New York Film Academy Los Angeles MFA Producing Alumna and Director of Admissions Ragga Thordarson was recently spotlighted in leading Icelandic publication Morgunblaðið for her impressive roster of accomplishments as a filmmaker, artist, and educator. Originally hailing from Iceland, Ragga has mastered many transitions: between nations, between careers, and between student and professional life in the film industry. Check out her inspiring insights, below.
NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to the New York Film Academy?
RT: I am Icelandic-American, born in Reykjavik (Iceland´s capital) and raised in a small fishing town in Iceland called Stykkisholmur with a population of 1,000 people until I was almost nine. I then moved to the States and have lived extensively in both places.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Los Angeles area (moved a lot). When I finally came to NYFA, I had been working in TV and radio in Iceland for several years (hosting several shows) and I had been thinking about going to graduate school for some time. I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to go back to school. Although I had a career which involved a few years of broadcasting and producing and had made and directed one film (a documentary called “From Oakland to Iceland”), I wanted to learn more.
I was essentially a self-taught filmmaker and producer, and felt there were some elements missing from my film education. School was the answer for me in that regard. I also happen to love school and being a student, so college and graduate school have been some of the most rewarding times of my life.
NYFA: What was it like moving to the U.S. from Iceland?
RT: The immigrant experience definitely marked my life. I didn’t speak a word of English until I was nine years old. I remember being in a Montessori School classroom all of the sudden and not really understanding anything, but within three months I was speaking English pretty well. I also went from walking to school in Iceland in the dark in a snow suit covered from head to toe all by myself to wearing shorts and T-shirts in Berkeley, and being driven everywhere. We were more on our own in Iceland, there is a lot of freedom there for kids. Here everything was bigger and there were more moving parts; bigger cities, skyscrapers and freeways, more rules and regulations, more people! These are different worlds. It is great to be able to experience different cultures and then the interesting part is that when you grow into a bicultural individual you take parts of each and then that becomes the evolved version of you. Certain sensibilities are very Icelandic and others very American for me. Also, I don’t have an accent when I speak English, so often people assume I´m from here … but I grew up in a household speaking Icelandic and celebrating Icelandic customs. My brothers and I gravitated toward and had friends that were also from bicultural households, Iceland, Iran, Thailand, East Germany, Romania, Tanzania.
NYFA: Do you have a favorite NYFA moment from your time as a student? And now, a favorite NYFA moment as part of our staff?
RT: I had many such moments while studying at NYFA, most which involved me learning something new. Screenwriting classes are really where I found my producer voice as creative producing is my favorite kind.
My top favorite moment was likely when I finished my thesis, it was definitely thrilling, and when my $500-budget sketch “Carlos & Brandi,” that started as a class project, was featured on Funny or Die´s front page.
I also loved the pitch fests in the producing program. I met people there that I ended up working with later on, so the networking really started in school for me. Those were important moments that turned into relationships down the line.
As a staff member, I always enjoy the feedback from excited students that are coming into the programs. When I read pieces about countless former students that I remember running around campus that are out there doing well in the industry, that is always inspiring and makes me happy.
NYFA: What advice can you give to fellow NYFA students who are adjusting to life in the U.S.?
RT: I think being open-minded and a little bit outgoing, frankly, is important here. It is such a large, diverse market and environment (at least compared to Iceland). In order to create relationships and opportunities here I found just good-old taking initiative was the way to go. Also, seeking out like-minded people who are in the same adjustment phase or have similar goals. Building a little community around oneself is great, and school is the perfect place to start.
NYFA: What do you think is different about working in the arts in the U.S. in particular? What should international students do to prepare?
RT: There are differences both as far as content goes (some of the stuff in Iceland would probably be considered more “arthouse” vs. commercial, etc.) [and in the market size]. The U.S. market is so big and there are scores of people from all over the world trying for the same goals, so it´s hard work.
When possible, show up early, stay late, don´t complain, and be easy to work with. Always keep your word with or without what you consider having success, which rarely happens overnight. Focus on the craft, the art not just on the end goal. It´s easy to caught up in a game of comparisons, but I say focus on the work itself.
NYFA: You went back to study at NYFA after living a little life out in the workforce. What was your experience like going back to NYFA for continuing education to make a career shift? Why did you pick NYFA?
RT: The New York Film Academy had a philosophy that I connected with: the hands-on approach. The do-it-yourself Icelandic part of me definitely found that appealing. The thought of graduate school had been looming for a long time, as I felt I was missing some stuff being a self-taught filmmaker and I wanted more knowledge.
Also, I liked that the teachers are industry professionals, and they were truly the best part of my NYFA experience. I still see some of the producing, screenwriting and film instructors around that I connected with, and it really marked my time here. The instructors truly are phenomenal.
NYFA: What inspires you in your creative work? What kind of stories do you want to be a part of telling?
RT: I write and produce comedy when I am doing my own stuff and have done producing and consulting of various kinds of projects for others, or as a freelance producer. If I really look at the stuff I´ve made personally, most of it is a bit female-centric and in fact a lot of it is about my bi-cultural life experiences. The Scandinavian sarcasm and cynical humor is definitely visible in there too.
NFYA: What advice can you give to our students who, like you, are passionate about a profession in the filmmaking industry, while also juggling parenting?
RT: Before we have families, working up to 17-hour days at something is entirely possible and it is something I personally did for years. After kids, it’s all about balance. Having said that, some days are longer than others and obviously production by nature is time consuming. It´s about time management and truthfully perhaps some things you did before you simply won’t do unless you can make it work on multiple levels (appropriate assistance with childcare, etc.). I say write for your budget and according to time while in film school! I.e: Shooting minimal amounts of locations, etc. Anything to simplify production without compromising the material.
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Ragga for taking the time to share a bit of her story with the NYFA community. Ready to learn more about filmmaking? Check out our many programs at NYFA.
New York Film Academy alumni Denis Kulikov has been hard at work since graduating. With dozens of shorts, a new feature, and a comedy television show under his belt, in just four years Kulikov has amassed a sizable portfolio. New York Film Academy’s Joelle Smith sat down with Kulikov to chat about his experience as a producer. Here’s what he had to share:
NYFA: Hi Denis, great to have a chance to catch up with you about your post-NYFA experiences! Let me ask, what originally drew you to producing?
DK: When doing my own short films, I figured that I had more pleasure organizing my shoots rather than directing. I started out as an assistant director working for my classmates, helping them in pre-production and coordinating their sets. Even though being an AD is mostly managing productions, I had created a side to it where I was consulting my classmates on locations, story, cast etc. That’s how I de facto became a producer on many shorts. After that, I was able to produce more short films.
NYFA: Tell us about your current project, “Johnny Red.” What inspired the work? Who are you working with on the project? What is the goal of making this film? Who does this story speak to?
DK: I started working on “Johnny Red” almost a year ago with my partner Alex Kahuam, who wrote the script and will be directing it. In the movie, we follow a drug lord who despite his criminal activity has a loving family just like everybody else. What we want to show is the contrast. Criminals are multifaceted people with passion, friendships, relationships, and families, just like everyone else. Alex and I have already produced a feature together, so this will be our second big project and with all the people that we are currently getting on board. We are now headed to theaters.
NYFA: Do you think your time in NYFA’s Industry Lab helped you when it came time to look for a job?
DK: I think it definitely did, especially considering that Industry Lab focuses on projects that are coming to NYFA outside of school. Those definitely have different, much tougher requirements. After all, when working on Industry Lab projects, we represent the elite of the school and work with industry people. All the experience and connections that I was able to get while being in IL have helped me in my career.
NYFA: A lot of students grow nervous as graduation approaches. What did you do to prepare for life after NYFA?
