David's Film School Diary: Here's What Going to Film School is Really Like

David's Film School Diary: Here's What Going to Film School is Really Like

Feb 27, 2012

The thing about film school is that nobody really wants to be there. Sure, thousands upon thousands of people apply every year, and those accepted eagerly fork over vast sums of money in order to attend, but people will dive into the deepest abyss of debt if it means they don’t have to do anything else. The goal isn’t to graduate -- the goal is to leave, and to do so as soon as you possibly can. 

Because ultimately a degree from film school is about as valuable to a wannabe director as an economics degree might be to a rising NBA superstar. It makes for neat backstory fodder, but it all goes out the window the moment you line up a shot. And in America, the process can even be kind of embarrassing: Tell someone that you’re a graduate film student, and all they hear is that you have a rare passion for not getting a real job. 

For years, whenever anyone asked me if I would consider going to film school, I reflexively replied that I’d only go to film school if I floundered without it. And, um, here’s an artist’s rendering of how I fared during my first few years out of college:


Cut to: Me five months deep into an MFA program here in NYC, and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it. Complicating matters further, I’ve already been to film school. Kind of. As an undergrad I majored in Film Studies, a program that pretty much required me to sit in a room and just think about movies for four years. It was heaven, except I’m assuming that heaven has fewer mandatory screenings of Irreversible. There was almost nothing that I didn’t love about academia, and the combination of sparse assignments and fixed deadlines was a goldmine for my productivity. I wrote my senior thesis on Werner Herzog and his pursuit of what he describes as “The Ecstatic Truth,” and I did my best to ignore the irony of the fact that I was writing an epic academic treatise on a man who thinks that getting repeatedly punched in the face in a boxing ring provides directors with a more valuable education than film school (as evidenced by the undeniable success of Dr. Uwe Boll M.D.). 

After graduating, I did what any self-respecting film studies major would do: Absolutely nothing. I got a job at an Apple Store (a.k.a. living the dream), but other than the time that I helped David Strathairn find the perfect Macbook for his needs, I didn’t really feel as if I was getting any closer to the movie world. So I quit and applied to film school. It didn’t go well. I made a short film and applied again, and now I’m a graduate student at the same place I went to college. I’m sort of like Jerri Blank, but I know what “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y” spells.

I’ve always suspected that going to film school is sort of like walking up to a roulette table and putting all of your money on the floor, but here I am, watching the wheel spin anyway. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but it’s too late to turn back, now. So sit back, grab some popcorn and schadenfreude, and join me on an uncomfortably candid quest through one of the most popular and misunderstood adventures of our time: Film school!

Oh, but before we get down to business, here’s a quick recap of my first semester: 

September: Yay, film school! I have the illusion of purpose, again! This 90-minute subway commute is a great opportunity for me to think about the world. I hope I like my classmates!

October: Eh, film school. I remember the purpose of illusion, again. This 90-minute subway commute is a great opportunity for me to hear what New York’s homeless population think about my latest script. My classmates are great, I hope they like me!

November: This 45-minute cab commute is a great opportunity for me to try and sleep for 8 hours. I hope my great classmates who maybe like me don’t have a problem with the fact that I haven’t had a chance to shower since we met.

December: This 1-second commute from the fetal position in my bed to a slightly different variation of the fetal position in my bed is a great opportunity for me to fail out of school. I hope my great classmates who all sort of smell like me still remember who I am when I ask them to crew my short film over winter break.

January: Itchy. Scratchy. 


January 10, 2012

I have one hour and $150 to buy a wedding dress for an actress I’ve never met.

It’s winter break and each of us has to hand in a 3-5 minute film, our first major project, when the new semester begins in 10 days.  I’ve had the past 3 weeks to prepare for this thing, but instead I’ve chosen to spend that time doing absolutely nothing. My 3-5 is called “Spooks,” which die-hard fans of Gran Torino will later remind me is a dated racial slur. Good start! It’s a weird little story about a woman who wakes up on the morning after getting engaged, only to find that she’s being haunted by the ghost of her fiancée’s ex-fiancée... who is trapped in an old videocamera, or something. Whatever, I just have to make it, nobody said anything about making it good or coherent or watchable or any of those stupid things.

