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Archive for April, 2020

“The greatest obstacles to making films was getting access to equipment. And so my generation went to film school.”
Spike Lee on going to film school in the late ’70s & early ’80s
American Black Film Festival

Mr. Robot  creator/writer/director Sam Esmail did his undergraduate film school work at NYU (with a couple of semesters in a Dartmouth College writing program) and then did his master’s in directing at AFI in Los Angeles. Recently before a live WGA audience, Esmail was asked by screenwriter John August if he thought his film school experience and studies were worth it to get where he is today.

“Are there any faculty members here? [Laughter from audience.]  Film school’s expensive. It’s very expensive. In fact, I think the tuition at AFI is almost double what I paid at the time. It was a lot back then. And honestly, it wasn’t until after the first season of Mr. Robot that I was able to pay it all back. There was a point where I was like, ‘I’m either going to hit it big or die in debt.’ I didn’t really see a middle option there. I don’t know. The answer is, I don’t know.”
—Sam Esmail
Scriptnotes, Episode 449

Do listen to the whole interview with August to get the full context of Esmail’s comments.  But that pull quote is an excellent follow-up answer to the recent post ‘Should I Go to Film School?’ A Successful Writer/Producer Gives a Solid Answer for Students Today where Shonda Rhimes weighs in on going to film school verses taking an entry level level job in the business.

And like Rhimes in that post, Esmail’s NYU, Dartmouth, AFI education also carries a total sticker price today of around $500,000. No extra zeros added.  Five hundred thousand dollars. Of course, there are scholarships, grants, and schools with endowments, and less expensive film schools that can keep down the actual costs. But it’s wise to know how much you’ll actually owe when you graduate.

Even a $50,000 student loan can haunt you for decades, especially if you start working as a production assistant in Los Angeles. (Where the cost of living is high even if you have no student loans.) Check out Scriptnotes podcast episode 422 where August and Craig Mazin discuss the realities of low pay for assistants in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find articles online where people talk about the reality of dying in debt due to student loans.  In the past ten years, student loan availability and compounded interest have changed the game, mixed with young people (and their parents) not fully comprehending the ripple effect of massive student loans. That if you’re just making minimum payments each month, your loan amount can actually be growing.

And adding a monthly student loan in the amount somewhere between a new car payment and a house payment to your budget each month is an uphill climb for many. That includes doctors and lawyers—not just film school grads.

Esmail did hit it big. I’m not sure what percentage of 40,000+  film school grads hit it big, but it’s not a high percentage . (I once heard less than 1% of film school grads ever make a feature, which is different than hitting it big with a sustainable career. If you have more empirical data, send it my way.)

Would Esmail have found success without going to film school? Like with Rhimes, we’ll never know. He did say that contacts he had at AFI opened doors to agents and managers right out of the gate. Plus he picked up a few skills that allowed him to work as an assistant editor on a realty TV show.

At night after his day job he wrote scripts that got him meetings (via AFI contacts) with studios but no assignments or sales. He had a couple of scripts land on the Blacklist (starting with Sequels, Remakes & Adaptations in 2008) that brought sales, but didn’t get produced. Finally, he decided to write a contained story and eventually cobbled together the funds and a crew to direct the film —with help again from his AFI contacts. And in film school you make short films (ideally a lot), make mistakes, and learn while working with others.. Esmail didn’t go into directing his first feature film unprepared.

Comet was released in 2014, ten years after Esmail finished his MFA from AFI. Mr. Robot premiered the following year. Since he was born in 1977, that puts him around age 37 or 38 when he hit it big. So factor that trajectory into your film school expectations.

The main thing that Esmail encourages others to do (regardless if you went to film school or not) is as soon as you finish writing your great script, start writing the next one. (That worked for Oscar winner Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)—How To Be. a Successful Screenwriter.)

And keep in mind that while USC, AFI, and NYU have extensive lists of graduates in the industry, many went there back in the day—when the expense was more easily managed. Or had parents or other means to defray the costs. (One film school grad with no debt, and working in the industry in LA, told me that if his parents didn’t cover his car payment and insurance and help with rent he wouldn’t be able to make it there.)