DK: During my years at NYFA, I knew that once I was out, I would be on my own, therefore I focused on developing skills that would be in demand in the industry as well as throughout my life in general. I focused on assistant directing and producing student films, as it would develop needed skills for my career. I like creating something out of nothing, therefore being an assistant director or a producer was something that I was passionate about. Considering that most of my classmates did not like any of those positions, I had perfect opportunities to volunteer and build up my resume. By being proactive and opportunistic, I had the network and experience needed for myself by the time I graduated.
NYFA: You’re also working as a line producer on a new Adult Swim project, how did this come about?
DK: The show I am working on is called “Bite Me!” I met its showrunner Frankie back in September and we started working on making the whole new season happen. He had already completed the first season for the web series. After we showed it to Cartoon Network, they signed a contract that upon delivery of another season, they will air the show on Adult Swim in 2017. As of right now, the shoot is almost over and we are excited for people to see it.
NYFA: Any advice to students looking to begin their careers as producers?
DK: My biggest advice is in order to begin careers in Hollywood in general, you have to be an opportunist. Most of the time people tend to hire and work with people that they already know, so it is hard to break in when you don’t know anybody.
The way I built up my resume and network, is while being at NYFA, I was raising my hand and volunteering to be an AD and producer on projects that nobody else wanted to.
In addition, I tried to be involved in various activities outside of school during my free time volunteering for film festivals and other organizations. Being proactive is what a good career is based on in any industry.
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Mr. Kulikov for taking the time to speak with us. You can learn more about Denis Kulikov by clicking here. Also, be sure to check out NYFA’s Filmmaking School to kickstart your own creative journey.
New York Film Academy 1-Year Filmmaking Program alumna Jessica Myhill recently completed a short film that beautifully expresses her perspective on studying at NYFA. We had the chance to sit down with the South African filmmaker to discuss her video, her inspirations, and her experiences with student life at our New York City campus. Whether you are a current NYFA student or are considering joining our community, read on and be sure to check out her NYFA video!
Hi Jessica, thanks so much for sitting down to answer our questions! We’re excited that you’re here to share your story with fellow NYFA students.
Before we talk about the short film you’ve created and shared with us, can you tell us a little bit about your journey to New York Film Academy?
I struggled with finding a school which suited me. Many universities or filmmaking schools I was looking at in my own country were too theoretical. I have always learnt best in an extremely hands-on environment. In high school I co-founded a film club with some friends and could already see that if you put a camera in my hands, I will start learning.
It’s amazing how much the New York Film Academy has packed into one year of school! I have had the opportunity to learn how to use all sorts of cameras starting from a 16mm Camera to the Red camera. I have written, produced, directed and edited about 10 short films and I have been a crew member for other directors and even acted in one or two films along the way. I have met and worked with so many people from all around the world which has been by far the most fulfilling thing for me as an artist. The collaborative nature of the New York Film Academy is one of my favorite aspects of the school!
What has surprised you the most about your classes at NYFA?
I have always been extremely passionate about nearly every creative medium. This made the diversity of what we got to learn very exciting for me. In high school I was very involved in art and theatre, thus the acting and production design classes were some of my favorites of course.
Do you have a favorite NYFA moment?
It was the shoot of my classmates thesis film (the last film we filmed in my class). I was the cinematographer, one of my favourite roles. After many challenges and setbacks we had trying to shoot this film, this final reshoot was such an awe-inspiring experience. The director was prepared and everyone was just working together so well. I could see all my classmates growth and also my personal growth in trusting and managing the crew as well as my general understanding about the craft of cinematography. Most importantly, it was such a joy to see how much we bonded as a group of individuals
What has been your greatest challenge at NYFA, and how did you overcome it? What advice would you give your fellow filmmaking students?
Constantly coming up with ideas was extremely hard. I had a major period of writer’s block while trying to come up with an idea for my final film. I overcame it by bouncing ideas around with friends and family. I think it’s important in any creative field to know how to access your creativity. If you are visual, start drawing. If you get inspired by other films, watch lots of film. Learn what inspires you and do that until you come with ideas.
Most importantly, you must trust yourself. Everyone has powerful stories to tell. One just has to learn how to access them.
How do you feel your approach to storytelling has changed over the course of your studies?
Writing for film is challenging, as I sometimes forget to include information that only I know but that the audience may not be aware of. I realized that the craft of writing is learning how to take the audience on a journey. You have the pieces of the puzzle and you have to build it in the most interesting way to really make the final picture even more beautiful and impactful.
What inspired you to want to create your short film about your NYFA experience?
My family were organizing a Catch Up Fundraiser while I was in New York to celebrate as well as update my supportive community of my latest endeavors.
We decided that it would be good idea for me to record a message to summarize my NYFA experience, especially as I could not be at the event [in South Africa]. I set up and recorded an interview with the help of my classmates.
While I started planning and assembling the video, I was compelled to keep adding and expanding the visual elements to paint the picture of my journey more vividly.
In your video you mention what a significant role your community has played in your pursuit of filmmaking. Why is community important in film?
Filmmaking, in my opinion, is the most collaborative art form there is. Not only is it many different types of crafts and artists joining together but it also is a way of connecting with many ideas from the world and making it into a form of art.
You share in your video that you really discovered a lot of value in studying along with NYFA’s very diverse, international students. What is your biggest takeaway from meeting students from around the world?
Learning about the different cultures of my classmates was extremely interesting. I learnt we are different culturally in what we eat and wear and our traditions. The universal truths of what we all relate to become very clear – especially in film where these themes are explored often. It did make me see home differently and I have returned to visit South Africa with a huge appreciation of the weather, the food and the general spirit of the people.
Did you discover any new artistic inspirations from other cultures?
I fell in love with “Chunking Express” directed by Kar-Wai Wong. I admire how he captured the feeling of loneliness in such a visually stylized way.
What was it like studying film in a country other than your own?
It was character building to say the least. Living away from my family and living alone for the first time really forced me to grow. I had found a good support system in New York which eased the burden of being an international student living on a very weak currency.
What’s inspiring you right now?
I am inspired by the active responses to the current injustices of our society. It reminds me of the truth of this quote by Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
What’s your favorite film?
Any last thoughts you’d like to share that we missed?
I think it is important that more females go into filmmaking. I am so glad to see many strong females around me in this industry, but we need more.
It is also important that females allow themselves to be treated in the same way males are treated. If you are a gaffer and are able to carry lights, carry them instead of allowing a man to do it for you even if their intentions are good.
Equality in this field starts with people treating female filmmakers the same way as they treat male filmmakers.
Jessica, thanks so much for sharing your insights and your NYFA story. Congratulations on completing a lovely film. We can’t wait to hear about what you’re up to next!
New York Film Academy alumnus Adrian Rodriguez has been hitting the festival pavement with three new films, “Princess,” “43,” and “New Dawn.” He took some time off from collecting awards to sit down with NYFA correspondent, Joelle Smith, to discuss how he’s building his career, his art, and what’s next on his to-do list.
Joelle: Tell us about your latest projects.
Rodriguez: I have directed three award-winning short films in the last two years:
“New Dawn,” won Best Director at To the Point Short Film Festival and at the Direct Online Film Festival. It won Best Short Film at WorldFest International Film Festival: “Short Film narrating the mystical time-traveling journey of Ocelot, the Aztec Jaguar Warrior.”
“43” won an award at Feel the Reel Film Festival. It was an Official Selection at Move Me Production Film Festival and London Rolling Film Festival: “Julian and Marcos are part of the 43 students that have gone missing in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. Gonzalez, leader of thepolice, threatens their lives”.
“Princess” won an award at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival, Hollywood International Film Festival, Los Angeles Cine Fests, and the Move Me Productions Film Festival. Recently, “Princess” was a strong nominee for the “Best of the Best” at Fest Forums Film Festival in Santa Barbara, CA: “Princess is a young good-looking prostitute who works for a man who cares dearly for her. Princess, however, plans to kill him and leave the street business for good.”
Joelle: What was your process for applying to film festivals? Were you surprised by the outcome?
