Anyone who knew me in college will tell you how much I enjoyed the experience. Brooklyn College isn’t your stereotypical college where dorm life rules while classes suck. For starters, CUNY’s Brooklyn College doesn’t have residential living. If you want to attend, you either rent an apartment or furnished room close by or you commute.
My college experience was enthralling mostly due to my peers and instructors in the film department. I found a great community of helpful and knowledgeable people, entirely supportive of my goals regardless of any differences between styles or tastes. The college in general is hugely diverse, so the opinions and ideas of most of my new friends were rooted in different backgrounds and perspectives.
The experience was so rewarding that even when financial circumstances pummeled me into homelessness for two months, I stayed in NY and continued with school. So it’s quite easy to say that I’m both a fan of the film department at BC and an advocate for similar institutes. However, in spite of all these mushy, cloudy-eyed sentiments, I must admit that film schools don’t teach you everything. Here are some of the requirements that I would build into my own curriculum.
“Everybody seems to go to film school to learn the art of filmmaking, but few seem to realize that the art of selling them is equally important. I fumbled around for the longest time trying to figure out what producing was and trying to find someone to do it for the short films I wanted to make. I should have taken more than the one producing class that my program required.”
ALIENATED Movie’s Writer/Director Brian Ackley
Take producing classes
Everybody seems to go to film school to learn the art of filmmaking, but few seem to realize that the art of selling them is equally important. I fumbled around for the longest time trying to figure out what producing was and trying to find someone to do it for the short films I wanted to make. I should have taken more than the one producing class that my program required. You have to learn how to market a film, which films sell the best and who buys them. You have to learn these things before you spend all your student loan money on an experimental art house drama that you can’t even get your friends to see. Furthermore, developing the organizational skills necessary to put a production together will deepen your appreciation for the creative aspects of the filmmaking process and make those artistic choices that much more focused and efficient.
Spend time on set
Spend lots of time on set. Unless your concentration is screenwriting, you should live on sets between classes and part-time employment. If you’re going to school to learn about filmmaking, then each set is your classroom. Participate: hang a light, move a chair, tape a cord down, get someone coffee. If you don’t know what to do, find the person moving around the most and ask them how you can help. Take any job they give you. I did this for about two years, working with any crew that needed help (I found out that every crew needs help!) and learning a ton in the process. I learned crew roles, how to work, maintain and store equipment, how to work with various styles and personality types, how to hack situations with limited resources, how to observe different filming techniques, and how to save money on food by eating the Chinese food and pizza provided by the producers. I also got to learn from many others’ successes and failures.
Don’t stop writing
It’s probably a good thing when instructors start you off slowly. I remember taking a screenplay class where we were required to write and share 10 new pages a week, plus rewrite our previous 10. How daunting that was at the time. These days I write 10 pages a day. Well, 7-10 depending on my familiarity with the subject matter. Still, no emphasis was placed on the idea that one has to generate his or her own content. Even if you seek to be a producer/director who commissions or acquires other people’s material, you’ll still need to know what a convincing, engaging story looks like. Writing a screenplay is the best way to understanding all the elements of a screenplay. Writing several shorts and features gives you all the more practice at it. Now, obviously, a student can only handle so much of a workload, and writing those 10 pages a week is hard enough for a newcomer. That’s understandable. In fact, it doesn’t matter how many pages you write a day; what’s important is that you get into the habit of writing every day, or at least most days. Just keep writing. And if you find that you’ve fallen out of the game for whatever reason and you’re looking to get back to filmmaking, the best thing you can do is to start writing again. As the head of development for an up-and-coming production company, I look at many scripts and talk to many writers, in search of that oh-so-elusive, revolutionary, next to genius, next best screenplay to conquer the world. Unless I know you personally—and like you—and happen to have the time to exchange ideas, which I don’t, then I will not consider your screenplay until it’s completed. Not the idea, not the logline, not a synopsis, not an outline, not even a sloppy third draft. I will only discuss completed screenplays with unsolicited writers. And I’m just a peanut in the industry! Imagine how shunned you’ll be by a studio exec if you approach with anything but a solid script. So if you have anything from an idea to a sloppy third draft, don’t stop writing.
