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  • The Art of Impact with James Lecesne

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    James Lecesne is an Academy award winning filmmaker, teacher, and philanthropist. It’s been an exciting time for James with a Tony nomination for The Best Man and soon after that receiving the role of Dick Jensen opposite James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury. However, we especially commend James on the release of his book The Letter Q, a passion project conceived to inspire the youth of America and to raise proceeds for The Trevor Project which he had founded in 1998. We had a chance to speak with James about his inspiration for the book and his teaching at the New York Film Academy. He also shared key insights into the craft of storytelling and how the industry landscape has changed for LGBTQ artists. Don’t forget to get connected with Mr. Lecesne on Twitter and learn about his impact in the arts.

    What was the inspiration for The Letter Q? You’ve already contributed so much to LGBTQ youth, and this book seems to be a continuation of your work with the Trevor Project. 

    Two years ago Dan Savage launched the phenomenally successful It Gets Better Project as a way of spreading the word to young LGBT and Questioning young people that the Trevor Project is there for them 24/7. As the only nationwide suicide prevention and crisis intervention helpline for LGBTQ youth, our organization receives over 30,000 calls a year. Not all of them are rescue calls, but each call establishes a life-to-life connection with a young person who is asking important questions. We provide an ear to listen and the encouragement to be who you are. The idea for the The Letter Q came from Sarah Moon, my co-editor. When she was a teenager, she was lucky enough to be surrounded by adults who shared their stories and their wisdom with her – sometimes in the form of letters, and as she says, “It didn’t seem quite fair to me that I should have been the only teenager to get wonderful letters to carry around.” Soon after coming up with the idea, Sarah approached me about not only writing a letter to my younger self, but also donating a portion of the royalties from the sale of the book to the Trevor Project. Together we compiled a wish-list of authors and began to write to them, ask them, stalk them. The book seemed to fit so perfectly with my own desire around that time to provide young people with tools to help them get through their difficult years. We had been exploring ways to help young people “make it better” right now. And the minute Sarah proposed the idea for the book, I knew we were on our way.

    Has your teaching at NYFA helped inspire your work in some way? Reading the bio on your website, teaching plays a strong role in your career. What are the most important lessons you impart to your students who aspire to make it in film and theatre industries? Have students ever surprised you with their insights in the art and craft of telling stories?

    Teaching is a way to not only give back some of what I’ve learned, but also a way for me to continue learning about story. Storytelling, in any form, is hard work; it requires honesty, courage, craft and above all determination. But it can also be a mysterious and mystical experience, a means to enlarge and enlighten not only the storyteller, but the audience as well. For each of us, it happens differently, the idea comes in the form of a hunch, a worry, an inkling a fear, or sometimes as a fully formed brainstorm; but however it happens it always arises out of something that we happen to believe. We might not be able to articulate what it is exactly, but something in us knows, something in us feels for a truth that we need to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    James as featured in the New Yorker.

    Stories are the blueprints of our passions told in code, the urge of something within our selves that is itching for resolve, the reliable and readable map of our beliefs. Leif Finkel, a professor of bioengineering at UPenn, once wrote: “Our cortex makes up stories about the world and softly hums them to us to keep us from getting scared at night.” I’m no professor of bioengineering, but I heartily agree. Of course, a good story does more than that. Stories hum not only for ourselves, but for our audience as well; their song transforms the muddled and often conflicted experiences of living in this troubled world into something valuable and enduring for us all; they are the means by which we can pass our wisdom along to future generations. The results are always surprising, or at least they should be.

    What are your thoughts on representation in the media regarding the struggles that independent filmmakers face as sexual minorities? How do you see the industry landscape for LGBTQ artists? Has it changed at all since you started as a young artist compared to the present day?

    When I was a teenager, the world was a very different place. I grew up without ever hearing the word homosexual spoken, I didn’t know a single gay person, there were no role models to whom I could look for encouragement or guidance. One of the great accomplishments of the LGBTQ community is this idea that we are not just here for ourselves. We have a responsibility to pass along our history and our pride to the next generation. Young people who are struggling and coming up in the world should not have to figure this out by themselves. Of course, there is still a ways to go in terms of achieving equality. Look to places like Uganda, South Africa, Russia, and Iran. Or right here at home to see what happens to certain people when they express themselves fully. But as Kate Millet, the revolutionary feminist recently pointed out —- gays and lesbians have achieved so much in a matter of mere decades, while women have been struggling for centuries to change things. To hear the President of the United States declare that the love of gays and lesbians is equal to that of their fellow (heterosexual) citizens, is certainly proof to me that the world is changing. More change is possible — and needed.  And I believe that by encouraging people to tell their stories, teaching them how to do it in the most exciting and engaging way, it will make for a better world.

