A recent conversation I had got me reflecting on my film school days, a subject I’ve gone back and forth in my head on as to whether it was a stupid degree or a completely enriching experience? It could possibly be both? Either way, I thought I’d spill all the memories and wisdom I had on my four-year odyssey as a film student before 10 more years go by and I forget everything.
So who is this post for, really? I guess it could be for potential future film school students. Or for former film school students looking for similarities to their experience. Or for people just interested in learning about a kind of weird college education. Or if you’re bored. I don’t know, I ain’t the boss of your time. We might only have a couple of years left on this planet, you can choose to do what you want with what you’ve got left.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
I was not exactly what you would call a great high school student. In fact, if you asked my parents, they’d tell you I was a gigantic headache. Not that I ever got into trouble (I never took drugs, and I didn’t have my first drink until the summer after I graduated), I just kind of didn’t care about stupid, dumb, pointless high school. Long story short: My report card was almost entirely C’s and D’s.
How did I even get into college, do you ask? Well, luckily for me, my parents are incredibly smart people and they put away a savings accounts for me and my brother when we were born, and I had a fully paid for college experience. And that’s good because my not-care-about-anything attitude when I was 17 had me thinking that if I had to pay for college myself, or take out a loan, I probably just wouldn’t have gone! And wow, would my life have been different, haha. I’d probably be regrettably still working a retail job at 32. Or worse. So thank you to my parents for being financially savvy. Like, really. Thank you.
Combine that with a 24 on my ACT, and pretty soon I was accepted into literally the only college I applied to, Southern Illinois University- Carbondale. And again, had the turn of events led SIU to reject me for some reason, 17-year-old Scott probably wouldn’t have gone to college.
Furthermore, like any good guidance counselor would ask “What do you like to do with your free time?”, and parlay that into a potential career, I had (and obviously still do have) a love of movies. My childhood friends and I probably made two dozen awful movies on a camcorder, which was one of the most fun things I remember about my childhood.
SIU was regarded as “one of the best film schools in Illinois”, which is a fact I have honestly no recollection of whether I made it up in my head, the school made it up, or someone told me in passing one day. I think they did a pretty good and detailed job at teaching film studies, but I don’t know where or when people started calling it one of the best film schools in the state? Anyway, I doubt that’s true.
But free tuition, an acceptable ACT score, and a notion that SIU would be an awesome film school is how a do-nothing high school underachiever like myself came to go there.
FINDING THE JOY IN SELF-EDUCATION
There’s a good thing about going to college for something you enjoy, and that’s that you will actually go out of your way to continue your education.
I gained a real appreciation for film history while I was at SIU. I took so many interesting classes while I was in film school, including (but not limited to) French New Wave, 1980s New German Cinema, contemporary documentary, 1940s detective noir, 1967-1980 American cinema, and so on. I even took a class called “Romance in Contemporary Film”, where one day, and I kid you not, we had an educated discussion about Bridget Jones’ Diary.
But outside of class, I was still exploring the world of film. Thanks to SIU’s extensive media library (which was free to students), I was renting things multiple times a week, just absorbing as much film history as I could. I would see a Jean-Luc Godard film in class and be like “Weekend was pretty crazy! I wonder what Alphaville and Band of Outsiders are like?!” And I’d go rent them, and watch them. For fun! I was *technically* learning for fun. A concept that up until then, I had no real knowledge of.
I was watching Ingmar Bergman, and Ralph Bakshi, and Wim Wenders, and Sergio Leone, and Akira Kurosawa, and a hundred other people’s works. That’s probably the biggest thing I miss about my college education; just watching old movies that I had never seen for the sake of watching them. That’s really easy to do when you have no job and no girlfriend, like I did in college. My free time was spent watching everything I could. Some of them were awful, and some of them totally changed my perspective on how a movie should be made. I was burning through the Criterion Collection, so to speak, and even watching weirder stuff than that, like Titicut Follies. You ever see Titicut Follies? It’s insane (no pun intended) on a lot of levels.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss just watching countless old movies whenever I want, but I’m not even sure I would have the patience to do so if I had the chance anymore. That might be a young man’s game. Not sure I could sit through I Am Curious – Yellow and I Am Curious – Blue in a single day like I did when I was 20. (those are long Swedish movies from the 1960s about next to nothing, FYI)
I think a lot of it, too, is that nowadays it’s more about looking for things I haven’t watched that I desperately want to see; which is a much smaller list than that of an eager, young (lonely) film student who hadn’t explored much of anything and just wanted to watch it all.
