Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines
3.10.4 Education in Film: One size doesn’t fit all (research essay)
George Lucas: USC School of Cinematic Arts. Martin Scorsese: NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Francis Ford Coppola: UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Spike Lee: NYU Tisch School of the Arts. That’s four of the world’s most successful directors and the film schools they attended. Now how about Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, or Tim Burton; none of whom have formally attended film school. While up and coming directors like Chloe Zhao (who directed Nomadland and Eternals) and Ari Aster (Hereditary and Midsommar) attended film school, directors like Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird and Little Women) and Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us) found their careers through working up the rung after starting as actors and no film school (Matt “Best up and coming directors”). Every aspiring filmmaker will run into one inevitable dilemma: Film school? Yes or no. Unlike many other careers, you won’t find a degree requirement when you search for a job in the film industry. Crew members aren’t chosen based off whether they went to film school or not, and oftentimes many of them don’t. When faced with the decision to choose an educational path in filmmaking, there’s no clear answer since the answer to this question is often polarizing with both sides posing valid points. Filmmaking is a career that is built on hands-on experience, connections, and having certain insight into the techniques that come with creating a film.
Is film school worth it? This is a question Caroline Brophy of The Film Fund asks a film school dropout and a film school graduate. Both men ended up finding personal success in different areas of the film industry. They also went to different schools. The dropout explained that he left film school when he realized that everything he was learning, he already knew. He credits the bulk of his education to YouTube and on-set experience. On the other hand, the graduate chose film school when he realized that his on-set experience wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, such as how to direct professional actors, what lenses to use, and how to work with lighting (Brophy). Both men had beneficial experiences in film school, regardless of how long they were in it. The dropout credits film school for very valuable connections with his peers and the ability to fail, having the space to try new things without real world consequences (Brophy). The graduate, seemingly from a different style of film school, had a unique experience. He learned a lot about the details in filmmaking, experiencing very specific critiques from peers and professors. The film industry rarely gives you the opportunity to ask for critiques beyond a quick “yes” or “no”. Film school allows the time to pause and dissect what specific parts of a film are negative or positive to the work as a whole. When the dropout was out of school, he was able to start making money while learning on set – with the bonus of not having homework. This is the opposite approach that comes with going to film school since you’re paying to gain an education. For the graduate, while staying in school he gained the ability to know every technical aspect of filmmaking which led to more confidence as an artist, but unfortunately film school wasn’t close enough to the real world to where he was fully prepared for his career (Brophy). This, however, was something that he quickly adapted to. It seems that the dropout still gained a lot from school, things that if he never acquired could’ve hurt his career. Even though he didn’t go through the entirety of the program, he got what he needed out of it, which was more than nothing. This poses an interesting perspective: maybe film school is only needed in moderation for some, which means that most should at least give it a shot.
In director Shirley Clarke’s article “Teaching Filmmaking Creatively” for the Journal of the University Film Producers Association, she speaks from her personal experience on critics, art, teachers, and craft having experienced artistic success for her films in the late 50’s through 60’s. Clarke’s writing strikes me as raw and deeply personal, almost like receiving invaluable advice from a mentor, someone who has gotten where I want to go. I say this because she shares personal thoughts on her own work and experience, showing vulnerability in the way an artist must. As someone who had experienced brief formal education and had been an educator herself, she gives an interesting perspective on what is gained and lost by going to film school. What stuck with me most in the article is that the matter in which an artist gains their education is less important than the drive or talent that said artist has. In Clarke’s opinion, there will be 20 to 40 students in a university classroom, of which only five to ten should actually be there, but of that smaller group only two or three are going to be great artists (Clarke 10-11). For those couple, they will create their art regardless of what they are given, regardless of where they acquire their education, and regardless of what restraints they are given to perform. In this case, it seems clear that film school can only benefit someone, as it adds to the knowledge of an artist. Creativity is difficult to teach, but it’s not the only necessary trait for a filmmaker. They must also know technique, which is what film school is excellent for teaching. Overall, it’s important to listen to those who have found success in the film industry and value their thoughts over those who have accomplished much less.
