Posts Tagged ‘filmmaking’

Getting a MFA: Yay or Nay, Pro Vs. Con, Yes or No

Lately I get a lot of Google search hits to this post about getting their master’s in film: “Should I get a MFA in film” or “graduate film school yes or no” or whatever. That post reckons more with being post-MFA, so I decided to be useful for once and write this instead. If you have arrived here looking for a perspective on this question, well, this post is for you. And those who aren’t ever going to get an MFA in filmmaking, I hope you enjoy this little window into a rollicking, rambunctious, rock ‘n roll time of my life.

This won’t be organized or highly structured, unlike your typical classical narrative film. My memories and experience of film school were like a blaze of light across the sky — it went so fast that individual pieces blur together. As a result, sometimes my feelings about it blur as well. But somewhere in this ramble, I hope you find pieces of the answer you’re looking for — and at the end, I’ll share with you the question I asked myself that made up my own mind. I think it’s a solid compass for anyone who wants to embark on any life-changing, savings-sapping adventure, so even if you’re not contemplating film school, maybe it will help you as well. Let’s start with the scary stuff first, the reasons that you don’t want to go to film school:

Why You Shouldn’t Get a MFA in Film

You Want to Be Rich and Famous

Let’s put it bluntly: the days of taking your thesis short to Sundance and landing a major motion picture deal are over. The film industry is in trouble. No one really knows what is going on in terms of where moviegoing and moviemaking will be in the next 10-20 years. Your film will more likely be streamed on the web somewhere, maybe downloaded off Amazon or iTunes, than projected at a movie theater. If you think film school is a short cut to fame and fortune, you’re wrong. You’re better off making a name for yourself and spending tuition money on a great film based on a superior script.

To be slightly more nuanced about it: you can build a viable, sustainable career in the film industry for yourself via film school. You’ll meet a lot of people and if you do good work, you can carve out a niche for yourself and build your resume. You’re building your list of contacts, and that’s something — actually, in an industry that relies a lot on who you know, it is more than something. But don’t kid yourself that you’ll easily become a mover and shaker from film school. You will make “connections” and meet people, but they’ll most likely be your peers, not your magic-makers.

You Worry About Your Financial Future

You might be lucky and land a big fellowship, or some grants and scholarships. You might be lucky enough to be born rich. Or you might be only applying to schools that can fully fund you if you’re accepted. But chances are you’re probably looking also at the big film schools, like USC, NYU, Columbia or the like. The truth is that these schools are often incredibly expensive. Tuition and fees are expensive, living expenses can rack up, and you will likely have to fund your projects to some or all degree. And making films can be incredibly expensive, especially if you want to compete at certain levels.

This is my personal perception and experience: my school often gave lip service to the fact that thesis films don’t have to be expensive, and yes, digital technology can lower the costs considerably. But honestly the most rewarded, successful short films in my program at Columbia — the ones that garner prizes and get launched into the more prestigious film festivals — were not the scrappy films that cost a few thousand to make. The prize winning films that garnered the most support from the program and faculty often cost tens (and some cost hundreds) of thousands of dollars in production, post-production, film festival, marketing and other auxiliary costs.

This is not to say that they weren’t well-made — the money was used incredibly well and resulted in gorgeous cinematography, stunning locations and real, professional caliber production in general. But that’s what you’re up against at prestigious film schools, and it costs money. If this worries you but you still want to go to a film school, pick a program that provides ample production support and post-production support.

But beyond costs, the financial truth of getting a MFA is: you’re likely going to reduce your earnings potential as an adult by a few years, contribute a lot less to your retirement accounts and sap your savings, if you have any. Those things can have long-term effects on your future. And if you go to a prestigious school, you’re going to take out a lot of student debt, and this isn’t something to take lightly. Before I decided to attend my program, I had to ask myself whether or not I’d be okay delaying buying a house by about ten years of my life — because the cost of my MFA was about the cost of buying a home in many places. I was, but that was something I had to work through, and it’s something you should look at as well. If traditional paths to financial security are important to you — if you are the type that wants to buy your first house by 30 and retire by 65 with a nice tidy nest egg, or you have a kind of “investment” mentality in which you want a direct result from something you put your money in — then think really, really hard if this is the path for you. Because it’s probably not.

The Flip Side: Why You Should Get a MFA in Film

Okay, have I scared you yet? Are you still game for the reasons to say yes? Because many of them are compelling, especially if you are truly an artist at heart.

I Made a Short Film About Love Awhile Ago and Here It Is

My short film “Phoebe, 2:13AM” is now playing up at Culture Unplugged. I can’t embed the Flash file below, but you can watch it here. This is the synopsis I wrote years ago; it still fits fairly well: After a night out with friends, Phoebe leaves her friends early for a rendezvous with her elusive boyfriend at his apartment late at night. Thinking only of love, she stumbles upon much more complicated emotional terrain and discovers the limits of passion and romance.

It’s weird to watch this film I made awhile ago; it almost feels like the work of a stranger, but then again, it is so undeniably mine. It is just so painfully vulnerable; it makes me so uncomfortable to watch. I’m proud of its openness and its near-desperate honesty, but it’s hard for me to sit through. Watching it with an audience was excruciating. And it’s such a quiet movie; I can understand now why films get so busy with action and noise. It’s a nice buffer so you don’t hear your stomach churn.

I wrote it quickly, originally as a small non-thesis film. I needed a chamber piece: something small, not many actors, one location, a compact period of time. It cost not a lot of money to make; I was saving up my money for a bigger thesis film, which I actually never got to make. I was lucky; I found two actors, Stephanie Ellis Brown and Doug Roland, who I loved working with, so even though it wasn’t an expensive production, it was a rich experience.