Rodriguez: The process wasn’t about just applying, it was selecting the most adequate film festivals for each of the short films. Target the right market. Platforms such as FilmFreeway and Without a Box are the best for submitting. I was certainly surprised by the outcome. Never expected for my films to win awards.
Joelle: What have you learned in the process of making these three films?
Rodriguez: Filmmaking is a beautifully complicated process from concept development to post-production. However, the one thing that I have learned is that a great film can be done with a small budget. All it takes is a great narrative, highly talented filmmakers, and a dedicated cast.
Joelle: Where does your inspiration come from?
Rodriguez: Life experiences. Traveling. Understanding where do you come from and more importantly what do you want to communicate to those who see your films. Cinema is a language, and such language must have an aftermath meaning — a prestige.
Joelle: What are you hoping to achieve in the next five years?
Rodriguez: My aim is to finish my first feature film. Consolidate a financial deal to acquire the necessary resources and finally initiate the pre-production process. Plus, I hope that one of my films, if not all, get recognized internationally winning a strong award in film festivals such as Venice Film Festival, Cannes or Sundance.
We at the New York Film Academy would like to thank Adrian for sitting down to talk with us, and congratulate him on all of his success!
Recently, New York Film Academy students had an opportunity to attend a screening and live Q&A with the cast and crew of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe.” The film is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, who became a champion chess master after selling corn on the street. Both Mutesi and her teacher Robert Katende, were in attendance.
Throughout the Q and A portion, each creator dropped some knowledge on the crowd. Here are some of the highlights from that discussion.
1. Sometimes the Best Story is in Your Own Backyard
Film director Mira Nair lives in Uganda 15 minutes from Katwe, but the story came to her through Tendo Nagenda, a Ugandan Vice President at Disney. Nair said she liked the story because, “I was just struck by this plucky girl who refused to stay in the little place that she belonged — that she was born into — and dreamed of larger things.”
2. It Takes a Village
Nair continued speaking about what inspired her to tackle this project. “It also struck me that it took a village. It took a teacher, the remarkable coach, Robert Katende, to understand her genius. And it took her mother, Harriet, and her whole street, literally, to harness the power that Phiona had, and has, in her. That’s the story of everyday life in Kupala, Uganda. That captures the joy and dignity of everyday people … That is the story of an Africa that we never see on our screens.”
3. Help can Come From the Most Unlikely Sources
David Oyelow was taken aback after reading the “Queen of Katwe” script that Disney would be taking on this project, “This is exactly the kind of film that myself or Lupita Nyong’o or Mira would put on our backs for 10 years and try to get made and no one would want to make it. They would say, ‘What? Chess? A Ugandan girl?’ But Disney did it.”
4. Make Art for the People You Love and You’ll be Rewarded Two-Fold
Oyelow gushed about his children igniting his desire to see this story brought to the screen. “And then I have a four-year-old daughter as well … I read this and it just felt like a beautiful love letter to my daughter. All those things made me want to be a part of it.”
5. You Can Be Discovered Anywhere Working Any Job
Lupita was asked if she had any experience shooting in Africa. “I was part of the crew on ‘The Constant Gardener’ a few years ago. I also worked for her (Nairs’) film school as a production coordinator.” Nair joked. “I wonder why? None of the students wanted their travel booked they just wanted her.”
Any more insights you’ve picked up from watching great films lately? Let us know in the comments below!
Recently, we had an opportunity to sit down with Paul Feig, famed director of Spy, Bridesmaids, and the recent re-launch of Ghostbusters. Feig is also an actor, producer, and screenwriter. He’s worked every job there is in the industry. We asked if he had any advice for students at the New York Film Academy and this is what he had to say…
Now is the Time to Start
Paul Feig: “If you’re starting as a filmmaker now, you are doing it at the greatest possible time. Coming up, when I was trying to do it, just to shoot a movie was prohibitive because you had to get film—and film costs a ton of money—and how do you get all this stuff together? And then, if you were lucky enough to have enough money to make it, how do you possibly distribute it? Even just post-production costs a fortune, and then you’ve got to distribute it.”
Unless you choose to shoot on film, which you absolutely should try at least once, you may never know the struggle of perfectly timing your shots, so you don’t run out of footage. Today, with the advent of digital filmmaking, you do not have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to shoot your idea. There’s no better time than right now to begin your career because…
You Already Havethe Materials
Paul Feig: “Now, with this cell phone sitting on the desk, I can shoot a high definition movie. All of these takes [can be] downloaded into my computer. My computer comes with non-linear editing software.”
If you buy a computer or touch screen phone, chances are you’ve got all you need to make a short or even feature film. Both Tangerine and 9/Rides were shot on iPhones. Both films had major festival releases and helped launch their director’s career.
The Internet is Your Friend
Paul Feig: “And then the INTERNET. You can literally distribute your movie to the entire world by hitting an upload button.”
In other words, don’t take for granted the easy access to potential fans. The Internet is all around, and it’s easy to forget what a valuable resource it is. In fact, the UN just declared the Internet a human right, which means more people than ever are using it. Shouldn’t they be using it to watch your films?
Paul Feig: “The fact that you’ve made it doesn’t mean it’s great. Hopefully it will be, but you’ve got to be really hard on it. You’ve got to let people around you be hard on it. You’ve got to work it; work it because once you put something out there, you want it to be your calling card. You don’t want to have to go, ‘Oh yeah, well it would be better, but we didn’t do this or that…’
No disclaimers. That was the biggest lesson I learned when I was at film school. We would show our student films and you would get up and say ‘Oh, no, the reason [was] we didn’t have this…’ And my teacher wouldn’t let you talk. He’d just say, ‘No disclaimers. The audience doesn’t care.’”
Your audience doesn’t know you or the blood, sweat, and tears you put into making your film. All they know is they came to be entertained. So, when you screen your film, don’t tell viewers about the struggle, and try to get people who can be brutally honest. By putting your film through a rigorous screening you’re helping to ensure its success in the real world.
Paul Feig: “What they care about is a great story with great characters. They don’t care if it looks professional. If you capture them and intrigue them with a great story and great characters then you are a filmmaker and you will be found.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the story you’ve told. Do the characters pull on the heartstrings? Is the audience pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong? If you can create that kind of magic then you can truly call yourself a filmmaker.
NYFA: Hi Dylan, would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what drew you to filmmaking? How long have you been interested in film?
Dylan Greenberg: I grew up with a television producer for a father. While I don’t feel his work in television was a direct influence on me at all, we both shared an appreciation for visuals that he definitely encouraged in me. I’ve been interested in film since before I can remember. I’d always loved movies and started making them on an old VHS camera by the time I was five years old.
NYFA: Would you mind giving us a brief synopsis of the plot of Wakers? Were there any films, genres, or themes in particular that you found yourself drawing from?
DG: Wakers is about a story being read to a little girl by her father. The story is about a rebellious teenager named Blessing who lives in a dreary, dark version of New York with her unstable mother. She finds solace in her friends who introduce her to a mysterious substance that when inhaled, causes beautiful hallucinations. However, the hallucinations prove deadly when Blessing witnesses her friend’s murder while under the influence. She discovers the cause of death is not the substance itself, but a supernatural force living in the hallucinations. As Blessing’s friends start disappearing, the force manifests itself into a living being, which torments Blessing in the real world, forcing her to face her fears head on.
I was inspired by a lot of stuff when making the movie, especially Guy Maddin and Ryan Trecartin. I also drew heavily from one of my favorite super-mainstream horror movies A Nightmare on Elm Street. I guess I wanted to make a slasher-art film.
NYFA: Both of your films, Wakers and Glamarus, are rather surreal journeys that seem to incorporate a wide range of influences, styles, and character types. How would you describe your writing process in assembling such a hodgepodge narrative world? How much of your process is influenced by your collaborators and the production process itself?