As a newly graduated film student, YouTuber Karsten Runquist discusses his personal experiences with attending film school in a five minute and 44 second video called “Everything to Know About Film School”. He poses the point that while many successful film directors did attend film school, there are equally as successful ones who didn’t. On one hand, he explains that in order to truly be successful in film school, you have to do work outside of class like making films, watching movies, and meeting people in the industry (all things you can do without going to school), but film school offers the tools that one needs to learn the technical aspects of filmmaking as well as offering easy access to professors who have been in the industry themselves. Unlike other majors, film students don’t spend their time studying and “hitting the books”. This is why Karsten says that he was encouraged to work on projects outside of class. On-set experience (even if it’s just for student films) is the film major equivalent to classes in science labs and reading textbooks. The problem with this is, since on-set experience is not done during classes in most cases, it’s up to the students to schedule and participate on their own time. A quote I really enjoyed from this video was: “online tutorials will teach you how to do something, but a professor will teach you why to do something in a more collaborative environment” (Runquist). Anyone who has taken the time to learn something on YouTube will know that oftentimes there’s a communication that is lacking. In film school, you experience the personal connections of finding mentors in your professors. While they won’t hold your hand, they will offer you insight that you can’t find in a YouTube comments section.
In Ritesh Mehta’s ““Hustling” in film school as socialization for early career work in media industries”, two film students working on their MFAs in Los Angeles/California film schools are observed. Through his investigation, he uncovers that most of the work put into film school by the students isn’t based on creativity but is instead heavily focused on making connections and socializing as a form of hustling. This need to hustle in order to survive in these schools is ultimately an experience that these students will experience on a deeper level when they kickstart their careers in the industry. With this article, it’s shown the importance of finding what peers can be trusted and used on future projects either inside or outside film school. It echos on “survival of the fittest”, but in a social sense. I’d consider “surviving” as continually getting more opportunities and “the fittest” being those who are the best to work with, whether that be through flexibility, craft, and/or communicative.
In David Pierce’s article “How YouTube Became the World’s Best Film School” published by tech magazine Wired, the growing corner of YouTube dedicated to teaching about filmmaking is discussed. Pierce gives examples of a few YouTube channels, detailing their content, their process, and their success through filmmaking education on YouTube. Most of the authors of these channels have experienced their own formal education and/or professional experience in the business, like how most film professors are. He discusses how much content is on YouTube, readily available with the typing of a few keys. Posing this version of film school as a very accessible and valuable alternative to formal education, he advocates YouTube film school to anyone who is even remotely interested in learning about the behind-the-scenes of making movies.
In this article, advice from twenty-one successful writers and producers on writing a script is given. The author finds their advice invaluable since learning from professionals is one of the best ways to educate oneself on concepts in filmmaking. Aaron Sorkin, the writer of “A Few Good Men”, has an interesting angle as someone who got a degree in musical theater. He understands that sometimes characters are unable to express their emotions through dialogue. Sometimes you must break out and sing since it gives you a deeper emotional experience to connect to. This is why musicals are so popular and are so important to many people. On a more emotional level, Lena Waithe, writer of “Queen & Slim”, says that writing is like bearing your sole to the world, being naked and exposed. Critics will pull your work apart and misunderstand or misinterpret it, but that’s part of the creative process. It’s not easy but it is necessary. Similarly, writer of “The Danish Girl”, Lucinda Coxon, tells a story of how she had a script which was “a labor of love over many years” ended up failing in production and lost the rights to it to an insurance company. She shares that resilience doesn’t come easy, and it never gets better.
In this article, Greens gives an alternative means of screenwriting that is often not discussed. He advocates for writing dialogue and developing characters as a means for creating stories. For example, instead of outlining a story and then placing characters in it, a screenwriter would write characters and develop a story around them. He gives examples of successful writer/directors who have used this technique. The reason why this technique is advocated is because it creates a much more realistic and human story than those that are often made in Hollywood. “Character over concept: Writing dialogue in search of story” by Robert Greens of the University of Brighten, we will see how screenwriters use acquisition to write authentic dialogue. The article argues that there is importance in letting character, scene, and story be driven by the development of dialogue since this allows for more ease in the creative process and develops stronger characters/stories (Greens 39). Robert Greens uses examples from two screenwriting manuals: McKee’s Story (1999) and Snyder’s Save the Cat! (2005), as well as statements from successful writer-directors such as Noah Baumbach and his peers to come to his findings on the craft of story-driving dialogue. Said findings are that screenwriting manuals miss a more successful and effective technique used by famous writers to create award winning screenplays. This technique is screenwriting driven by dialogue in where the story follows what a character would do rather than pre-arranged plot structure (Greens 43). For example, Noah Baumbach says that he uses the deep and unconscious desires of his characters to drive the story, where these desires are revealed to the audience through how they talk in dialogue (Greens 47). The use of character driven story means that a writer would have to completely ditch what they were taught from screenwriting manuals. They would have to, in turn, exchange scene-by-scene outlining for spontaneous character decisions caused by dialogue. After the publication of this article, more studies need to be done on the way that screenwriting is taught today. Greens believes that “screenwriting manuals” should be re-examined as studying professional screenwriters and their practices are much more valuable than script gurus who claim to have the secrets to success (Greens 52). The whole point of the study is that the way the literacy of screenwriting is taught in books is unlike the actual way screenwriting is done by professionals. These professionals use the acquisitions a particular character has experienced in their life to drive a story. These acquisitions are the traits gained subconsciously as described by James Gee and as is vital in Noah Baumbach’s technique to screenwriting. This technique is the truly authentic way to creating story that creates attention around a usually overlooked screenwriter.