So here’s the knob who barely did his homework in high school, who hated arbitrary learning, now trying to enrich himself in his free time by learning things he’s actually interested in. Go figure.
THAT’S NOT TO SAY I STILL WASN’T IMMATURE
Outside of all those critically acclaimed/historic films, I was still also actively watching things that I already knew I liked; such as Scorsese, Tarantino, Romero, etc. And I still tried to go to new releases when I could, too (I didn’t have a car, so I couldn’t go to everything I wanted).
My friends and I formed a habit of getting drunk and watching old crappily made horror films. Things like Troma movies, or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or so-bad-they’re-good things like Combat Shock and Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburg (that’s a real movie that I own) . It was fun to find this old junk and enjoy them for what they were. We shed tears from laughing at a few scenes from The Stuff. Good times.
I think there’s a lot of benefit to *both* seeking out movies that are highly regarded as being great (and finding out you hate them) and seeking out movies that are highly dismissed as being bad (and finding out you love them). You learn a lot of about your personal taste and tolerance for high-concept art when you go to film school.
ELECTIVES ARE FRIGGIN’ STUPID AND SHOULD GO AWAY
My first semester at SIU didn’t go so well on my report card. I started with four C’s and an A. Why? Because I had to take a bunch of rando elective classes like Math and Astronomy, even though I had already decided my major. Freshman year felt a lot like high school all over again (in the curriculum), and I didn’t really enjoy that. I guess I understand the purpose of forcing students to take a whole bunch of these base classes early on, particularly if they are undeclared, clueless people who went to college with no real game plan about anything they want to do. But why do people with declared majors have to waste their time and (parents’) money on these stupid classes?
It wasn’t just like it was freshman year only, either. I was taking stupid random classes for credit hours WELL into my film school program. My senior year, while I was working on my thesis, I was forced to take an Art History 102 class with a bunch of freshman, because I needed something to fill up my minimum hours or I wouldn’t be considered a full-time student, and it fit into my available time slot. What a waste of time. I took a sports journalism class my junior year. …Why? I HAVE NO IDEA. I wrote a paper on O.J. Simpson for my final, and I got a B in the class. NEAT, I GUESS?
I was so irritated with being cornered into taking frivolous classes that had nothing to do with my major that I started signing up for knowingly pointless garbage like a two credit hour Bowling class. My senior year I took a freakin’ WALKING & JOGGING class. A class where I had to show up twice a week and walk around a track eight times for two credit hours. There was even a final. A FINAL. FOR WALKING & JOGGING. The gym teacher running it (I assume he was a P.E. grad student) gave us all the answers the week before the test and told us to memorize them. HOW USEFUL OF MY COLLEGE TUITON.
My film school program was probably 2 and 1/2 years of the 4 total. At most. Maybe even just two. I wasted 1-2 years of college sitting in classes I didn’t want to be in. That might be a good reason to go to a specialty film school if you’re really interested, where ALL they do is teach film, because if you go to a state university for a film program you will probably be forced to sit in on a bunch of electives. Though, times might have changed since then, because my sister-in-law is currently in college at NIU, and her high school gave her like two years of free college credit and she wasn’t even in honors classes. I am ALLLLLLLLLL for that. If you have a college major from day one, you shouldn’t be forced to go to high school 2.0 to “find yourself”. I already did, I was in the film program!
THIS AIN’T HOLLYWOOD
SIU wasn’t so much of a crash course in how to be a hugely successful Hollywood filmmaker as much as it was a film theory program that ALSO taught you how to be a gnarly independent/experimental filmmaker.
They made us shoot things on 8mm and 16mm film, they forced us to work on old-fashioned guillotine edit bays, and taught us how to feed film through a projector. They wouldn’t even let us do sync sound for most of our projects because they wanted us to learn how to tell stories without dialogue; just visually and with crafty sound design.