Take acting classes
The best way for a filmmaker to fail from a viewer’s perspective is to miscast or limit your actors’ performances. It’s entertaining as hell. Embarrassing for everyone involved in the film, difficult for a distribution company to get behind, but comically rewarding to a couched audience who knows what they’re in for. Outside of this example, bad acting will ruin a film. If you are an aspiring filmmaker, your best chance of telling a good story is to relate to your actors. One way to do this is by understanding and practicing their craft. Actors are drawn to different techniques. The better acquainted you are with their processes; the better you can be prepared to navigate through or around them. You may also learn something from an actor’s method, or be inspired to follow their instincts. Additionally, acting lessons come with a slue of life lessons, particularly fitting for artistic endeavors. Acting is about communicating; understanding your partner(s); listening to your partner(s); self-assessment and improvement; seeking the truth of a thing; expressing emotion; developing discipline; valuing family (fellow actors/collaborators), among other things. As reflections of humanity, actors play such an important role in storytelling; it only makes sense that a filmmaker is able to at least briefly live in their concentrated mentality.
“Likeminded, as artists, we should challenge our understanding of the world by seeking knowledge and experience in every aspect possible. To begin with, the arts, since that’s the field we’re drawn to. Filmmakers should listen to music of all varieties; we should pick apart paintings and study sculptures; we should muse over poetry, discuss dance and debate literature. Above all, perhaps, we should go to the theater. Plays are, after all, the text of our forefathers. But beyond pondering the origins of our most sacred structured screenwriting elements, the theater—and the arts—has more to teach us than what we could highlight in books.”
ALIENATED Movie’s Writer/Director Brian Ackley
Absorb some culture
Movies, of course, are an expression of views and emotions, usually a neatly wrapped narrative that promotes an intellectual idea, but sometimes a vague concept that permeates seemingly without consciousness. Where do these ideas/concepts come from? Our backgrounds, our environment, I would argue. I think we are products of what we consume, even on a cellular level—to cover all bases, even genetically. If we indulge in cancerous foods or habits, rest assure our cells will become cancerous; if we submit to discriminatory thinking, our actions will conspire against those suspicious groups. Likeminded, as artists, we should challenge our understanding of the world by seeking knowledge and experience in every aspect possible. To begin with, the arts, since that’s the field we’re drawn to. Filmmakers should listen to music of all varieties; we should pick apart paintings and study sculptures; we should muse over poetry, discuss dance and debate literature. Above all, perhaps, we should go to the theater. Plays are, after all, the text of our forefathers. But beyond pondering the origins of our most sacred structured screenwriting elements, the theater—and the arts—has more to teach us than what we could highlight in books. It has perspective, and experience, and cultural endowments. It’s the very reason our own art form exists: it connects and reflects all of the human experience. And for the matter, we should take interest in current affairs, be they political, environmental, educational, or pop cultural. The more we understand about the world, the better we are to contribute to it, which is ultimately the goal of an artist, I think.
Make friends and keep in touch
I was a first year student laboring away on my first student screenplay in a small computer lab at the Brooklyn College film department. It was late in the day, approaching evening, when I overheard a conversation about a film crew plotting to illegally capture a sequence. Once my attention had been seized, there was no going back: I couldn’t concentrate. Normally shy, I spoke up as the pair was leaving. “Do you need any help?” I hadn’t a clue as to how I could help; I just knew that I wanted to be a part of the experience. They said, “Sure, we could use another lookout,” and I was off—packed up and headed out with them. It turns out that they were an advanced student group filming a scene on the NYC public transit system. Apparently you need a permit to shoot on the subway, and they’re hard as hell to get (this was before 9/11). Technically what we were doing was against the law (but it was necessary for the story and not hurting anyone). My contribution was little more than holding and carrying equipment, but the reward was tremendous. I got to see the magical workings of a crew that seemed stitched together: they were so perfectly in sync that I’d sworn they were professionals. Film magazine loaded, camera mounted, frame composed, actors positioned, focus measured, slate marked, sound rolling…not only did they get their shots, but their lookout avoided any and all law enforcement—they got away with it! I immediately latched on to a few of these filmmakers, learning and observing all that they had to offer over several years. This may have been the driving force that led me to believing in the power of networking. I’ve always been an advocate of maintaining friendships, but this could have been a turning point where I realized the value of making friends in addition to holding onto them. So much of filmmaking relies on relationships: trust, communication, respect, admiration. The greatest thing an artist can do is introducing himself or herself to a stranger for the purpose of discovering how they can serve their new acquaintance. Networking is everything, but it only works when there are mutual remunerations. More times than not it’s worth serving someone in the short term so that they might serve you in the long run.
Brian Ackley is the Head of Development at One Way or Another Productions. His second feature film ALIENATED won 13 film festival awards and was picked up for distribution by Gravitas Ventures. It premiered in select theaters and is now available on VOD.
From the creator of I’m Not Matt Damon…