DG: My writing process doesn’t exist. I do not use scripts. Rather, I ad lib everything. I have a basic idea of what I want in my head, I bring the actors I know I will need, and I just shoot the movie. My actors ad lib a lot of their lines, so I consider them the writers as well. Often, I’ll give them a very basic prompt: (“You’re threatening him. You’re scared because he’s threatening you.”) and my actors work with it.
NYFA: You have completed and released two feature-length films, Glamarus and Wakers, and you have been making your own films since you were five. How do you obtain the financing, equipment, and PR needed to get your films to a wider audience? What have you learned from both your successes and failures that have helped with the process, assuming it gets easier (or does each production have its own unique set of challenges)?
DG: The equipment is practically non existent. I have a camera, and an editing system. This is all I feel I need to make a film. I will use what props I have, many of which I have found on the street or bought at a novelty shop. I have one movie light, which is from the 1960s and was found in the gutter by my father. The financing, aside from the money it cost to buy the camera, does not exist. It cost more to rent the 750 dollar theater Wakers premiered in than to make the movie itself, including the cost of the camera. I happen to be okay at PR, and I just kind of squeeze myself into whatever publicity I can find. My main failures as a filmmaker were unfinished film projects. I wrote two feature length scripts, both of which were never filmed, and I began filming on a script-less project called Ghost Capturers that was never completed. I also wrote and recorded the music for and was in pre-production on a musical film called Shock and Roll Terror, but opted to make Glamarus instead. I don’t really know what I learned from this: Try not to f*** up, I guess. Once I made Glamarus, which was by accident, I kind of figured out how I would go about making a more fleshed out feature film, which is what Wakers was. In turn, I think what I learned from that is the best things happen spontaneously. For me, at least, when I plan something too much, it doesn’t get done, it sucks, or it takes too long. My successes have always been in completely spontaneous projects.
NYFA: You also have worked as an actress in such movies as the fantastically titled Werewolf Bitches from Outer Spaces. Do you see yourself pursuing more acting roles in the future? As many of the actors in your own films consist of friends of yours, how do you determine which actor is ideal for a particular role? With Wakers, you approached a number of experienced actors—not limited to Troma Films legend Lloyd Kauffman, Matt Katz-Bohen from Blondie, Robert Prichard of Class of Nuke Em High, and Reverend Jen. What made you decide to go after these particular actors for Wakers and what advice would you give to filmmakers your age in approaching and securing more established actors?
DG: I do see myself pursuing acting in the future, though not full time. I occasionally act in short films and stuff. It’s fun to see yourself in other people’s work. I actually was supposed to be an extra in a Martin Scorsese film but I got fired when they found out I was under 18. I determine which actor is ideal for a role by basing the role off of them a bit, even if the finished result is a character nothing like them. I usually have the actors in mind when I am coming up with the plot. It’s also based on availability. I wouldn’t advise getting too hung up on who’s playing who, but with people who aren’t professional working actors, try to give them a role that comes natural, or one you’d think they’d find fun. With the more experienced actors, my approaching them was based in availability. Aside from Lloyd Kaufman, I knew most of the experienced actors. Reverend Jen is my good friend and unofficial godmother, and she was in Kaufman’s film Terror Firmer. I was able to use this connection to talk to Lloyd Kaufman, and it also helped that he makes himself very available. Matt Katz-Bohen and I had talked a bit before and he had given me his contact information, so when I approached him with Wakers he was pretty into it. The main piece of advice I have is use Facebook. A surprising number of well known media figures are on it, and the “seen” feature lets you know when they’re not going to respond to you so you can move on to someone else. Luckily we live in a time when you can easily instant message very experienced people. Another word of advice is try to keep their shooting time to a minimum. If you’re dealing with someone who is very busy, shoot their scenes in an hour. Figure it to where they’re only in one location, and just record as much as you possibly can. An hour is a lot of time. If they need to interact with someone else who can’t show up, use a body double. That’s what I did with Lloyd Kaufman.
NYFA: Also, as a quick follow-up, have Troma films been a particular influence on you and if so, which ones are your favorites?
DG: Troma films have definetely been an influence on me! My favorites of theirs are Terror Firmer, The Toxic Avenger 2 and 3, and Tromeo and Juliet. Although I don’t use a ton of gore, their unconventional humor and horror fusion is very influential to me.
NYFA: What filmmakers currently working today are you particularly inspired by and drawn to? And outside of the world of film, what artists, writers, and musicians do you find yourself incorporating—whether directly or abstractly—into your films?
DG: I am influenced by everyone from Guy Maddin to Godfrey Ho and my script-less style of filmmaking is influenced by Scott Shaw’s Zen Film philosophy as well as the no wave Cinema of Transgression style found in filmmakers such as Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. Some additional filmmakers that inspire me are Dario Argento, Bruno Mattei, Harmony Korine, Richard Elfman, and Ryan Trecartin. I was inspired by Itallian progressive rock band Goblin in some of the scores I composed for Wakers as well as Brian Eno, who is a big influence on my music. Richard O’Brien’s musical Shock Treatment was also a big influence, both musically and visually, and the song I wrote and recorded for the end credits is very inspired by the music from that film.
NYFA: What is next for you as an artist and filmmaker? Do you have any parting words of advice for young filmmakers seeking to create their own feature length films?
DG: I plan on making another feature film soon that’s a sort of follow up to Wakers. It’s about puberty, vagina aliens, the Bible, and Mae West. I think. Currently I am working on making some music videos for my album “really secret elevator” I just released on Amazon, Google Play, etc. and I have two out for my singles “My Respiration” and “Call Our Losses”. I think “Call Our Losses” has some hit potential and the video was my first big foray into hand-drawn cell animation, which I incorporate myself into via greenscreen. I am also working on another album of much less poppy, more innovative musical material which I also plan on directing some really good videos for. Eventually, I want to make a bigger film that is a musical, and I want to direct a darker art film starring Corey Feldman.
My parting words of advice to young filmmakers are: Just make a movie. You don’t need money, you don’t need a script, and you don’t need a crew. You need some friends who are willing to show up, a camera, an editing system, and some imagination. And by a camera, I mean any camera, including a phone. There are apps that allow you to edit movies on a phone now, or you can get a cheap older camera and edit the thing in a VCR. I’ve done that. Don’t try to be Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg, because you’re not: You’re better
While it’s not uncommon for students at the New York Film Academy to come back to further their studies, filmmaker Tanner Cusumano has the distinction of attending our film camps five times in a row. The experiences enabled him to write, direct, and edit several short films that have appeared in a number of prestigious film festivals.
We recently sat down with Tanner to talk about his experiences at the New York Film Academy, what he learned over the course of his five summers at the Los Angeles campus, and how he’s applying the skills he acquired to his current projects. Check out the 4 minute teaser video below and scroll down to read the full transcript of his interview.
Hi, my name is Tanner Cusumano and I’m a five-time New York Film Academy alum.
NYFA: How did you into filmmaking?
TANNER CUSUMANO: My grandfather was really into film, just as a hobby. He originally worked for the Department of Water and Power. So I’d go over to his house and he would just do like little skits with his little camcorder and that’s how I kind of got started. And I think I was watching TV and there was an ad actually for the New York Film Academy and I was like “Oh, that sounds interesting.” And then I went on your guys’ website and looked up a couple of your programs. That’s how I actually got started at NYFA.
And then I went the first year and really liked it. Then I went the second year and really liked it. And did that five times. [laughs]
NYFA: Anything else that influenced your decision to pursue filmmaking?
TC: When I realized I loved film it was the second year at NYFA on the backlot and I just realized that I was just so happy. I was like telling my actors what to do and we were dealing with all these problems that arise on set. But it’s a fun stress, it’s a fun environment. That’s when I realized I really loved film.
NYFA: Why did you decide to pursue directing and producing?