I once had a professor compliment me and criticize me in the same thought, by lauding to the rest of the class that I was the only person to use parallel editing to tell my story, but passive aggressively also noted how I used too many stylized camera angles in an attempt to look fancy. Harsh, dude… That’s how all the SIU film professors seemed to be; they were the hipster, emo creative types that only truly praised you if you did something really “pure”, whatever the hell that means? Basically, picture an art curator in your head. That’s probably what most of my professors looked like.
That’s not to say they were without merit. One of my professors, an old guy who had apparently been there forever, shot a video of himself 30 years ago where he sat on a stool and asked questions to his future self, while the real life present day guy stood in front of a projector screen and answered the questions live in front of all of us. It was decently clever, kind of awesome, kind of pointless (in that it had no punchline), and very unique. Maybe I’d call it an art installation more than a film project, but I wasn’t about to raise my hand and critique the dude on his pureness.
Regardless, if you weren’t making weird, somewhat-experimental short films, you weren’t fitting into the program. And that’s a little grating for some people to have to deal with, including myself. For my 16mm production class, we were told to make a short “self-portrait” film. That was the only instruction. In an effort to troll my professor and class, I took this paper machete sculpture I had made for an elective modern art class and filmed it around campus, set to the most insane sound design I could possibly make, and then destroyed the thing with golf clubs at the end to close it out. It was INTENSELY stupid and PAINFULLY random. And that was the point. I went in to class to present it, knowing full well that I had no idea what anything I did actually meant, and when the reel ended, I just didn’t say anything and shrugged mysteriously. This was followed by praise from my professor for my deep symbolism and a few minutes of class discussion about what the jumbled mess of nothingness they just saw actually meant.
It proved two things to me… 1) Art can be incredibly stupid. 2) It doesn’t matter if it’s stupid as long as someone else can get meaning out of it. That’s why I can look at a picture of three blue dots on a canvas at the Art Institute, criticize it for being nothing, yet equally give it validation because it got me talking about it. I think the only art that doesn’t matter at all is art that goes completely ignored by both its creator and its intended audience.
All that being said, this foofy film school program was never going to land me a job in Hollywood, and I think everyone involved (including myself) kinda figured that.
A LONE WOLF
I only made one lasting friend who I met in college (hi, Joe!), and he was not even a film major. To be fair, I had three other people whom I talked to pretty much every day in some of my film classes, but I never hung out with them outside of class so I don’t know how great of friends we really were. One of them, Russ, would lend me British TV show DVDs every week. I *think* it might have made him excited that I would actually watch them and talk about them with him the next time I saw him. He was a cool guy… I probably should have made more of an effort to be better friends with him, but I haven’t seen him since graduation day. He invited me to a BBQ via email about a year after graduation, but I didn’t go since he would have been the only person I knew at the party. I haven’t talked to or heard from him since. Oh well, I guess! I had nine groomsmen at my wedding last year, so I think I’m doing just fine in the friend department.
The problem with being an introverted weirdo like myself in a film program is that everything looked so much easier and more fun if you were working with other film students. But I never went out of my way to be friends with any of the other kids in my production classes. I remember in my first production class, 8mm production, we were allowed to work in pairs for our second assignment. Immediately the 30 students started pairing off, and it wasn’t long at all before I thought “Well, I’m definitely not going to ask any of these people to be my partner!” and decided to just do the project by myself. As I left the room alone and got into the hallway, this dude Terry said “Hey, wait up!”, and asked if I had a partner. It ended up being really nice working with someone else, as he not only actually did half of the work, but he also had a car.
However, despite working with Terry ending up being pretty cool, I never worked on any other projects with other film students the rest of the time I was there. I just did it all myself. I didn’t have to face potential rejection of asking someone to work with me, and I didn’t have to worry about letting down someone else by doing a worse job than they expected. Not that I did bad work, but I had irrational fears of doing bad work. [See next topic for more on that]
In fact, much more than making any positive relationships in film school, I formed silent, petty judgements of almost everyone else. I had a group of probably 10 people whom I despised from afar without ever having talked to them one on one, just from listening to them speak in all my classes. I’m sure I was also super jealous of the fact they were popular in the film program, because they seemed annoying enough to make me hate them without even knowing them. I especially hated this one obnoxious dude from East St. Louis. Man, I hated that guy. He was in about six of my classes. Never talked to him once.
