I recently received my diploma in the mail, reminding me of the four long and expensive years in the Radio-Television-Film department at the University of Texas. UT remains one of the top ranked film programs in the nation and boasts alumni such as Robert Rodriguez and Matthew McConaughey. However, despite the prestige, there were many occasions during my time there that I pulled at my hair and asked myself, “Is this all really worth it?”
I remember one discussion with my Mom, sophomore year, in which I uttered the words that every parent of a college-aged kid loves to hear: “Mom, I’m thinking about dropping out.”
At the time, I felt like I could quit school, start pursuing filmmaking full time, and get further along in my career as a writer/director than if I stayed two more years trapped inside a classroom. But, I decided to stay. And truthfully, I’m glad I did.
I have a lot of issues with the way film school operates. I mean, who wants to take a geography class that will never apply to your film career? But, there are four key things that film school did teach me, four things that would have been harder to learn in the real world. And for that, I am thankful.
1. I learned how to watch movies without turning my brain off.
Seriously. The way that I watched movies before film school versus how I watch them now is completely different.
One of the best and most useful classes I ever took was taught by a man named Tom Schatz. The class was set up like a seminar; Professor Schatz would talk directly to the students and the students would talk about whatever film we had watched that week. No matter the film, Schatz would always ask a lot of the same questions: “What is the world of this film like? What’s going on within the world of this film?”
Before taking that class, I had never really thought about the individual parts of a movie that make a good story work. The setting of a film was something that I was familiar with, but Schatz was talking about something broader. The world or universe of a movie was much more than just its setting. What were the rules in the universe? Did evil win or was it a world in which justice was served? How do the characters talk? How are they perceived by the audience? Thematically, what kind of world did the filmmaker’s build? These answers may be obvious when watching a movie, but how often do we really dissect them?
Throughout the program, I was exposed to a wide variety of different films. Some were classics, like The Godfather. Others were foreign and experimental like Salvidor Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. Through watching a variety of films, I learned that not every movie had to tell a story the same way. For example, Un Chien Andalou is based on several dreams the filmmakers had. There are characters and a story, kind of. But, it plays out like a dream, strange and disjointed. It’s bizarre, unsettling, and honestly… pretty pretentious. But, it did open my eyes to the fact that there were different ways to tell stories and that not every plot had to look the same. And it’s not the type of film I’d have sought out outside of film school.
2. I learned how to make a film for FREE. Or close to it.
If you choose to take the production route in film school, you can be sure you’ll take classes in which you are required to make a short film over the course of a semester. Easily one of the most stressful, time consuming, and fun things a film student can do is make a short film. And the hardest question they’ll have to answer before ever getting started is, how do I pay for it?
Fortunately, as film students, we had access to a lot of resources. Professional equipment and general liability insurance were easy to get our hands on and made making a short film a little easier. We were still expected to pay for food, props, actors and so on. But equipment and insurance, undoubtedly the biggest expenses, were covered by the university. For that, I’m extremely grateful.
My film school classes were arranged in a way that I was constantly working on bigger projects while learning the ropes of budgeting. This was helpful because it taught me how to spend money wisely on a film, something I wouldn’t have learned outside of film school. For my first film project, I spent around twenty bucks.
For my undergraduate thesis film, I had a budget of $2,500. Throughout this process, professors would walk me through my budgets and help me figure out how much I needed to allot to each portion. For example, on my thesis, my professor, award-winning director Steve Mims, helped me decide how much I should pay my actors (a whopping $50 a day). Below is a simplified version of my senior thesis budget.
Notice that we went under in Production Design and over in some other areas, but ended up going well under budget overall. This is because we planned conservatively, anticipating that we’d be able to pull from other departments when they went under.