If you’re set on film school, keep in mind there are less expensive options out there. And because high-quality equipment in relatively inexpensive, you can take the Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) path and make your own films even before you go to college. And when they did go to college at the University of Iowa, they majored in communications. It never hurts to have a college degree if you’re looking for a job outside the Hollywood system.

P.S. The one guy who hit it big that I went to film school with is David Nutter. But if I recall correctly, he wasn’t even a film major. He was majoring in music with the goal of becoming the next Barry Manilow ( Manilow was a hit maker through the ’70s and has sold 75 million records). But Nutter started taking film classes, and made some super student films that opened the door to directing Cease Fire with Don Johnson soon after graduating from college. A couple of decades later he became a multiple-Primetime Emmy winning director for his work on Game of Thrones. Read the post The Perfect Ending for the upside of film school . (But, again, film school in the ’80s was a different game financially than it is today.)

Homework: Watch your favorite film 50 times and study what makes it work. How many scenes are there? How long are the scenes? How many camera set ups are in each scene? How many scenes feature just two actors talking? Watch it with the sound off. Listen to only the audio. What’s the major dramatic question? Where’s the conflict in each scene? How does each scene move the story forward? What changes from one scene to the next? How many scenes feature the protagonist/hero? How many locations did they use? Etc., etc. You can learn a lot from one film that costs you less than $20. (Indie films Winter’s Bone and Pieces of April are personal favorites of mine to re-watch since you have the added benefit of studying how they pulled of compelling movies on a limited budget. Lesson 1: Solid casting and a good script are more important than a big crew and expensive equipment.)

Resources (While film school can be expensive, here are some great free resources.):
Scriptnotes 
Go Into the Story
Indie Film Hustle
The Rewatchables (My current favorite podcast)
YouTube tutorials on everything from lighting to editing to film history. Start with the Every Frame a Painting channel.

Related post:
Keeping Solvent and Sane
Is Film School Worth It?
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
The $330,000 Film School Debt

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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MedBirdIMG_1915

I took this photo Saturday in the Orlando area and the lone snowy egret bird seems symbolic of what a lot of people are going through these socially distancing days. Believe it or not, there is a Super Walmart less than half a mile from that bald cypress tree shrouded in Spanish moss. I asked a friend who knows about such things how old he thought tree was, and he said it was there before Sam Walton was born. (Walton was born 102 years ago.)

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“How did I learn screenwriting? Endless hours at the typewriter, then the computer, which came along later. It was really a lot of applied time and effort and self-study. Which is the way most people learn.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont

Long before Shonda Rhimes signed a contract with Netflix for $100 million, she graduated from a series of private schools, Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, Dartmouth College, and and MFA from USC School of Cinematic Arts. Being smart, talented, and driven, I don’t know exactly what scholarships and grants Rhimes received back in the ’80s and ’90s when she was in school, but today that education has a list price of over $500,000.

Perhaps that’s why she gives the following advice to young people interested in going to film school. (And this was before a global pandemic shook up the economy and film industry in ways that will take months or years to sort out.)

“I think that USC was really instrumental for me in getting me contacts and getting me acclimated. I came to Los Angeles not know a single person, and getting an internship, getting to know people, getting the introductions to things—USC was very helpful for that. Here’s what I think, ’cause I think film school is invaluable in that it’s an amazing little lab. And I did come in knowing a lot about production because of it, and that was really helpful as well. But I think it terms of just financially if you are hurting for money if you have to take out a lot of student loans, if there’s not a scholarship waiting for you, and you are worried about that—and frankly it’s different now. Student loans back when I went to school (because I’m an old lady) and going to school now are just different. So, to me, if you have to make the choice between going to film school, and coming out to L.A. and getting a job as a PA [production assistant] on a set, or a job as a PA in some writer’s office or something like that, get the job. Because I think there’s a lot you can get done with you writing at night, and getting a job during the day, and working your butt off and making contacts that way. I think it’s very, very, very expensive to go to school right now. And while I think that everybody should get a college education, I’m not necessarily sure you need a film school education.”
—Writer/Creator Shonda Rhimes  (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal)
MasterClass, Take the Job Over Film School

Now, you don’t need to do much digging to find production assistants in Los Angeles today complaining about the low pay and long hours of working as a PA in the film industry. On top of living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. On top of, as of this writing, potentially being laid-off or underemployed because of the shutdown over the coronavirus.