These things are exercises, and budgets are strictly forbidden. The $150 I gave myself to buy a wedding dress practically makes “Spooks” the John Carter of this year’s 3-5 crop. 

I guess I should note that as an unmarried 27 year-old American man-boy, I’ve never bought a wedding dress, before. I’ve seen reality shows about it, and they make the process seem sort of insane. Accordingly, I’ve reserved an entire hour for said process, which is by far the single longest period of time I’ve reserved for any part of pre-production, during which I’m serving as writer, director, producer, location scout, casting director, and poodle wrangler. 

10:30 A.M. I walk into David’s Bridal and ask the woman at the front door to show me their finest dresses.

10:31 A.M. After seeing the prices of said wares, I ask the woman at the front door to show me to their most inconspicuously stained dresses.

10:40 A.M. I’m told by Rosa of David’s Bridals that I am their first customer to ever pay for a portion of their dress in quarters. 

11:00 A.M. The wedding dress slung over my shoulder, I run over to nearby camera superstore Adorama in order to pick up a 35mm lens for my Canon 7D, the DSLR on which I’ll be shooting Spooks. And yeah, I feel pretty damn lucky to own one of those things, because the only camera that my school offers first-year students is a Sony EX-1, which is so useless that I’ll be renting one for my film as a prop.

12:15 P.M. Actors arrive at my apartment for our one and only rehearsal -- the next time I see these kind people we will be in my parents’ bedroom in Connecticut, which is obviously the short’s main shooting location. One of our classes, somewhat misleadingly called “directing the actors,” is really all about learning how to scour the city for people willing to hike uptown and be paraded in front of your classmates at an unreasonably early hour. That’s where I found these people. Early indications suggest that I have a remarkable eye for talent (a.k.a. got extremely lucky).

11:00 P.M. My cinematographer, a fellow student whose experience behind the camera has made him a hot commodity during the 3-5 period, has just arrived back in town from a shoot in Chicago, and I’ve gotta meet him uptown to talk about visual strategy.

11:35 P.M. We’re sitting in a dark classroom up at school. I’m rattling off increasingly nonsensical film references, and I’m pretty sure he’s unconscious. A few minutes later I’ll say: “Let’s shoot it like a Terrence Malick ghost story,” and my cinematographer’s head will pop up, he’ll say “Yes,” and we’ll both go home.


January 11, 2012

9:12 P.M. I’m sitting in the parking lot of a Connecticut train station, in the front seat of my parents’ car, which they may or may not be aware that I’ve borrowed for the evening. The car in which I’ll be ferrying my 6 cast & crew members to my parents’ house, where my mother and father may or may not be expecting us. They’re good people, my parents.

11:45 P.M. I should probably draw up some storyboards and a shot list, at some point... but there’s like 5 whole hours until call-time, so what’s the rush?


January 12, 2012

5:30 A.M. It’s like a League of Nations meeting my kitchen. My DP is Greek, my sound guy is Polish, my AD is British... they’re all fellow students, and they’re all about to hate me. It’s 15 degrees, and most of my script, which I’m starting to realize that most of my crew hasn’t actually read, is set outside. But I do have a little moment, there, where I’m struck by the remarkable diversity of my class -- about 70 kids, only about 30 of whom are from North America. Global perspectives are as readily accessible to us in the classroom as they are in the cinema, itself. It’s neat. I’m happy.

5:31 A.M. I’m wondering how many 5-Hour Energy shots I could safely chug down before my heart fails. 

6:00 A.M. I have learned that the answer is not fewer than 4. I either have 20 hours of energy ready to go, or my head is about to explode, Scanners style. Whatever, this is how Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed, and things worked out well for that guy.