At the same time, I’m sure people thought I was a giant piece of crap for being the gross-looking freak with the long dirty hair and baseball hat who never talked. I remember I went up to the front of a Film Theory lecture hall to turn in a paper while a bunch of other people did too, and I distinctly heard one guy loudly whisper to another guy while looking at me “Yeah, that’s definitely a wig.” Uhhhhhhggg… God, I hated other film students… Half of them were arrogant, smug jerks; and the other half were quietly fuming jerks like me. I was probably also smug. We all sucked, to be honest.
LEARNING THAT NOT EVERYTHING I MAKE IS CRAPPY
Since I didn’t have any film school friends to work with or to screen any of my projects to *before* I turned them in, I would go into every screening in cold-sweat-dripping-from-my-armpits fear every single time. Every short film I made felt to me like it was the worst possible thing ever created. The lighting was wrong, the story is stupid, I’m going to look like such a jackass, etc. I had the same fear from day one until probably my senior thesis project that I was about to be horribly embarrassed in front of a whole bunch of my peers.
But as I screened my projects and got that nervous hot flash all over my body with a wave of “Holy crap, I look stupid” in my head as people quietly watched in the darkness, I never really had anything to worry about. There was never a single time in all of film school where the thing I turned in was even in the *bottom half* of the class in terms of crappiness. My fear would slowly go away as I watched other people turn in awful projects left and right. Things that tried to be funny but failed, things that were so poorly shot that you couldn’t even tell what was going on, and things that just didn’t work.
I never had the best movie in the class by a long shot, but it felt good to not be one of the worst. Some people did some pretty incredible work, no doubt because they had multiple people working on them and had access to more resources than me (like a car). Hey look, there’s that petty, jealous film student attitude again! But after every screening, people were actually nice to me (even if I never deserved their kindness since I never talked to any of them.) They would say “Hey man, I liked your film!” as I left class alone and in a hurry while almost everyone else stayed back and talked about stuff.
Being an introverted film student sucked, especially in the production classes. My crippling social awkwardness was a problem that carried over into my first editing job as well, and took me years to finally get over to the point where I at least consider myself normal by now. But I would suggest making as many friends as you can in the film program if you are a future or current film student. It’s probably no doubt better to be the smug, popular film student and have people like myself quietly hate you without you even knowing it than vice versa. Except, I don’t know, maybe I learned more because I had to figure it all out by myself? You tell me.
FORCED INTO A THESIS
I took one screenwriting class in film school, Writing for the Short Film, and I loved it. I turned in work that I was actually proud of (sometimes), and I enjoyed that I was rewarded for being creative by myself and was never pressured to work with others. I liked it so much that I wanted to write a feature-length screenplay for my thesis, which SIU offered as an option.
Maybe I was one of the last people to sign up for senior year classes or maybe I just wasn’t proactive enough, but when I asked my academic advisor to schedule me in for a screenwriting thesis at the end of my junior year, she was like “Nope. All filled up, bro.” The only other two options I had were narrative 16mm short film or digital documentary. Considering over the course of the film program I discovered I wasn’t a very good director and the only actors I had available to me were my close friends (who couldn’t act, bless their hearts), I opted for digital documentary, which was a thesis project I didn’t even consider doing until I was in that meeting with my advisor.
WORKING WITH MY LIMITATIONS
For literally all of my films leading up to my thesis, I would basically guilt trip all of my friends into acting in them as I did the work of an entire film crew by myself. I’ll take the opportunity again here to thank them for doing that. If they were just like “nah, don’t feel like it”, I don’t know what I would have done…? I probably would have just played three roles by myself with the camera on a tripod and legitimately been laughed at to the point that I would have quit.
We made some ok films, some of which I still like watching for sentimental value. But they all *kinda* sucked in the scheme of things. I don’t think I’d ever put them on YouTube, for example. But it was just me working with what I had to work with, because I lone-wolfed so hard within the film department.