It’s a hard business. Would Rhimes have had the same success if she hadn’t taken the educational route she took? We’ll never know. But we do know there are filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Tyler Perry who’ve had phenomenal success without ever attending college. (In fact, both of them dropped out of high school.)

But you have to create. And you have to get good enough at creating something that someone will pay you to create more and you can make a living. That’s the game. And one thing this pandemic has taught us is people still need entertainment (and toilet paper). Actual movie theaters may decline in coming months and years, but streaming content is in ultra growth mode. (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and others have all had recent jumps in daily viewership.)

Be as creative getting an education as you are with writing stories and creating videos with your friends. Avoid getting monster student loans that follow you for decades and drag you down professionally with house payment-like monthly payments.

Look at inexpensive community colleges with solid digital media programs. (Some two-year schools now offer four-year degrees.) And, yes, there are good film schools out there that aren’t over-the-moon expensive. If you picked up basic production skills in high school, there’s a good chance you can find an entry level production position as soon as the country is back up running again.  “Hire for attitude, train for skill” was an popular expression way back when I went to film school back in the ’80s—and probably long before that.

Which brings up some bonus advice from Rhimes that is helpful if you move to New York, L.A., Atlanta or stay right where you are and take a entry-level PA job:

“A thing that I think can be really helpful for people when they get a job, and people don’t seem to know this right now, and it’s feels very obvious. If you get a job in the industry making someone coffee, making someone copies, running someone’s errands, you better make the best coffee they’ve ever had. And it better be with a smile. The ones that seemed flat out pissed that they’re there, or frustrated, or lazy, or entitled, you want them to go away.  Because you think, man, they’re just sucking the air from the room. . . . People that have a great attitude are the ones that I always end up saying, ‘What’s your script about?’ or ‘What are you doing? What are you interested in?’ Those are the people that get noticed and get their scripts read, and get advice. And get a chance. Because you think, man, they’re working hard.”
—Shonda Rhimes
MasterClass, Do Grunt Work with a Smile

Writer/director Lulu Wang is the most recent filmmaker who did a version of what Rhimes talks about. She did not go to film school but did get her undergraduate degree. (I think she took one or two film/photography classes.) Then she moved to L.A. and did various film-related assistant jobs and wrote and produced her own stuff, networked, until she got the opportunity to make Farewell. Check out the post Lulu Wang’s Day Job Before ‘The Farewell.’

Before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods wrote A Quiet Place they also decided to not got to film school since they’d been making films together since sixth grade. They did get communication degrees before moving to Los Angeles where they had a series of small successes before hitting it big. Read the post How Do You Break Into the Film Industry Without Any Connections to see their abridged version of how they did it.

And lastly, if you‘re into hacks and shortcuts, let me link to a post I wrote back in 2003 that’s one of my favorites on the subject—Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcut.’ 

P.S. For those of you graduating from high school or college in 2020, I know this is not how you envisioned the final months of school ideally ending.  But you’ll earn a layer of resilience that will serve you well throughout life. Go back and watch The Shawshank Redemption (1994) again with 2020 glasses. One of the main reasons that film is currently the #1 rated movie of all time on IMDB is that going through a lot of crap in life is a universal experience.

“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things.”
—Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption
Written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King
(Darabont was born in a refugee camp, immigrated with his family to the U.S.,  and also did not go to college. He started his Hollywood career as a PA on low budget movies and writing on the side until he got good enough to be paid for doing it.)