    James with Daniel Radcliffe for The Trevor Project.

    To learn more about the Documentary Filmmaking program at the New York Film Academy, click here.

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    June 11, 2012 • Community Highlights, Documentary Filmmaking • Views: 4225

  • Deciphering Stanley Kubrick at the New York Film Academy

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    Director and NYFA Editing Instructor Rodney Ascher recently returned from the Cannes Film Festival where his first feature film, Room 237, was one of only two American films in the Directors’ Fortnight. His documentary explores numerous theories about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining, and its hidden meanings. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and received glowing reviews from the major press. Here’s a roundup.

    • New York Times examined the documentary and called it an “intriguing” look at a growing subculture of Kubrick fans which has developed over the years.
    • “One of the great movies about movies…”  – Variety.
    • The Hollywood Reporter said, “Nutty, arcane and jaw-dropping in equal measure.”
    • On his blog, New York Magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri chose Room 237 as his Sundance pick. “The film expresses, better than any movie I can think of right now, the feeling of being lost inside the world of a film, and by extension being lost inside the world of film.”
    • “A brilliant work of alternative film criticism – and critique of criticism.” – LA Weekly.

    “Kubrick was my first favorite filmmaker,” says Ascher, “and one whose work has stuck with me throughout my life – The Shining in particular. The first time I saw it, I managed to sit through about 10 minutes. The music in particular filled me with an overwhelming sense of dread and doom that was more than I could take. It soon became one of my favorites.”

    Ascher says the idea for the film came after a chance Facebook posting. “My friend, Tim Kirk, who went on to become a producer of the film, posted an analysis of [The Shining] on my Facebook page. I became interested in the phenomenon — lots of people bringing up radical ideas. I thought we could make a pretty comprehensive field guide to what was in the film. It soon became clear that we could only get the tip of the iceberg.” Room 237 shares theories about The Shining from five people, told through voice over, film clips, animations, and dramatic reenactments. Ascher describes it as “not just a demonstration about how it has captured people’s imaginations, but also how people react to movies, and literature, and the arts in general.”

    The film was chosen to screen as part of the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes alongside Michel Gondry’s The We and the I. Room 237 is being distributed by IFC in North America and Wild Bunch in France. Watch for a theatrical release later this year. “It’s very exciting,” says Ascher, “I’d been used to being sort of an outcast with short films, screening to more … select groups. It was great. The screenings were packed, we were in a gigantic theater, got great press … I’m sure anyone would be excited.”

    See yourself premiering your movie at Sundance, screening it at Cannes, and getting fawned over by critics? Then look into our school and decide if it’s the right path for you.

    Rodney Ascher at Cannes Film Festival.

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    June 7, 2012 • Community Highlights, Digital Editing • Views: 4924

  • The Psychology of Learning Film

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    David Egozi was a college student visiting New York from his hometown of Miami, Florida. One weekend, he saw a magazine advertisement about a certain film school. As the son of a news broadcaster, David grew up surrounded by cameras and lighting. A chip off the block, as they say, since he visited the school and quickly transferred to the New York Film Academy. David’s transition from liberal arts to the technical training provided at NYFA seems to be a seamless one. The most important lesson he has learned here, however, is something beyond skill. “[Department Chair] Claude really pushes us. It’s persistence that matters. It’s commitment. Always giving 110% percent.”

    A remarkably thoughtful young man, David admitted to having difficulty structuring his thoughts. “My head’s always been cluttered. Filmmaking allows me to organize my ideas and my feelings and turn them into something tangible.” He pursued filmmaking after working on creating videos for bars and clubs who were trying to promote their parties. After beginning his studies, however, he understood that the making of art had more to do than marketing it to an audience. Studying narrative helped him to appreciate the internal process of thought and emotion.

