Film school or no film school? Well, according to 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? Can film schools not condense such information and provide a way through all the slosh? 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, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, to pick his brains on the subject. He promises no bias.
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.
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, as a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once (and putting food on the table). 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? Similar thinking to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Despite all this, Dan explains that film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft than the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds to work with!
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. 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 very well: harden a director 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 led 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. In other words, feed off the talent around you.
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. Each director is unique in their approach. Film is the medium of an artist.
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. It is rumoured that Lars Von Trier plays these psychological games on set. And have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? An ethical question is raised. But film directing is arguably an form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. 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 sharpened razor. It gives cinephiles an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend an hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema. And don’ forget about John Sturges too.
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 far more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curiosity will serve delightfully.
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 technique some thought!
What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt and geared to rev any film production to as an accomplished virtuoso, you must 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. 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, 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. All of us.
To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS salutations:
- 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!
Watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.
Visit Dan’s website here.
You can also join him on Twitter.