Additional related posts (for those without wealthy parents) and a great ending quote from Amazon’s Ted Hope:
Is Film School Worth It?  A post I wrote as a response to The $330,000 Film School Debt.
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Scriptnotes Ep 422: ‘Assistants Aren‘t Paid Nearly Enough’

“If I ran a film school, I would require the students to make a feature film for just a thousand dollars. They’d learn tricks that they could apply for the rest of their lives, no matter how poorly the movie turned out.”
Ted Hope
Hope for Film, page 15

Scott W. Smith 

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“In 1968, Allen [Daviau] and I started our careers side by side with the short film AMBLIN’. Allen was a wonderful artist, but his warmth and humanity were as powerful as his lens. He was a singular talent and a beautiful human being.”
—Steven Spielberg

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Cinematographer Allen Daviau died last week from complications due to COVID-19. He was nominated for five Academy Awards in Best Cinematography for his work on Bugsy, Avalon, Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple and E.T. the Extra-Terrestial. (All incredibly done in a ten year run.)

He was part of the visual team that created one of the most iconic shots in movie history—Henry Thomas and E.T. magically riding in the air on a bicycle, silhouetted by the moon.

It’s hard to watch that scene on YouTube in 2020 knowing what a powerful moment that was when the movie hit theaters in 1982. I was in film school at the time and did not have cable TV or a VHS machine. (The majority did not back then.) So I went to a packed theater and had a shared mystical movie experience.

The sole Oscar-nomination for E.T. was for Melissa Mathison’s script. A script and that gave the film its mystical, spiritual aspect. This is how she described the interior of the space ship, ” We are in a greenhouse—a Gothic cathedral of a structure.” Much as been written about the death and resurrection of E.T. as well as his healing powers.

From the script I have, the “moon shot” isn’t even on the page. It just says:

EXT. SKY —NIGHT

The bicycle glides five feet over the tall grass and circles the landing site. 

                                                  ELLIOTT
                             Not so high! Not so high!

E.T. feels Elliott’s joy, and in the excitement of his own triumph, E.T. allows the ride to continue. The bicycle rises to the treetops. Elliot rides the bicycle, pedaling as hard as he can, steering through the treetops. He screams, laughing. 

Nothing about an iconic silhouetted “moon shot.”

Here’s what the “moon shot” looks like brought to life.

I’m not sure what role Daviau had in that shot. Oscar winner and effects cameraman Mike McAlister scouted for a week to find the right location and spent two night shooting it in Nicasio, California. All for a shot not originally in the script, but one that Spielberg obviously thought was necessary.

And Daviau was the director of photography on the film so one way or another that shot was his responsibility.  I was fortunate to hear Daviau speak when I was in film school, and while I don’t remember anything about that talk, he left images that I’ll never forget.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 2.38.05 PM

Empire of the Sun (1987)

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The Color Purple

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 4.52.01 AM

Bugsy

P.S. A little more tucked inside Daviau  credits is the lesser remembered by the masses Fearless (1993). Written by Radael Yglesias and directed by Peter Weir, it is well worth your time to revisit the story of a man (Jeff Bridges) surviving a plane crash. (And another film that has a trail of writings about the spiritual aspects of that movie, including this one from the almways informative site Cinephilia & Beyond; Peter Weir’s ‘Fearless’ as a Soulful Slice of Life That Gently Examines the Human Condition.)

Related ASC article: The Cinematography of E.T.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”
—David Simon, creator of The Wire
The New Yorker 2007

Screen Shot 2020-04-15 at 9.51.37 PM

My current favorite podcast is The Rewatchables where Bill Simmons and other talk about films that people watch over and over again. If you’ve never hear it before check out Simmons’ solo deep dive on Cast Away. 

Also on The Ringer network is The Wire: Way Down in the Hole which launched yesterday. Hosts Jamele Hill and Van Lathan will be doing a breakdown on every episode of The Wire. 