    “We shot in Super 35mm. Not digital.” – Nicola Raggi

    Speaking to Nicola Raggi also reveals a filmmaking student who recounts a growing experience. Originally from Sienna University in Italy, Nicola felt his education wasn’t teaching him anything. After winning a Bernardo Bertolucci scholarship for the Cinematography program, he decided to take the plunge into New York City. “I learned more in one year [at NYFA] than I did in five years at Sienna,” he said. Learning both digital and film, Nicola feels his skillset is finally complete. Because of the hands-on nature of our curriculum, Nicola quickly realized “the harsh reality of filmmaking”. The hours of long and brutal. Tensions can run high. As he said, “You learn how to behave on set. Working with the cast and crew can be difficult without sleep or much food.”

    Nicola and David both learned to solve specific types of problems. They learned to adapt and improvise in response to unexpected situations. The ability to think creatively is highly desirable in today’s rapidly changing world. However, can we safely say that many of America’s classrooms focus on helping students develop as creative thinkers? Arts education teaches young people today to create and control. There is a fundamental difference between being consumers of the mainstream media and being producers able to share their creations in order to influence minds and shape how a society behaves. If the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement is any indication, today’s students are growing up in a socially connected world which is very different from previous generations. Modern times have increasingly deemed the exchange of information as pivotal to everyday life, however, educators now are recognizing that information is only useful when it is transformed into knowledge.

    What David learned from the technical knowledge and creative execution was the ability to develop his own ideas, test them, discover boundaries, experiment, receive input, and generate newer ideas based on the feedback he received. Students like Nicola learned to work under stress, collaboratively and creatively, for long periods of time. This is socio-emotional learning. There is evidence that social and emotional capacities are just as brain-based as mathematical and linguistic competencies. Education should have both pedagogic and systemic dimensions. It is statistically proven that the skill-set which socio-emotional education such as the arts can lead to higher standardized test scores. Schools should promote socio-emotional competencies because it is a holistic approach to comprehensively educating our young people. It provides the skill-set necessary to creatively address today’s problems. If anything, a creative curriculum empowers students to believe they’re equipped to do anything they truly believe in.

    After graduation, Nicola continued work as a cinematographer with his production company The Loading Lab. He is the Director of Photography for the commercial being produced by CenterLight Health System, which currently ranks among the nation’s leading resources for long term residential and community-based healthcare. This commercial, which is also directed by NYFA alumnus Dmytro Maliuga, will air in four different languages on local television stations. David is currently finishing up his studies and expressed confidence in his newfound ability. “My dad hired a film crew for his business recently. For casting, directing, editing… I was like, ‘Why?’ I can do it. All of it. I learned everything.”

    To learn more about our filmmaking programs, click here.

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    May 29, 2012 • Cinematography, Filmmaking, Student & Alumni Spotlights • Views: 12922

  • The Importance of an “Indelible” Screenplay

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    Melanie Williams Oram is the department chair of Screenwriting at the New York Film Academy’s New York City Campus. Melanie wrote and directed SHOOK, a short film that Showtime acquired and airs. SHOOK won several awards including Best film of the Festival at the inaugural Juneteenth Festival. Her feature length version of SHOOK was an Urbanworld Screenplay Competition Finalist. She has produced several award winning shorts including A-Alike, which won the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards and a DGA Award. She has won both an Emmy and a Peabody for her work at HBO Sports. Currently she is producing her first independent feature film, Indelible.
    Indelible
    I am nearing the end of the production phase on my first feature film IndelibleThis film tells the story of El Bonds, an African American female scientist who races to find the cure for a disease that killed her husband and threatens to take the life of her teenage son. As the producer on this project, I am struck by how important a solid script is to creating a quality film. Yes, the feature film arena is one where the director is clearly the ruling monarch, and I’ve always preached that without a good script, the director, even a great director, has nothing. Now after nearly finishing the production phase of Indelible, I see in practice that a well-structured script is the engine that powers the rest of the filmmaking train.