3. I learned how to tell people their project sucked, and listen when mine did too.
If you fly solo and don’t attend film school, it can be difficult to have your work evaluated. It can be even harder to receive criticism of your work. One perk about being an RTF student was that the professors not only gave helpful critiques of your work, but they also instructed the class to do the same. What was nice about this was that everyone in the class started on the same playing field. We all had about the same level of experience with similar time, artistic and budget constraints. I was blown away by how creative my peers were and how differently everyone approached the same project.
However, not everyone’s project was good. In fact, 80 percent of the class projects I watched in film school were pretty bad (mine included). I started to notice certain tropes. Suicide. Girlfriends dying in car crashes. Homeless people. Scenes shot on campus. I tried my best to avoid these tropes because I wanted to have the best film in class. I wanted to stand out.
But with all of the class projects screening on the same day, things would get pretty competitive. Fortunately, in every class, we had our scripts looked over by the professor and students. This was enormously helpful and something that I’ve had a hard time finding outside of film school. In one class, my professor, indie filmmaker Kat Candler, seated everyone in a circle and allowed them to critique my work. The only catch was, I wasn’t allowed to say a word. I had to sit there and endure the beating. Kat framed the critiques by asking the class, “What’s working?” and “What’s not working? Why?” If enough people brought up the same problems, it was probably something that needed changing. I’m proud to say that my first drafts were always crap and that thanks to professors like Kat, as well as my other peers, I wrote at least 7 or 8 revisions for each student project. And my films got better. But this wasn’t the case for every student. The worst films in class were by the students that didn’t allow feedback and wouldn’t change anything. It didn’t take long for me to realize that a good filmmaker welcomes criticism, learns from it, and makes changes for the better.
4. I learned how to make friends that also make movies.
To my knowledge, the film program at my alma mater does not have a class on networking. And it’s not something that every professor or faculty member emphasized as much as they probably should. That’s a shame. Because the most important thing about film school, the reason that you pay a ton of money to attend, is the connections that you make. I learned pretty quickly that if I wanted to make a good film, I needed a crew that wanted to work with me. Likewise, if I wanted a job when I graduated, I would likely have to know someone before I’d ever get hired. That’s the way the industry works. Fortunately, I was surrounded by 1,000 other Radio-Television-Film students of varying levels of creativity, work ethic, and tastes.
Thanks to film school, I learned how to walk up to people that I didn’t know, introduce myself, and ask to work on their project. A classmate wasn’t just a classmate, but a potential grip or boom op. I learned to work on film sets over the weekend so that I could get to know other RTF students. The people with better projects, I soon found out, had a group of people that they trusted. They would schedule their classes together and work on the same projects. They’d even go watch movies together. Often, the students behind the three best projects in a class would all have worked on each others’ films.
However, there was a downside to viewing people purely as connections. One of the big ones that I found was that you might end up working with someone you don’t like at all. “Work with people that you enjoy being around,” Kat Candler once said. And she’s right. Maybe, Joe Filmmaker is great with a camera, but if he’s a jerk, it’ll be hard to make a good film. This is because everyone will dread being on set with him and will count down the hours til the film is wrapped. That’s not the atmosphere that tends to cultivate great art. Film school allows you to find friends that love to make movies. That’s not to say that you won’t ever have to work with someone you don’t like, but it does make it easier to find a group of people that you really want to work with.
So, is film school a must?
Definitely not. It’s not even something that I can wholeheartedly recommend for every person. In fact, I don’t think I got enough out of film school for the money that I put in–hello, student debt! But ultimately, I’m happy that I finished what I started four years ago (and so is my mom). I made a great group of friends that I continue to make movies with. I learned a lot of things about making and watching movies, lessons which would have been much harder to learn if I hadn’t attended.
But, as Quentin Tarantino famously once said, “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them “No, I went to films.” This is important. It’s easy to get caught up on circumstances, to tell yourself if only you had or hadn’t gone to film school things would be different. Ultimately, if you want to make a good movie, watch good movies, shoot footage constantly, and try to meet others with the same level of passion. These are things you don’t have to go to school for if you’re willing to put in the work.