7:10 A.M. The cheap, non-refundable wedding dress fits my actress perfectly!

(that's me in action on the right)

7:15 A.M. My mother wakes up to find a young blonde woman sprinting back and forth across her lawn in a wedding dress. I assure her that all is well, and that all of the debt I’m incurring is totally worth it. She goes to work. At her job. Where she makes money and contributes to society.

9:30 A.M. We’re way off schedule. Because I’ve lost my schedule. I’m a terrible producer.

10:15 A.M. It’s so cold outside that my cinematographer can’t feel one of his hands. This wouldn’t be a problem for me (I mean, he’s got two of them), but we’re shooting hand-held. Snack time!

12:15 P.M. Keeping morale high on a film set is hard. Trapping your cast & crew at your rural CT house with no means of escape solves a lot of problems.

4:00 P.M. It occurs to me that we’re missing several key props. And by “missing,” I mean that I never bought them. I need a diamond engagement ring. My actress is wearing a piece of metal that wrapped around her finger. Close enough!

5:07 P.M. Company move! Company moves aren’t really a problem when you don’t have to deal with any union rules. 

6:11 P.M. My lead actor casually mentions that he might have to, um, not be here tomorrow cause his agent just called about a potential commercial audition. But not to worry, he says, cause... you know... why worry?

6:45 P.M. My lead actress casually mentions that she might have to, um, not be here tomorrow cause her agent just called about a potential commercial audition. But not to worry, she says, cause... you know... I’m starting to look a little pale. 

9:00 P.M. We wrap for the day. 

9:03 P.M. Everyone is drunk.


January 13, 2012

6:00 A.M. A late start! Everyone is smiling, it’s a great day to be alive!

6:06 A.M. I think my assistant director might be dead.

6:45 A.M. I’m not really sure how to get the day started, so I grab my camera, my DP, and my lead actress, and tell them we’re going for a walk to shoot some bullshit. Inevitably, this will become the only thing we’ve shot that I actually like.

8:30 A.M. It occurs to me that my lead actor has been here for more than a day and I’ve used him for less than 15 minutes. He’s large and married and presumably has stuff to do with his life. Fortunately for me, he’s as impossibly patient and helpful as everyone else on set. Also, he can cry on cue. That’s huge.

10:45 A.M. The fact that my actress has the same name as my dog is starting to become a problem. If you’re wondering why the girl in the wedding dress sits a lot during the movie, now you know.

3:00 P.M. Totally burnt out.

5:00 P.M. The last scene. I can’t figure out how to shoot this stupid thing. Screw it, let’s just use an extreme close-up to sell this scene. My DP flips out. He’s been awake for 2 months working on other people’s movies for free and we almost had to amputate one of his hands yesterday, but this is the first time he’s complained about anything. An ECU, he argues, betrays the visual language of this film. My carefully considered rebuttal: “But I’m sooooo tired.” He puts the camera in my hands and walks away. This thing is heavy. Eh, I’m sure we’ve already got the footage we need. That’s a wrap!

5:01 P.M. Pre-production begins on my assistant director’s shoot, which will also take place in my parents’ house over the next 2 days. That’s the barter system of film school: offer up what you can. I got him as an AD, and he got my house as a location. Everyone wins.

January 16, 2012

4:10 A.M. We deliver the last of the equipment back to New York. Production is over.

10:00 A.M. I hurry back to school with my precious hard drive in the hopes that one of the editing bays will be available. I could edit on my laptop from home, but at school you get twin-monitor stations and a sense of purpose. You also get little glimpses at what everyone else shot, because what’s the fun in making a movie if you can’t get the sneaking suspicion that literally everyone around you has made a much better one?

2:05 P.M. It’s amazing how much the edit of my film looks like Downton Abbey streaming on Netflix.

4:10 P.M. My computer goes to sleep, and in the dark monitor’s reflection I see myself for the first time in about a week. It’s a good thing I was never healthy or well put together in the first place, or else this would be a very sad moment.