TC: What got me interested in directing and producing and why I started to follow that path was I just love telling stories. Like I was working…you start with this idea. Something that’s in your head. Something totally original. And then you do a script, you know, you write a script. Then you take it to the next level. You go through pre-production. Then you flush it out and create these characters and the characters emerge. Then you go and do the location scouting and you make it this whole enterprise, this huge film from just this one idea that you’ve had. And there’s something really cool about that. That you can start from this one idea and make this whole film about it. And going through the whole process of location scouting, planning a budget, casting, getting your crew, dealing with actors; the whole process is something that is just fun. You know, it’s something that I enjoy. It’s very unique and it definitely beats working at an office in a 9-5 job. I think everyone has something, like a career they’re drawn to and I think you find it when you realize that whatever you’re doing makes you happy. And that’s what I found in film.
NYFA: What influenced your decision to attend the NYFA Advanced Program?
TC: I would say before I loved film, I was intrigued by it. If that makes sense. So when I saw the New York Film Academy ad and I read about, I was like “Oh, you get to film on the backlot, that looks fun.” [laughs] And you’re with other high school students so it’s a fun high school summer thing. But it turns into something more than that. The program turns into something where I realized, when you’re working on set, how much I enjoyed it and it makes sense. Like, “Wow, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I would say I was intrigued by film before NYFA, I fell in love with film at NYFA.
One of the reasons I ended up going to NYFA was access to all the equipment. When I first started in the tween program I was a middle schooler. I didn’t have access to any of these lights or sound equipment or cameras or anything. I had a little mini DV camcorder. And being able to have access…you know, when I was a student, an HD camera was a big deal in regards to dolly track, c-stands, everything that makes a production possible, I didn’t have access to. And being a student at the New York Film Academy gives you access to all that equipment, which I think is a big deal.
NYFA: Why did you decide to attend so many times?
TC: The first program I did, I believe it was the two-week Tween program. So that was all filmed on the backlot. And I met a lot of really cool people and had access to a lot of really great equipment that was better than what I was working with at the time, which was just a mini DV camcorder for my home videos. And then I come to NYFA and they give me this HD Panasonic, which is just huge at the time. This was like 2006 so an HD camera was a pretty big deal. So that was really fun and I was like, “OK, I’ll do it again next year.” And I was talking to one of the teaching assistants who was like, “You know, there’s this really great program. It’s called the Six-Week Advanced Program where we give you a truck full of equipment and you can pretty much do whatever you want.” And I was like, “That sounds awesome.” And then, when I was in ninth grade, I was the youngest person in the advanced program and I remember talking to one of the TAs and I was like, “I want to go kind of crazy with this. I want to go film on the Queen Mary.” And they were like, you can film wherever you want. So the first film I did I actually filmed at the Queen Mary in Long Beach and we talked to them and they were actually very familiar with NYFA, they gave me a discount because I was a NYFA student and they were really accommodating to us because NYFA built a good reputation with them. And I found that in a lot of the places we filmed, NYFA had a really good reputation.
And I kept coming back, I think I did the advanced program three times. And the reason I kept doing it is because I don’t really know anywhere else where a high school student could get a truck full of equipment and just having professors tell you, “Go do whatever you want.” And that creative control…a lot of the students made really great films. My films went on to a lot of film festivals and a lot of other classmates had their films at a lot of film festivals as well. And it’s a really unique program and me enrolling in that program really allowed me to get in touch with my inner director and allowed me to explore things I wouldn’t be able to do before and is a reason why I love film so much.
NYFA: What did you learn from the Advanced Program?
TC: I think one of the major things is how to deal with actors. The first advanced program I did we actually held casting auditions, we had people come in from LA and we held auditions in the NYFA offices. The first time I didn’t really know what I was doing. We had instructors and stuff who would teach us methods on how to cast actors and all that. And I think that in order to find an actor that’s really right for the part, you have to look for the right things and I think I was looking for the wrong things at first. I was looking more for who looked the part and not really who became the character, and who fit the part best. So that’s important. A lot of it’s experience. You know, learning who’s good in a room, but not necessarily who’s good on set. Like who gives a really good audition, but isn’t necessarily able to perform on set. Those are things you can kind of tell in an interview and in follow-up auditions and reads and things like that.
Also in dealing with locations—I guess this is more of a producing issue—but some of the other locations…I think in the last advanced program I did we had an issue with the location where we ended up scrambling and we had to find a backup location. And I think being put in these situations are things people have to deal with this, but dealing with it in high school, being able to deal with the location dropping out on you, having to deal with having an actor drop out on you at two in the morning, something I actually had to deal with. Like the day before the shoot. So I’m scrambling at two in the morning to see who can I find to be on the set at 8AM. These are all things that a high school student, when you go to college or you go on and further your studies and have these experiences, it puts you that more ahead than everyone else.
NYFA: What was it about NYFA that kept drawing you back?
TC: I think what kept drawing me back to NYFA, coming five times in a row, I think definitely the teachers. I’m still friends with a lot of the teachers today. They were so incredible, they taught me so much. The equipment, being able to have the amazing equipment I had in high school and able to build an amazing reel for colleges and just for my overall career was very beneficial. The people you meet, the other students, are extremely talented. I had classmates who made these amazing films, absolutely incredible films. And they’re off doing great things, one of them is working at Google. It’s a really great experience, the high school programs.
NYFA: What was the collaborative process like?
TC: For the pre-production aspect of a film, you work with mostly your classmates. They read through your script and I want them to be brutal, like tear this thing apart because now’s the time. And so pre-production, it’s mostly your classmates and that’s the best way to flesh out a film I think. To go with your class, figure out the issues, fine-tune. And then when you get closer to casting, my classmates’ insight was invaluable to say, we’re going over the whole project and like, “Ok, what do you think of this person?” “Oh, I didn’t really like them.” “Oh, I really liked that person.” And you go through and you identify and find…and when you’re going through, they make points you necessarily wouldn’t have thought of.
Then later on when you go through, when you get past casting and you go through and you’re on set. It does become, the actors become more involved. One thing I like to do is when you get some takes in and the characters, the actors get comfortable with their characters, improv is a really interesting way, I think, for them to get in touch with their characters more and I’ve gotten some really great scenes just from characters, or from actors becoming their characters and kind of improv’ing a little bit. That’s an interesting technique. But the collaboration with my fellow students, and also the teachers, the teachers would come on set and would give their insight and be like “I think you should be doing this better. This could be improved.” And that’s really helped. So the collaboration from the teachers at NYFA and also my fellow students were invaluable.
NYFA: Are you still friends with some of those students?
TC: Oh absolutely. I’m friends with pretty much all of my classmates from the advanced program. It was interesting because they kept doing it every year as well. There was a friend of mine who did it pretty much every single year I did and so every year we would come back and we would work on projects together and that was a lot of fun. One of the actors who I had a really good connection with, actually I’m thinking of putting in a new film of mine and he was really something else. He was in the first film that I did at NYFA, the first advanced film that I did at NYFA. And then he was on, I guess it wasn’t really Broadway, he was in Las Vegas in the show Beatles Love and he had the main part. So I went to go see him and I was like “Oh my god, he’s like the main guy!” So that was really cool and I have a role in mind for him actually coming up.
NYFA: How do you feel about the international student body at NYFA?
TC: In the advanced class, there was, it was mostly from out of state. I think I was the only student from California, so that was really cool. We had one student from Egypt. But NYFA is a really international school, which I think is fantastic. It provides a lot of different viewpoints and culturally it’s very interesting. But that was one of the great things about being a student, like meeting all these different people. I wish the advanced program had more international students. People in the advanced program are from a lot different areas, like all different states, so that was really interesting in seeing their perspective and them flying out here. It was really cool. If everyone was from California, they’d probably all be commuters, which would be boring. I was a commuter and it was boring. But they were all in the dorms, in the Oakwood dorms, so that was fun.