    Our process on Indelible has been truly collaborative. Our writer, Mikki del Monico wrote the script and asked Randy Dottin, the director to attach himself to the project. Randy and I had collaborated on several short film projects together and he asked me to come onto the project as a producer. As a team our first step was to apply for a production grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Mikki already had an established track record with Sloan and had previously won a $10,000 screenwriting grant for an earlier draft of Indelible.We were fortunate enough to win the $100,000 production grant and then our journey to make a feature film began. I worked with Mikki and Randy for about two years on developing the script and getting it ready to shoot. Mikki wrote countless drafts and we had several meetings about how to clarify the want of the protagonist, increase the intensity of the obstacles created by our antagonist, and shape subplots that were both engaging and well-crafted.

    We went into production confident that our script had all the elements of a good drama. We completed our initial shoot and managed to stay true to our original vision. After a fairly lengthy break in production, we cut together an assemble version of the film and re-evaluated the script. It was clear that we needed to do some pick-up shoots. We were facing some challenges as a production because we didn’t have access to some of the key talent that we needed. We wanted to finish the film strong and so we were faced with the task of altering the script again. Our new script needed to create a softer side of our protagonist by deepening some of her personal relationships. This process included broadening the role of some characters, minimizing the role of other characters, and even recasting one of Indeiible’s major players.

    To date, we have completed two pick-up shoots and we plan to do one more in the late spring/early summer.We are editing a new cut of the film that incorporates all our footage from all three (3) periods of our production phase (initial production + two pick-up shoots). We will look at the cut and determine not only which scenes need to be reshot but what scenes need to added to the script to ensure that we enter into Indelible’s post production phase in the strongest possible position. We have pledged that we will not embark on this final pick-up shoot until we believe the newest version of the script is solid. As a team we are still committed to the idea that a strong, well structured script provides a blueprint for making sure that ultimately we produce “a good story that is well told.”I believe that my experiences as a professional filmmaker, and definitely my work with the Indelible project have shaped my teaching in the classroom. As an instructor, I try to bring together theory and practice. I’d be curious to hear your ideas on screenwriting theory and how you’ve put those ideas into practice. What are your experiences with developing and/or producing your own scripts either for shorts or feature films? 

    To learn more about NYFA’s Screenwriting program, please click here.

    Indelible Movie On Set Indelible

    On Set Indelible2

    On Set Indelible3

    All Photos Taken By Gregory Costanzo

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    April 16, 2012 • Screenwriting • Views: 7982

  • New York Film Academy’s Crystle Stewart On Her Way With Tyler Perry

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    Crystle StewartActing for Film graduate Crystle Stewart has kept a busy schedule since her recent graduation. She stars on the TBS show For Better or Worse, which was just picked up for another 35 episodes. Last year, it was named basic cable’s #1 sitcom, and was the most-watched show on any network for African-American adults.

    Crystle is a former pageant winner, claiming the title of Miss Texas USA before winning Miss USA 2008. She went on to represent the US in the Miss Universe competition. Soon after, she decided to pursue a career in acting by studying at New York Film Academy. In a phone interview, Crystle said, “I wanted to give it a try and decided to move to Los Angeles. I really enjoyed it. The teachers were fantastic! To me, you either have experience or you get an education. New York Film Academy totally prepared me for my role.”

    Crystle landed the role after a chance meeting with Tyler Perry. “I was eating at a restaurant in Beverly Hills and he came in. My boyfriend introduced me and Tyler said, ‘Have a seat. Are you an actress?’ The next day, I got a call from his casting director!”

    She soon booked the part of Leslie on For Better or Worse. She explains, “I love the character. She’s the peacemaker on the show. I’m more the mellow person that calms everyone down. I speak the truth to them, even if they don’t want to hear it. It’s more of a drama, but it’s not Tyler Perry if there’s not some comedy thrown in!”

    Crystle also had a small role in the film Good Deeds, which is currently in theaters. She spoke glowingly about working with the stellar cast that included Phylicia Rashad, Thandie Newton, Rebecca Romijn, and Gabrielle Union.

    After news that the show was renewed, Crystle says she is ready to get back to business. “I’ve never been so excited to go back to work!” she said. “We start shooting this month and new episodes should be airing in the fall.”