January 17, 2012

10:00 A.M. It’s the first day of classes. I’m going to exactly none of them. The first cut of my film is due in just a few days. I’m too anti-social to afford an embarrassment. I live far from campus and at the end of each day I’m so eager to get out of there and go home that I haven’t really taken the time to stick around and get close to my classmates, which is dumb because any film program is only as good as the quality of your peers.

Most of us are too busy trying to survive to care about really impressing each other, anymore, but I feel like I need folks to like this so that they want to like me when I finally smarten up and start making an effort to be around. 

I don’t need this dumb little exercise to get into Cannes (it won’t) or put me on the map, but if it allowed me to become a purple dot on someone’s Find My Friends, I’d count that as a win. School is always school, no matter how old you are or what they call it. 

January 21, 2012

9:15 A.M. It’s the day of the screening. In just a few hours, my 12 classmates and our teacher (one of the school’s rotating staff of cerebral, accomplished directors) will sit in a small room and marathon through our work. The kids will tell me everything they liked, the teacher will tell me everything he didn’t. I don’t want to show it to anyone before then -- too stressful.

9:31 A.M. I wake up my girlfriend and force her to watch it. This is a totally stellar idea, because if she likes it she’s just biased, and if she doesn’t I just suck. 

9:47: A.M. Girlfriend is crying. I can’t tell why she’s crying, but I’m hoping it’s not because she’s having a Shelley Duvall moment, like it’s The Shining, and I’ve just let her take a look at my typewriter.

1:00 P.M. I’m at school and my stomach is in my throat. The Human Centipede made this feeling seem like it was much more pleasant.

2:00 P.M. We’ve watched four films. My classmates are awesome. There was a solid comedy about a mugger who starts matchmaking, a severe drama about a young girl who witnesses a sudden shock at Christmas dinner, and a sweet coming-out story set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Even the mandatory short about incest was brilliant. I’m up next.

2:01 P.M. As I walk to the TV to connect my hard drive, a thought occurs to me: My 3-5 minute film is 16 minutes long. There’s only one number between 3 and 5, and it’s not 16. This is bad.

2:06 P.M. I’ve watched this rough cut 412 times, and yet somehow I’m only noticing now that, during a focus-rack in the middle of the movie that I was doing myself, there’s an audio track of me screaming: “Nailed it!” Oops. To make matters worse, the focus-rack is actually so bad that I will later have to remove the entire scene from the 2nd cut of the movie.

2:17 P.M. Well, that’s over. It didn’t look a damn thing like a Terrence Malick ghost story (Andrea Arnold, maybe?). People are talking at me. I’m a bit too frazzled to hear what they’re saying, but nobody seems to be too upset about the running time (to be fair, there are free bagels). 

6:30 P.M. The screening lets out. The students huddle together and exchange blank stares. Lots of murmuring and cigarettes -- I partake only in the former. I can’t say for sure how it went, but at the moment the responses to the individual films don’t seem particularly important.  I still hope they dug my flick, but the fact that it even exists at all seems like plenty to take in, for now. We needed to make these movies, and we needed each other to make them. The short I made before school took about 9 months -- this barely took 9 days. I’ve paid a stupid amount of money to buy the burden of their expectations, but I’d become far too comfortable with the idea of disappointing myself, and I needed to be put in a position where I’m not the only one challenging myself, somewhere my abstract failures have real and immediate consequences. Yeah, it’d be a lot cheaper if that sort of self-motivation came easier to me, but it doesn’t, so I’m finally bringing myself to it. Maybe nobody at film school actually wants to be there, but for the first time since I enrolled I feel like I can’t afford to be anywhere else.

Oh, and the sound isn't finished yet, but here's that (tentatively titled) “3-5,” SPOOKS

Tune in next time as our hero digs into the semester, remakes Network, and walks out of a class while the professor is holding a sniper rifle.

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