A few months ago, I was at work and wanted to listen to a podcast to help pass the time. I decided to try out a new podcast that I thought would help with my major: Bulletproof Screenwriting with host Alex Ferrari. Upon listening to the first episode, “What Makes a Good Screenplay with John Truby”, I gained invaluable insight into the craft of screenwriting. The conversation they share is a conversation I can’t leave out of my research paper due to its immense impact on how I view screenwriting. I’ll use this source towards the end of my paper when I begin to discuss filmmaking with a deeper focus on writing. The biggest takeaway from this episode is debunking the importance of the three-act-structure. John Truby is a prolific screenwriting instructor with a popular book on the anatomy of story. His opinion on the three-act-structure is that it’s incredibly limiting and should only be a guide for beginners, but even that is harmful. He says that you can divide anything into three parts and claim that it fits into the structure, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it as if it were a rubric. Truby and Ferrari then discuss their favorite films and dissect what makes their writing good. The conclusion they come to is that there’s a protagonist and an antagonist who both want the same thing but have different opinions on how it should be achieved which makes them clash. For example, what they claim to make Christopher Nolan’s Joker versus Batman so good is that their least favorite parts of themselves are in the other. They are each other’s mirrors, but they want different outcomes for Gotham. The Nolan brothers (who wrote the films) are notorious for writing with “too many” themes. In Truby’s opinion, there’s no such thing as too many themes. In fact, this is the point on which he believes good screenwriters focus on. They shouldn’t write with a focus on fulfilling the three-act-structure but should instead focus on developing the characters through many themes. There is so much more to their conversation that I plan to dissect in my essay.
In this article, Bednarek investigates the functions of dialogue in television writing. . She also looks into the importance of linguistics in relation to screenwriting. In the article “An overview of the linguistics of screenwriting and its interdisciplinary connections” by Monika Bednarek we’ll discuss the nature of TV dialogue and its relationship to the audience. This article was written not only to connect linguists and television screenwriters but also in the hopes of promoting further awareness of linguistic study on TV dialogue. Bednarek found that most of the emotional language written for TV was done for the audience’s entertainment (Bednarek 10). This seems obvious that a writer would focus on how dialogue can benefit the watching experience of television, but it’s much deeper than that. She poses two points, one being that dialogue is done to entertain the audience, but also that it functions as a means of giving context to the plot (. For example, two people would discuss what time it is not to entertain the audience, but to subtly tell the audience what time it is in the story. Bednarek dedicates an entire page of the article to giving examples and explanations of the functions of each piece of dialogue One page in the article is entirely full of a chart giving examples of actual dialogue from television and explaining how it benefits the audience. For example, having the characters speak on the phone about how far away they are from a certain location can identify time and space (Bednarek 9). Dialogue can function as anything from helping the audience understand the plot to creating suspense that’ll make them come back for the next episode. By using an understanding of linguist’s work, dialogue can be written with language devices that calculatedly invite certain emotions from the audience (Bednarek 10). If linguists get a hand in screenwriting theory, they can teach certain tools from their own discourse to help benefit the screenwriting discourse. In James Gee’s “What is Literacy”, he explains that it is inevitable for someone to be a part of multiple discourses and for them to conflict. This isn’t always the case, and Bednarek’s idea to combine the knowledge of both groups is evidence of this. Unfortunately, in the end, TV language is written as is taught in screenwriting manuals (Bednarek 10). This brings us back to the previous article where Greens argued against script gurus in favor of learning from actual writers. Both Greens and Bednarek understand that there are different and possibly more effective ways to learn and execute screenwriting. Yet again, another article proves that there needs to be more study on screenwriting. I blame this lack of academic research on how overlooked screenwriters are. In television, their power is much greater than in films, yet they still lack the awareness that leads to proper education on their subject.