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    March 7, 2012 • #WomenOfNYFA, Acting, Diversity, Student & Alumni Spotlights • Views: 5526

  • New York Fashion Week Meets NEON Americana

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    NEON Americana

    New York City is often considered the matron metropolis impacting creativity and commerce throughout the globe. Many of our students do indeed pursue the career path illuminated by those glorious Hollywood lights. A peculiar breed of cinematic visionaries, however, has appeared in the arts and cultural scene seeking opportunities outside of movie studios and inside the illustrious world of New York high fashion. One student has stepped forward as arbiter of a brave artistic movement in a cultural age saturated by faux-freedom and endless hipster posturing. Steep Daniels (Cinematography ‘11) is spearheading the vision of NEON Americana.

    “NEON Americana represents a new breed of young people, a new way of living. We are freed from social constructs, breaking through into the life they’ve always dreamed of. It represents the new way of living in which its vibrant characters charge through life, never taking ‘no’ for an answer—inspired to be the biggest, best version of themselves. They envision a post-apocalyptic America. One in which a lone television set appears to be the last one left after a cataclysmic event of epic proportions. We look inside the screen to find the next wave of Mankind: the NEON generation.”

    As its name implies, NEON’s visual aesthetic is unapologetic in its brightly bold nod to the American spirit. Canadian-bred and hailing from Toronto, Steep exudes a passion which is reminiscent of the unabashed artistic ambition now seen as legend. The sort of creative character—a purity long lost—made famous by the Mudd Club kids in the late 70’s. The young Basquiat as graffiti artist SAMO. A sprightly Glenn O’Brien decades prior to his arrival at GQ magazine. Creatives fueled by youth and an earnestness, they were making their mark with a devil-may-care attitude of art trumps artist. When NYFA produces filmmakers like Daniels who conjure this golden nostalgia through a splashy collaboration with celebrity designer Stevie Boi, we want the student body to stand up and take notice. Stevie Boi’s ascent in fashion is remarkable. Backed by endorsements from pop culture icons Lady GaGa and Madonna, Boi is garnering acclaim for his ability to create drama through his designs. Therefore it is fascinating that he is becoming a character player in the vast NEON universe, a film series about artistic redemption in the heat of dystopian despair. The first subject of this series, Boi collaborated with Daniels in order to proclaim a new world order in the creative arts. “I’ve wanted to do a fashion film with a big artist for a long time and wanted to work with someone who represented a new form of fashion,” said Daniels.
    Daniels has enlisted fellow NYFA students Sandra Stakic (Documentary Filmmaking ‘12) and Markus E. Mueller (Cinematography ‘10) to assist in building the NEON brand. Stakic is working on a nonfiction film documenting the creative process of Daniels while Mueller acts as Director of Photography for the project. Stakic credits Daniels for the concept and execution of NEON. As she explained, “It’s his energy which draws people. His willingness to collaborate inspires others around him to be creative.” Becoming friends on their first day of classes at NYFA, the graduates credit the NYFA faculty for inspiring their drive to succeed. “Andrea Swift was incredible. The documentary students became a family in the end. There was healthy competition and a total respect for the filmmaking process,” says Stakic. Recounting 18-hour work days, Daniels credits department chair John Loughlin for teaching him how to “connect the dots” and to stay focused on storytelling no matter the chaos being wrought on set. He also described a creative process unhindered by the oft-cited idea called financial compensation. Everyone involved, including set designers and actors, were not paid. As Daniels explained, “We did it for the passion of being creative. Boi came to Toronto on a bus to work on this film and told me that he was inspired by our willingness to bring everything and ask for nothing.”
    Daniels is entering the New York arts scene in full force. NEON Americana will be screened during the Stevie Boi show for New York Fashion Week tomorrow on February 9th. He is also a part of SPiN New York’s annual Valentine’s Day benefit for M.A.D.A on February 14th hosted by the prince of Madagascar and actress Susan Sarandon. He designed the ping-pong table to be auctioned in order to raise proceeds for the foundation. Daniels is committed to expanding the NEON movement to include creative collaboration outside of the world of fashion. Working for passion with no promises, Steep Daniels never expected to have his art become a centerpiece for a designer deemed as the next fashion icon by Vogue Italia. He is living his vision aimed at shifting the paradigm of creativity and commerce.
    We encourage students to think outside of the box. How far can your creativity go? Will you take the necessary risks in order to create something greater than yourself?

    NEON Americana

    NEON Americana

    NEON Americana

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    February 9, 2012 • Acting • Views: 3856