarships for British citizens) and geared to rev any film production to full virtuoso, you must, quite simply, just keep going. You may find yourself in the position of Lars Von Trier’s actors: you have no idea what is going on, but you eventually find yourself acclimatising and succeeding with sheer greatness – trivial, but somewhat true. A director can only keep developing their ideas, stories and writing. A director must be ready to present their greatness. Think beyond your present moment (even if Eckhart Tolle tells you not to); be aware of the past, present and future. Where are you from? Write about this. Where do you want to be? Write about that journey. Who was your first love? Write about that. These are all ideas that Dan wants to inspire and he reminds me that we are all living and, therefore, we all have telling stories to tell. We mean, all of us.
To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS specifics:
- Film school may be a fantasy factory, but it also requires serious hard work:
- Rigorous review processes include showcasing each step of a films maternity to the entire school of students and professors for merciless feedback:
- Confidence building. Tougher skin. Objectively shrewd.
- You can find your own voice: teachers will adapt to each individual while keeping the student open to new experiences and ideas.
- On set: “you have all these talented people around you, why would you not want them to contribute?” Enough said.
- Actors – discover first what you are working with. Points highlighted from Steve McQueen and Lars Von Trier.
- Scorsese will make you fall in love with cinema. His conviction is infectious.
- Be confident even if you don’t know the answer – it is okay not to know everything! Enjoy directing!
In the best sense, watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.
Visit Dan’s website here.
You can also join him on Twitter.