I missed the whole Wire train back when HBO launched it back in 2002. But the David Simon created show is on many all-time best of TV lists, and is now on Amazon Prime, so it’s time for me to fill in that gap on a acclaimed TV program that has college classes devoted to studying the struggles in West Baltimore.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Look, I don’t have the vision or the voice of Martin Luther King or James Baldwin or Jesse Jackson or even of Jackie Robinson. I’m just an old ballplayer. But I learned a lot as a ballplayer. Among other things, I learned that if you manage to make a name for yourself—and if you’re black, believe me, it has to be a big name—then people will start listening to what you have to say. That was why it was so important for me to break the home run record.”
—Hank Aaron
I Had a Hammer

Tomorrow I’ll return with more Coronavirus Writers’ Room posts, but today I thought I’d share something special. Like a lot of people on lockdown during this pandemic, I’ve been spending some time sorting through my stuff. Call it a forced spring cleaning.

This was my recent find—a signed photo of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. I was 13 years old when he broke Babe Ruth’s all time home run record.  Even though I was a Cincinnati Reds fan, I was a baseball fan that loved the whole build up to Aaron’s historic achievement.

At some point, I remember writing a letter to Aaron via the Braves organization. And some time later the signed photo below came in the mail. I was young and naive enough to think that life was always going to go as smooth.

This was also back in the day long before autographs were a big business and forgery was the issue it is today. Aaron has a distinct signature and it lines up well with others I’ve seen online, so I’m going to believe it’s 100% authentic. Thank you Mr. Aaron and the Atlanta Braves for the cherished memento.

I’ve kept it in safe keeping in a filed sleeve all these years, but in the spirit of Marie Kondo’s concept of sparking joy—I’m now going to get it framed and have it on display.

It was many decades after Aaron retired when I fully understood his accomplishment. He not only became the home run king, but he did it under immense pressure of hate mail and death threats. One letter was a blunt as “Retire or die.” He did eventually retire after a great career playing baseball and today is a senior vice president with the Braves.

Hank_1436

This is what the home run looked like on April 8, 1974.

If you’re unfamiliar with Aaron, read his autobiography I had a Hammer, and check out the video below.

P.S. And since the start of  MLB has been delayed with the coronavirus, Ken Burns has made his Baseball series (produced with Lynn Novick) available on PBS for free.  

Scott W. Smith 

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The continuing fictitious conversation between OLD PRODUCER (OP)—who’s 99-years-old— and YOUNG WRITER (YW).  Their goal in this two-person team (communicating online via Zoom, is to develop (in a free-wheeling style)  a coronavirus-like story. (Part 1, Part 2,  Part 3).

YW: Since we landed on centering on a high school senior as the hero of our story, I thought I’d check out what I could find online. Found a whole bunch of stuff about how disappointing it is to potentially miss out on the big finally the end of their senior year. I dropped the links into our look book file.

OP: Disappointing equals conflict. Let’s see what you found.

OP: That’s right in line with what we were talking about yesterday. No prom, no senior trips, no softball, no baseball, no tack and field, scholarships will be missed, they can’t visit colleges, and no graduation. 

YW: And those students used words like sadness, heart break, complicated, confusing, as well as admitting to crying.

OP: Those videos were a cross section of California, Florida and Ohio showing a unique connection they have. If our show dropped on Netflix on this Friday, we’d probably get 95% of all high school seniors watching it. 

YW: There’s a high school in Chicago that did songs on from West Side Story that they’d been rehearsing, but wouldn’t be able to perform live.

OP: That’s inspiring. Did you know that Robert Wise not only directed the film version of West Side Story, but he was the editor on Citizen Kane?

YW: I did not know that. I did know he directed The Andromeda Strain, because I’m one of those people early to watch any pandemic film last month.

OP: The only video I found is similar to those students in Chicago, and is in keeping with our contained story concept.  I found a Josh Groban video where he’s been singing in the shower—with his clothes on—during the pandemic. 

YW: And something I’d never seen before, he’s a video of how a university in Japan is doing a high tech, low touch version of graduation.

OP: We’re making progress. All fitting under that order, chaos, new order that we talked about in our first conversation. 

YW: If we’re now living in a post-handshake United States, we are heading to a new order.

Scott W. Smith 

 

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