There are some things I wish I’d done differently, I’d wish I’d made the encounter at the door more sexual, for one thing. I’d wish I had more time to improvise. But I’m still really proud of the ending, and getting that moment at the end when she looks up at him was one of the best experiences I’d ever had in directing actors.

People who’ve seen it sometimes ask me (if they’re really brave) if it really happened to me. This is the real story, the director’s commentary: the actual incident was inspired by a friend of mine, who was dating a girl who laid her heart bare to him. He knew he didn’t return her feelings fully. He told her she was a lot of fun. So the film is, in some way, my way of showing him What It Feels Like for a Girl. I think if you were to summarize my creative uber-output, it would be “What It Feels Like for a Girl.”

But, I know that moment: when expectations and hopes and reality don’t align, when sometimes sees you as Right Now and you wish you were actually Forever. But you’re not, and it’s so painful to realize. Sometimes I imagine Phoebe in the years after this little cinematic Polaroid: how she’d get quieter, more closed-off, “smarter” about love, more strategic, losing her beautiful open-hearted foolishness. But eventually I think she would unfurl again to happiness and become wiser about offering up her heart to the right person. Maybe that’s the next film, the next story to write: the moment you crack open just a bit and then the love comes pouring in.

On spring cleaning of a different kind

I had a strange dream last night. I tell you this because I know a lot of people hate reading about dreams. If you do, you can just skip to the end, but it won’t make much sense.


In my dream, I was making a movie, which is something that I haven’t done in awhile. The movie was this: I would bring my camera to a significant room in my life, either set up a tripod or have someone hold the camera, and then I’d film myself standing in the center of the room, spinning.

As I spun, I would begin corralling all the feelings and thoughts I ever had in the room, much like how a tornado sucks up the air around it. The thoughts and feelings would concentrate into my chest; it was like re-experiencing what happened in that room in fast-motion and hyper-speed. And then as I stopped spinning, the feelings would ebb away, and I was left feeling much space and light inside of me.

I put the footage together into a film of me spinning around in rooms, complete with a voiceover of what had happened in the room and what I had gotten from it. I showed the film at a screening, and it was called, no joke, “My Life.”


(I should also mention that the “significant rooms” in my dream had no bearing on my real life. They were rooms like the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, or a tea room in the Dorchester Hotel in London. Weird, right?)


I woke up this morning after the dream feeling really light and unburdened, so I decided it was my subconscious doing some spring cleaning. This isn’t entirely out of context with what is going on in my real life; I had a big gasp of a realization earlier this week, a significant shift in something related to my past. But it wasn’t until my dream where I felt I truly let something go.

How do you clean out your subconscious for spring? What emotional burdens and baggage are you cleaning out now?

(Just as I write this, it’s clear and sunny out, and the day should hit 60 degrees in the afternoon. It will be beautiful!)

Other People’s Genius: Rad Resources on Screenwriting, Storytelling, and Some Beautiful Tales to Inspire

+ I know my friend James from film school; he’s a lovely human and a great writer, and one of the most truly creative, original people I know! If you’re at all interested in storytelling, making films or just the creative process in general, you really NEED to check out their site on microbudget filmmaking. Sure, it will teach you to make a film for very little money, but it is so much deeper than that. Most film sites go on and on and on about cameras, lenses, etc. in such a bollocks-y way; James and Todd (also a very cool, creative dude!) engage much more deeply in the creative process, and if you’re at all interested in craft, stories and narrative as well as new forms of filmmaking, there is some deep, beautiful stuff for you to learn from. This is a great lesson on the “mirror moment” — sort of the fulcrum of a story where a character reaches a certain awareness and then chooses to act on it, and how it can shape the rest of your narrative. It is an excellent lesson, and super-applicable to stories beyond film.

Be sure to check out their whole website for more, and subscribe to get the rest of their lessons!

+ Francesca Lia Block! She wrote a story for Wildfox Couture, it is here and it is beautiful!

+ I have always loved, loved, loved Terry Gilliam’s films — Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits, they’re all so imaginative and audacious in how far they go to detail their peculiar, even baroque vision. This is a great interview with the filmmaker on his process, his beliefs, his reflections on film and the vocation of the artist, and being in it for the long haul.

+ Keeping on the filmmaker tip, here is another interview at The 99 Percent by the Dardenne brothers, Belgian filmmakers known for their observant, nonsentimental naturalistic filmmaking. If you’ve ever see L’Enfant, you know how amazingly moving and devastating their films can be, and they’ve carved out a rich place for themselves in world filmmaking. I have been more and more interested in artists and how they cultivate tenacity, patience and the ability to do their work for work’s sake, for learning, for growth, outside of acclaim, achievement, honors, fame. They have earned some of the highest respect and integrity in the field, not just for their films but how they work, so I’m truly interested in what they have to say.

+ I have been reading more poems lately. Poetry and I go way back: my first creative writing forays were in poetry, starting from high school onward, and in college I even won some fancy awards for my poems. I love the compression and intuition that writing and reading poems demands, and the sheer pleasure of images, movement, and words you can indulge in. I like reading poems off the Poetry Foundation’s iPhone app: I love how you just “spin” it and lo and behold, poem! The app is free, and is a true literary pleasure.

+ Ok, this isn’t genius but I still like my “best of 2011″ mix on 8tracks.com! It has: Zoo Kid/King Krule, Azealia Banks, TV on the Radio, Class Actress, Lykke Li, PJ Harvey, Crystal Stilts, Iceage, Fever Ray, Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Konki Duet, and Nicki Minaj.