So here’s this digital documentary thesis I had to make, which was a scary prospect in that it was supposed to be 15-30 minutes long; probably 5x longer than any of the narrative shorts anyone was making in film school. I didn’t have a car (or a license for that matter, so I couldn’t even borrow a car), so I would be required to do something I could easily access. In addition to that, I couldn’t just make a documentary where I followed a dog around for a week, because it was required that it be a “social issue” documentary by the professor.
So where could I shoot a documentary without a car? The university, of course! And what was a social issue I was going to be comfortable with tackling that I could shoot at the school? How about… underage drinking! Pretty soon I was pitching my thesis proposal to shoot a documentary on SIU’s lenient policies on underage drinking amongst the students and it was accepted without any resistance!
I became quite the go-getter, and was setting up interviews with the Mayor of Carbondale and top disciplinary figures with the school, walking two miles each way by myself with all my camera equipment to my subjects’ locations, all sweaty and out of breath by the time I got there. People are surprisingly willing to take interviews with you for nothing if you tell them you’re working on a student film. I had a couple of failed interviews with fraternities that got left on the cutting room floor because they weren’t very interesting, and I even got SIU Student Judicial Affairs to hold a mock drunken rape case that I could film but I couldn’t find a good way to fit it into the final cut. The Carbondale police department might have been the only jerks to straight up tell me NO when I asked for an interview.
I worked harder than I ever worked on anything when I made that documentary. Nobody taught me how to work the camera or use the editing software, I had to figure it out myself. I remember editing it in the wee hours of the morning in the film department computer lab because I didn’t want to work on it around a bunch of other people. Also I wanted the option to edit without pants on. (Just kidding.)
I’m actually proud of it, and I think it turned out pretty good for an amateur student production. Ten years later there’s obviously things I would have done differently, especially in the editing, but I think it’s pretty watchable. And looking back, I did a lot of work as a one man show. Worthy of the final project to get me a degree!
Of the seven people in my thesis documentary class, I without a doubt had the best end product. For one thing, only me and one other guy actually finished our documentaries, and the other finished one was extremely boring. Two of the others were very incomplete, but at least had interesting premises. And I kid you not, three of the people who spent an entire semester in my class didn’t turn in ANYTHING shot on video…! At the end of class during the screening, they just gave power point presentations about their projects that they planned on filming later, but don’t have the resources to do so now. For real?!?! To this day, I still don’t understand how they got away with that. It’s nuts. To think that the whole time I worked my butt off, worrying that I wouldn’t complete my doc; two people turned in incomplete work and three people just talked about what they would *like* to shoot one day. Damn, maybe film school was a big joke?
AT LEAST YOU CAN GET A CAREER OUT OF IT, RIGHT?
Well, I did, at least. After graduating, I had a brief stint cleaning toilets for a park district (that’s a story for another day), but within 6 months I got hired as an assistant video editor through a bit of luck by a wonderful dude named Tom, whom I worked with for six years. Now I’ve been freelance editing the last four years, doing work that took me to Japan last year and now to Las Vegas next week. While I’m not rich at all (I make ok money), I’m actually doing something with my career that not only pertains to my bachelor’s degree but is something that I enjoy doing.
But what about everyone else? I don’t really know, as I never read the alumni newsletters. I’ve sort of heard in-passing about a few other people I knew from class, and they are doing stuff that’s completely different. The most famous case I heard about someone who was directly in my film classes was that one of my classmates wrote the screenplay for that pretty bad Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie, Maggie. Another person I knew was a writer on Dancing With the Stars for a while (a show I didn’t consider even needing writers). But I have no idea what anybody else ended up doing. Hey, they could all be really successful Hollywood people, I don’t know. I live in Illinois. The most famous person to ever come out of SIU film school was documentarian Steve James who made Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and The Interrupters (which are all awesome), among other projects. For a fun side fact: Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue fame is also a Saluki alumni. SALUKI PRIDE!
YEAH, SO, IS FILM SCHOOL WORTH IT?
Uhhhh, yeah, sure. Whatever. But I’d probably suggest being a doctor or an engineer if you can, though. (coughs quietly into hand) (stares at you awkwardly until you leave)