NYFA: Is NYFA hands on?
TC: The New York Film Academy is incredibly hands on. I remember the first day I came into class I was expecting a boring lecture, just like “Okay, here’s the basics of film” and you’re doing diagrams and not really getting your hands on equipment. We got our hands on equipment day one. The first hour I was at the school they were bringing in cameras for us to play with. And I say play with, but the way, I think, you learn cinematography and the way you learn is through experience, you know? I don’t think a textbook fully can explain how to do a lighting set-up, how to do these certain things. I think that you have to do it yourself. A teacher has to show you and then you learn with your hands. And I think that’s what NYFA understands. I think that’s what’s so unique about NYFA is that you learn with your…it’s a hands-on experience. I remember second week, we were laying dolly track and we were gripping and we’d have a teacher actually direct a scene so all the students would experience the different roles besides the director because of how important that is on a set. Even if you’re directing, you need to know what all the other departments do. And so I remember we were gripping and switching positions, I would do sound, I would grip, I would do the sleigh, I’d be the camera, I’d be first AC, I would do everything. And that’s what so important about the New York Film Academy is that you get all these hands-on experiences and that’s how you learn.
NYFA: How did you feel about the instructors at NYFA?
TC: Whenever I was having an issue with a film, I was having an issue with my story, with a location, no matter what I was dealing with, if I asked one of my professors for help, they knew exactly what to do. And the fact they were all working in the industry, the fact that they were all seasoned veterans, seasoned professionals is something that I don’t think you can get a lot of places. I think that’s what makes the New York Film Academy so special.
NYFA: What was the benefit of having access to the Universal Studios backlot?
TC: The New York Film Academy having access to the Universal backlot is a big advantage. I actually tried to film there myself for a side project and they said, “Yeah, you need a million dollar insurance policy and like $50,000.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s not happening.” But the fact that when you’re a student at the New York Film Academy, you get full access. You have dolly track, you have lights, you have pretty much anything you can imagine, and the backlot, which is absolutely incredible. So I remember, it’s really a surreal experience when you’re walking around the backlot where they shot these incredible films. You can’t even begin to start to name all the incredible things they’ve shot there. But it’s a really special experience to film there.
NYFA: What’s the benefit of being in Los Angeles?
TC: The whole film industry is in Los Angeles. That’s what I think is so special about the LA campus. I think it’s really good that NYFA has a campus in LA. I’m kind of biased, but I think the LA campus is the best. [laughs] But all the studios are here. Whether you’re a directing student, you want to emphasize in directing, you want to emphasize in acting, I think you should be in LA. And being in LA, having access to internship opportunities, having access to the Universal backlot, gives you a lot more opportunities than being somewhere else.
NYFA: What skills did NYFA help you to develop as a filmmaker?
TC: I think what the New York Film Academy helped me develop the most for is being able to command a set. As a director, that’s extremely important. I started in the tween program which is a lot of middle schoolers. I don’t know how to effectively control a set. But I think that each year you learn more and more how to talk to actors, how to direct actors, how to treat a crew. If a crew doesn’t respect you as a director, that makes your shoot a living hell. So I think that when I’m going into a college thesis film shoot and having the experience of the New York Film Academy for those five years, I was able to go in there and effectively talk to my actors, talk to my crew, effectively command the set, which is a crucial skill for a director.
NYFA: In your career thus far, is there one moment that stands out?
TC: I would say there are two moments in my career that really stood out, which I think I couldn’t have done without the New York Film Academy. The first moment was when my film was accepted to the Santa Barbara Film Festival, which was a really big deal. The reason that that film festival in particular was so special to me was when you get accepted into…actually, I wasn’t even in the student section, they put me in shorts, so I was competing with college students even though I was a high school student at the time. What was so special is that they gave you a special badge that gives you unlimited access to the whole festival. I remember this was the year The Artist came out. I got to go walk on the red carpet with all of the actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio and all the big actors and artists. And I got to sit in the front row during The Artist Q&A because I was a filmmaker and you get treated like royalty there. And having that from like a high school student film from NYFA was a pretty amazing deal. That was a really special moment for me.
The second thing is probably, I would say when I got my first job. I had an internship at Warner Bros. for the television show The Mentalist. Even though this isn’t a traditional…how should I put this? I got the experience from NYFA in the sense of how to be respectful and how to do a good job on set. I worked in the production office for The Mentalist, but I also got to go on set occasionally.
NYFA: What have you worked on since NYFA?
TC: The last film I made at the New York Film Academy was a film called Amanda, it was about teenage drinking and driving and that film went into a lot of festivals. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I pretty much copied everything I learned from NYFA in order to make that film. And it worked perfectly! And that was in a lot of film festivals. That was actually my favorite film I’ve done so far. After that, I did a lot of internships. I did an internship at Warner Bros. with The Mentalist and then the summer after that I worked for Warner Bros. again for the TV show Gotham on Fox. So I was a writer’s PA for that and I worked for them for them for several weeks. And then right now I’m working on a documentary, a feature length documentary about Fisker Automotive and a short film that I’m working on, that I’m still flushing out now, that I hope to have done by January.
NYFA: Do filmmakers have a responsibility to pursue social issues?
TC: I think that film is a very powerful medium and I think that filmmakers do have a responsibility to explore certain social issues and connect taboos in society. I think that’s what’s so important about film is that it really influences society and it can cause change. And I think that if you look at the film Bully, that was a big feature film, it was a documentary about bullying going on at this elementary school. I think it had a big impact and that it got people talking about an issue. And I think now schools have certain measures about dealing with it and they show these films and I think that filmmakers should be proactive and try and have their films give awareness to and have discussion about certain issues.
NYFA: Do you have any advice for young filmmakers?
TC: Part of being a student director and a student producer is really stretching a dollar, you have to know how to do that. You have to ask. Seriously. I’ve very rarely paid for a location. A lot of the times—people would think I’m crazy—so Tanner, we have to get a house. OK, we’re going to go door to door and knock and see who’s going to say yes. “Tanner, no one’s going to just let you film in their house, they don’t know you, they’re not going to let a huge student film crew walk into their house.” Every time that I’ve had to film either an interior house or exterior house location, I just knocked door to door, asked if we could film there, take a look around, and they said yes! It didn’t cost me anything. The only thing I had to pay for was the permit, which usually comes with a student discount. And, you know, people get afraid to ask, but I think especially in Los Angeles, I think people seem really eager to help out student filmmakers. And as long as you treat them with respect, you don’t damage the property, and you just show them how passionate you are about a project, they’re more likely to help you.
NYFA: What types of films interest you?
TC: Traditionally, I’ve done dramas. I’ve made films that are kind of depressing dramas. [laughs] But I’ve secretly wanted to do a comedy, so I’m trying to come up with a really funny script. But I’ve typically done dramas just because I think it’s good to do a film that can have some sort of impact and have people talking about it and hopefully, you know, inspire some sort of change or inspire someone to do something differently. But I think that can actually be done through comedy as well if it’s not…I think a lot of the comedies these days are not so much about like social issues, but are just dumb, stupid comedies. Like if you look at, I’m trying to think of a good example…I don’t know if you guys have ever seen the film Sullivan’s Travels. I would say that’s kind of a comedy, but it has a social message behind it. So I want to do a comedy with social messages behind it and I feel a lot of the comedies today are just about stupidity and that’s not something I’m a fan of. But I would say I’m drawn to films that have some sort of message that can inspire social change.
NYFA: Is there an advantage to being a young filmmaker?
TC: I’m not sure, honestly. I think I was fortunate to get into film at a young age. Because I started so young, I feel I’m a little step ahead of everyone else, but I don’t necessarily think there’s an age limit to get into film. I think that what’s important is that you’re passionate about it and you give it a 100%. I think that getting into it at an early age is an advantage to you, but I don’t think there’s necessarily a limit.
