George Lucas went (to USC). Kathryn Bigelow went (to Columbia). And Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese both went (to NYU). But there are scores of other accomplished directors—including Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, the Wachowskis, and Miranda July—that never set foot inside a film school (except, perhaps, to screen one of their films).
In order to determine whether or not you should attend graduate film school (assuming you want to enter the field of film and television), check out the below interview with Nelson Kim, a screenwriter, director, teacher, and film critic. Kim has several short films as well as one feature to his credit. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia and Fordham.
VAULT: Is film school necessary?
KIM: Well, it’s not required in the way law school or medical school are. Think of it more like business school—plenty of very successful folks in the business world swear by it, but plenty of equally successful folks didn’t need it at all.
Here are some pros and cons of film school (and by “film school” I’m referring to any kind of graduate-school program or continuing-education program):
Pros: Assuming you find the right program, you’ll be surrounded by people who are living and breathing filmmaking 24/7. You and your peers will help each other grow. You’ll have the advice and support of knowledgeable, sometimes even inspiring, instructors. You’ll be writing, shooting, and editing constantly, which is the only real way to improve quickly—by learning your craft, burning through your beginner’s mistakes, and developing your own way of doing things. You’ll be submitting your work to critiques regularly, and learning how to critique the work of others, which are valuable skills. (You have to learn how to take criticism, and you also have to learn how to filter out useful from not-useful criticism.) You’ll have access to equipment. You’ll probably have access to job listings and industry connections that non-film students won’t. You’ll end up with a degree that may be useful if you want to teach later.
Cons: Not all film-school programs are created equal: some have more than their share of greedy administrators, hack teachers, and dilettante students. It can be oppressively expensive, so look into public-school programs and/or programs with low tuition, financial aid and scholarships, work-study programs, and so on—anything to avoid leaving film school with a heavy load of student debt. Considering the relatively low costs of shooting and editing on digital video these days, you could easily make an inexpensive feature film for the amount of money you’d spend on film school (although if you’re still shaky on the fundamentals, that’s probably not a great idea). Film school can be an artificial bubble, divorced from the everyday realities of the industry; you might do better looking for paying work on film sets or in production offices, gaining real-world experience and connections. However, as noted earlier, many’s the aspiring auteur who found himself or herself paying the rent with production jobs but unable to make the time to write scripts or direct short films—that can be a real trap; you have to be dedicated and obsessive about carving out space for your own work.
Also, make sure that the film-school programs you’re looking into actually match up with your eventual goals. If you want to work for a Hollywood studio one day, maybe the MFA program that specializes in non-narrative avant-garde cinema isn’t a good fit. Do your research: Read as much as you can online, visit the institution, ask to see the work produced by recent graduates, sit in on classes, and talk to faculty, current students, and alumni.
VAULT: While someone’s still trying to figure out whether to go to film school or not, how can they learn more about film and TV and jobs in the industry?
KIM: To learn more about the film business and finding employment in it, there are various websites and books and periodicals and email newsletters that can help guide you—so many that there’s little point in listing any here, since everything depends on your location, what job you’re interested in, what area of the business you want to learn about, and so forth. But if you want to learn about the history of film and/or familiarize yourself with some of the classics of the medium, here are some places to begin:
Mark Cousins, The Story of Film: The predecessor to Cousins’s 15-hour documentary of the same title (which I haven’t seen), this is an excellent one-volume history of world cinema. Cousins casts his net wide, he has an interesting mind, and he writes well.
Sight & Sound Top Ten: Every ten years, the British film magazine Sight & Sound polls critics, filmmakers, programmers, and educators from around the world on the greatest films of all time. You should see as many of these films as you can. And it’s also fun to look up the individual Top Ten lists of such notables as Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino.
Roger Ebert, The Great Movies, The Great Movies II, and The Great Movies III: These three volumes by the recently deceased Ebert, one of the best mainstream film critics this country has ever produced, are wonderfully readable and packed with insight.
Visions of Light: A 1992 documentary on the art of cinematography directed by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, and Stuart Samuels, Visions of Light provides a historical overview of some major milestones in the history of cinematography (although it restricts itself almost entirely to America, with a glance or two at Europe), interviews with leading contemporary practitioners, and dozens of eye-popping clips spanning most of the 20th century.
Pauline Kael, For Keeps: The longtime movie reviewer for The New Yorker, Kael died in 2001 leaving behind decades of fiery, fiercely opinionated writing. For Keeps is a massive collection of some of her best work. (Another collection, the Library of America’s The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, is less comprehensive and less satisfying.)
David Hudson’s Keyframe Daily: David Hudson’s invaluable blog, hosted by the online-viewing film site Fandor, helps discerning cinephiles make sense of the profusion of film writing on the Web. Every day, Hudson selects some of most noteworthy writing on world cinema, from festival coverage to interviews to in-depth essays.
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