In this article, Remael argues in favor of studying social psychology over studying linguistics when it comes to writing dialogue in film. When a viewer digests a conversation between two characters, there are subconscious observations that they make based on their socio-cultural background. Remael digests the relationship dialogue has between not only two characters but also between characters and the audience. These two different relationships are very different but happen simultaneously. While characters experience everything that is shown in front of them, the audience often takes on an omniscient role. In my final article, Aline Remael’s “Mainstream Narrative Film Dialogue and Subtitling”, details how social psychology discourses overlap with the function of screenwriting language (specifically dialogue) before going on to discuss how verbal exchanges play out in subtitling. Contrary to the previous article, Ramael chooses to argue in favor of studying social psychology over linguistics when trying to formulate and examine dialogue. There are two types of communication going on when dialogue is happening on screen. There’s ‘horizontal communication’ shared between the participating characters and then there’s ‘vertical communication’ between those characters and the audience (Remael 3). Horizontal communication is a term that describes discourse between members of the same social level. Vertical communication is the opposite where there is conversation between members of different social levels. In the case of the characters inside a film, they share the same type of experience since they exist strictly within the realm of their story. Us viewers, on the other hand, have an omniscient power over these characters, giving us more control and thus a higher social status in this situation. Further, there is often an unspoken understanding between characters in their socio-cultural environment during conversation that impacts the way the viewer learns and understands their back story (Remael 4). Members of onscreen dialogue will understand each other’s subconscious or unspoken behavior as they would in real life. For dialogue to function, there must be a degree of symmetry between both parties, but there also must be a degree of asymmetry between them for the plot to move forward (Remael 4). The importance of symmetry is for the characters to share enough say in a conversation for it to be dialogue and not just a monologue. However, there needs to be at least one participating character who has a slight edge of control over the others in the conversation. Without this, the conversation would not be motivated and would thus have no purpose. These are all very important factors that screenwriters need to think about when they write dialogue.
I think that the answer to the question, “is film school worth it?” is extremely subjective. I knew that going into writing this essay and I’m even more sure of it after. Instead of giving a concrete answer, I’ll say my flexible opinion: one size doesn’t fit all. Film school is worth it if you have the money and want to learn the details of filmmaking in an institutional environment. In my experience, I’ve never had an opportunity as great as being in film school when it comes to getting closer to the film industry. I’ve met so many likeminded individuals in my classes that I know will last throughout my career. Not only that but I’ve learned so much about writing scripts already. I’ve had the pleasure of having guest speakers in class and the ability to write multiple papers about screenwriting in my English class. Film school shows individuals the nuances they never thought about. It’s like peeling back the veil of movie magic and revealing all the working parts inside.
Matt. “Best up and Coming Directors: 11 of the Top New Directors • Filmmaking Lifestyle.” Filmmaking Lifestyle, 12 Apr. 2022, https://filmlifestyle.com/best-up-and-coming-directors/.
Brophy, Caroline. “Is Film School Worth It? Dropout and Graduate Perspectives.” The Film Fund, 1 Sept. 2020, https://www.thefilmfund.co/is-film-school-worth-it-dropout-and-graduate-perspectives/#.Yl90SZPMJJU.
Clarke, Shirley. “Teaching Filmmaking Creatively.” Journal of the University Film Producers Association 17.3 (1965): 6-14.
“Everything to Know About Film School.” YouTube, uploaded by Karsten Runquist, 11 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctSBTjAWR2M.
Mehta, Ritesh. ““Hustling” in film school as socialization for early career work in media industries.” Poetics 63 (2017): 22-32.
Pierce, David. “How YouTube Became the World’s Best Film School.” Wired, Conde Nast, 19 Dec. 2017, https://www.wired.com/story/youtube-film-school/.
Bowerman, Jeanne Veillette. “Successful Writers and Producers Share Essential Writing Advice.” Script Magazine, Script Magazine, 26 Aug. 2020, https://scriptmag.com/interviews-features/successful-writers-and-producers-share-essential-writing-advice.
Greens, Robert. “Character over concept: Writing dialogue in search of story.” Journal of Screenwriting 8.1 (2017): 39-54.
Ferrari, Alex, host. “What Makes a Good Screenplay with John Truby.” Bulletproof Screenwriting, Indie Film Hustle, 19 Mar. 2020. https://bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/john-truby/.
Bednarek, Monika. “An overview of the linguistics of screenwriting and its interdisciplinary connections, with special focus on dialogue in episodic television.” Journal of Screenwriting 6/2 (special issue on writing for television) (2015): 221-238.
Remael, Aline. “Mainstream narrative film dialogue and subtitling: A case study of Mike Leigh’s ‘Secrets & Lies’(1996).” The Translator 9.2 (2003): 225-247