NYFA: Any final thoughts on aspiring filmmakers?
TC: I would say take the program seriously. Give it a 100% and don’t slack off. Be passionate and never give up.
Filmmaking is a strange beast, and there’s no other artform quite like it. It involves the culmination of not just creative prowess but also technical expertise; throw in the need for extreme organization and planning skills, good communication and even the ability to draw up financial plans, and it’s easy to see how overwhelming it can be for someone just starting out.
As such, one of the first (and most difficult) questions you’ll have when pursuing a career in filmmaking is if film school is worth it…
Here, we look into why the answer could be ‘yes’ depending on what you’re looking to achieve. But first, a bit of good news…
You Don’t Need Film School to be a Filmmaker
First of all, if you have a camera and desire to make films, congratulations:
YOU ARE A FILMMAKER.
Filmmaking is an art, a creative process. A painter needs no certificate or training to create, just a brush, paint and canvas. A filmmaker only ever really needs a camera, film, and editing suite to make films; and because of the development of modern technology almost anyone can afford the some rudimentary equipment and learn how to use it fairly quickly. Plus, with the advent of YouTube you can distribute your film to the world in a day.
On the other hand, to master the use of the camera, film and editing suite, as well as the distribution and sale of your film you will need a lot of practice and instruction.
Most painters did not just pick up a brush and start painting masterpieces. They apprenticed professional artists, received some form of formal training and painted for years before they produced their best works. Most filmmakers need the same, which can be gained through time spent at a film school.
So while you don’t necessarily need film school to be a filmmaker, it can certainly make you a better filmmaker.
Check out the following benefits while trying to decide, and tick off those which might apply to you:
The Five Key Advantages You’ll Get From Film School
1. Filmmaking is a Communal Craft
And by that, we mean that filmmaking as an artform it can’t quite be executed by a single person in the way that writing or drawing can. Or, at least, it’s a little easier when you’re not on your own and there’s no better place to get acquainted with others practicing the craft than at film school. Collaboration is key in any good film project, and it’s through film school that you’ll improve your chances of finding people to collaborate with.
2. Connections, connections, connections
Leading neatly on from above, those who attend film school will inevitably make strong bonds with others trying to get ahead in the industry. The ties you make while studying often play a greater part in your career after graduation, and while building a list of solid contacts won’t necessarily make up for poor skills as a filmmaker, having both talent and connections can pay dividends.
3. On-Hand Access to Equipment
Even a non-professional, non-student filmmaker with the best will in the world might be limited from making the best movie possible for one reason: technology.
Filming equipment can be a real barrier to entry given that not everyone has $20k Red cameras and professional editing suites in their homes as standard. This isn’t the case at film school, where you’ll have access to just about everything you need to breathe life into your ideas.
4. Competitive Edge
In an industry as cutthroat as entertainment, anything that helps put you one step ahead of the competition is worth its weight in gold. Given that your portfolio is usually the one and only shot you’ll get at making a lasting impression, having a degree from a renowned film school can be worth its weight in gold.
5. Clearing the Fog
The art of making films is so nuanced and so multi-faceted that feeling overwhelmed is a perfectly normal response to getting started (or even if you’re years into your career). Being surrounded by like-minded individuals in an environment overseen by those who have been there, done that can help you figure out how best to proceed. Make no doubt about it: filmmaking is a labyrinth, and one in which its easy to get lost without a sign post or two.
The Next Step
If you have not yet mastered filmmaking and feel that attending a film school would help you grow as a filmmaker while speeding up the process to fulfill your goals as a filmmaker, then the answer is yes. Film school is worth it if it brings you closer to making your masterpiece.
Now the next step is finding the best school for you and enrolling in film school and we believe that film school is the New York Film Academy!
NYFA: Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what drew you to film criticism?
Rob Ager: As a child I was introduced to a lot of quality films by my father. I was six years old when VHS players had not long come on the market and we were one of the first families in our neighborhood to get one, but VHS owners were limited to just recording things off the TV, commercials and all, for playback. Video stores came along later. The idea of studying a film before that would have been extremely limited because people relied on broadcasts to watch things, not that I was into film analysis that early, but in the following years VHS allowed me to re-watch movies and TV shows and become familiar with subtleties other than mere plot points. My father also allowed me to watch a lot of very adult themed movies from an early age. I was seven when we rented our first two video cassettes Alien and The Shining. Sure I was dreadfully underage, but my father would always watch these movies with me and offer explanations for what would otherwise be beyond my comprehension. It was very educational.
I became interested in short story writing by the time I was about 10 years old, though the inspiration came from movies rather than books. At that age I didn’t even know what a screenplay was, but was always writing from a cinematic position. At around age 13 I saw a documentary on The Making of Aliens. This was the first time I’d ever really paid any attention to what a film director does and it sparked my interest in wanting to be a director, but not being from a privileged background (in fact being caught up in a very down-trodden part of Liverpool with very high unemployment, crime levels, and terribly run state schools) going to university was out of the question.
After leaving high school I struggled for a few years and had to sort of re-educate myself and re-invent my life from scratch. From there I got a job making graphics for video games then moved into the field of social care.
Although film making had never taken off for me as an aspiration, technology suddenly opened the door in the form of digital video and PC video editing software. I was in my late twenties at the time. By then my experience in social care related lines of work, and all the hundreds of psychology books I’d read during that time, had given me enough confidence and organizational skills to get the ball rolling. So I made a few short films (TV episode length shorts rather than 5 minuters) before encountering the creativity-suppressing, politically motivated brick wall that is British film funding. From there I veered into making film analysis videos and articles, which wasn’t so much a conscious choice, but rather a happy accident. In the process of studying the works of my favorite directors I’d noticed a few things that I’d never heard talked about and which I felt ought to be common knowledge.
NYFA: You were one of the first internet-based movie critics and also helped pioneer the video movie critique. When did you first start publishing your own reviews and how has the online critical landscape evolved since you began?
RA: It was around early 2007 that I posted my first couple of film analysis videos—they were about A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. For reasons that baffled me at the time, both of those videos received mainstream coverage, though very negatively, in Wired magazine. The Wired writer considered my first two videos somewhat harmful or dangerous and put himself forward to defend the public against being misinformed by my work. I followed up with videos on Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cape Fear, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear, but Wired didn’t bother trying to attack my work again. Meanwhile YouTube subscribers were signing up by the thousand and the videos were generating a ton of online discussion and debate. It was very clear, even after the first two videos, that I’d tapped into something that was controversial and for which there was a largely uncatered audience. A couple of years in my work started getting a lot of positive media coverage, especially when the documentary Room 237 came out, even though I didn’t take part in that film.
As for the evolvement of other online film critics using the video narration format, it seems that a few different niches have been identified and tapped into. Plenty of people do straight reviews of new movies in the traditional sense and reach a lot of people, but the content is little different to what’s already present in reviews found in newspapers and magazines. Red Letter Media put a lot of effort into their stuff and have reached a larger audience than I have, but it often involves attacking bad films rather than praising good ones so doesn’t overlap much with my work. RLM’s sense of humor is very important to their fan base, but my audience seem to be more interested in a sober, almost academic, approach—which is great, but sometimes frustrating because offline I have a bizarre sense of humor too, which I inevitably suppress in my videos (actually I’ve taken to encoding subtle jokes in my videos as a compromise).
There are also a handful of video-based film critics who keep their identities anonymous and some of them reach a lot of people, but I find the anonymity is often understandable because of the poor quality of the critiques, inefficient editing, perceptual bias, and tendency toward over-emotive statements. So far I’ve encountered little from other online critics that I’d consider to be “competition,” so to speak.
NYFA: You spent over fifteen years in social work. How did that experience color the theories and over-arching philosophy you apply when analyzing films and filmmakers?
RA: During those years I met and worked with schizophrenics, the homeless, pedophiles, poverty-hardened teenagers, abused children, ex-cons and so on—thousands of people. Rather than just observing, my job usually involved dealing with these people’s behavior and belief systems—sometimes in violently threatening situations and very often involving lies, manipulation, and pathological denial. You have to keep track of a lot of information in those situations—familiarizing yourself with people’s subconscious habits and environmental triggers, which lends itself quite well to studying human behavior as represented in movies. So a lot of subjects that I talk about in film analysis are things I’ve experienced or observed many times in the real world.
NYFA: What is the guiding theory behind your film criticism? (For example, do you believe that a director, like Stanley Kubrick, is completely intentional in how they compose a scene and thus every element can be analyzed for symbolic value?)
RA: My guiding theory is to gather information first and then form an opinion based on the patterns that emerge from that information. That may seem obvious, but the world is full of people, even in academia, who do it the other way around. Some film makers put incredible depth in their work, but most don’t. Stanley was one of a rare breed in terms of his range of themes and attention to detail. His films are like huge detailed canvases, while a lot of other films are like tiny framed, botched imitations of things already painted better by previous artists. That’s not to say absolutely everything is intentional in a Kubrick film. Even the great master painters made mistakes, but in the same way that every square centimeter on a canvas painting can contain significant detail, there isn’t a single element of the film making process in which metaphors cannot be included. Everything is open to scrutiny.
NYFA: You often focus on what others would consider to be the minutiae of a film to reveal a greater truth. What is it about this method that you believe helps you uncover a greater truth? How do you feel this method fits into the tradition of film criticism?
RA: I don’t think it fits much into the tradition of film criticism because I don’t see a lot of method there. A lot of film reviews and critique are just hasty opinions formed from instinct without any effort in information gathering or even basic note taking during the course of watching a movie. That works well for telling readers whether they might commercially enjoy a particular movie, but it doesn’t work for getting beyond obvious plot lines in any way that is convincing or informative. Basically the issue boils down to the literal verbal (explanatory dialogue, which carries most plot points in movies) versus verbal innuendo (dialogue with hidden or double meaning) and non-verbal communication (visuals and non-dialogue sound). It’s very well known, even to the general public, that most human communication is non-verbal. So naturally, that’s the case in movies as well, even those that have straight, one dimensional narratives. My job as “film analyst” is to put words to those facets of communication that are normally missed or only experienced subconsciously by the audience and often even by the film makers themselves.
NYFA: You also work as an independent filmmaker, having completed a trio of short films and the recent horror feature Turn in Your Grave. How does the film making pursuit differ from the role of the film critic? How does your experience as a film critic inform your decisions as a filmmaker?
RA: Mostly I’d say my experience as a film maker informs my film analysis / critique, rather than the other way around, though in the course of writing film analysis I have learned a few tricks from Lynch, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and other greats which then affected me on set. As a film maker you sort of have to be a critic anyway, attempting to anticipate how your creative decisions will affect the feelings and opinions of the audience. At the same time you have to sometimes go ahead and do something that you know the audience will initially dislike in order to get certain points across or to challenge them in some way. I went all out when shooting Turn In Your Grave to create a film that would challenge the viewer’s assumptions about movies on many levels and which would demand the viewer play detective. As a result I find people have strong reactions to the film ranging from fascination to unease and frustration. Even if it’s the only feature I ever make, I’m happy with it because I can honestly say it’s original and represents a personal vision on film. But making a feature film is expensive and extremely time consuming—at least a hundred times more so than making a film analysis video. So, unless the British film industry is radically altered to facilitate creativity and filmmakers with a personal vision, I’ll be continuing mostly with film analysis as a cheaper, but still wide-reaching alternative…unless I end up leaving the country.
NYFA: What led you to work within a genre like Horror that tends to have a pretty established structure in terms of how a story unfolds? Did you see working in such a codified genre as somehow liberating or were you trying to find a certain freedom within the structures?
RA: A lot of my film analysis videos are about horror films, which can be misleading. Horror isn’t necessarily my film viewing preference, partially because it’s so rarely well done, but it is a genre which, along with sci-fi and fantasy, provides a means through which deeper aspects of the human psyche can emerge and be collectively experienced consciously. Narratives that are bound by the perceived rules of everyday reality can be quite restricting in that the film makers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to create something that is “realistic” rather than interesting and stimulating. Turn In Your Grave isn’t actually a horror film, although it does intentionally wear that mask. It’s more like a potent bad dream in which subconscious thoughts surface and play on you for days after you’ve woken up.
NYFA: When it comes to directing your own films, what role do you see the director playing? As someone who often conducts a symbolic reading of film, do you find working within a genre as a means to exert complete symbolic control over the elements in your films?
RA: The director role varies. It can mean window dressing something in which all the true creativity derives from the script and most of the aesthetics are decided by technicians. Or at the other end if the director has been involved in the script writing and personally gets involved in guiding the technical tasks of all the crew members and the editing process then he becomes the creative driver. I’ve only directed using the latter approach.
As for genres, all of my films have been mixed pieces, as in they initially appear to be of a certain genre, but subtly morph into another genre or two. I have watched some films that attempt to abandon all genre conventions and simply hit the audience with something outside of their normal experience. David Lynch’s more bizarre films Eraserhead and Inland Empire do this, but they’re also, for many viewers, his least accessible films. Many people simply switch off those two films mid-way through because they can’t relate to them, but with Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet Lynch took the wiser step of giving the audience an initial genre narrative that they could relate to. He then, through the course of those films, eased the audience gradually into unfamiliar realms, primarily involving dream logic. That approach works in most forms of communication. A shrink is able to get more far reaching results by stepping into the world of the patient first, occupying that world with the individual for a while (provided it isn’t too physically dangerous), and then gradually introducing perceptual elements that lead the patient to a more pleasant, truthful, and resourceful place. Good movies do that too.
NYFA: What would you say has been the secret ingredient in gaining a wide audience for your film criticism videos?
RA: Communicating from a truthful place, especially in areas where it’s unfashionable to do so. In a world that is drowning in lies and denial, truth is a powerful and underestimated commodity (in many ways much more powerful even than money).
NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring film critics looking to make a name for themselves online? Any essential writers or critics that you feel every aspiring critic should be familiar with?
RA: Yes, spend some time soaking up the articles and videos at my website www.collativelearning.com (biased recommendation of course). There’s only one other independent online film analyst / critic I recommend at the moment and that’s Darren Foley (known on YouTube as foleyd87). I’ve actually only seen a few of his videos, but they were enough to earn my recommendation.
Advice for aspiring film critics…
1) Keep your language simple and to the point. A great many film critics try to pepper their articles with unnecessary pseudo-intellectual jargon or trendy buzz words, catch phrases, and verbal clichés. If you want to write poetry then write poetry, not film critiques.
2) Be your own harshest critic. After writing or editing something, look for ways to tear it apart conceptually before finalizing and publishing it. If you don’t find the flaws in your arguments, your audience will certainly do it for you.
3) Your real life experiences are as important as your love of films. Get some good, character building life experiences under your belt. Only then will you have something truly personal to say about other people’s movies or to express in movies you write or direct.
4) Work hard!!! Creating a thorough film analysis video or article requires a lot of advance information gathering about your chosen film topic, a strong knowledge of video editing, a lot of writing practice, and a lot of time. Most people, including myself, don’t have a lot of free time so if you’re really serious about it then you’ll have to make some sacrifices in other areas like getting drunk less often with your friends, playing less computer games, or watching less sports.
NYFA: Would you mind telling us a little bit about your background and what drew you into film production?
Julie Pacino: I’ve always had a passion for filmmaking. As a child I was always making little shorts with my friends and writing stories to act out. I remember visiting film sets as a kid and always being incredibly intrigued by the alternate reality that I was stepping in to. Making movies and watching movies was always very therapeutic for me. I liked being sucked into a story, falling in love with the different characters and ultimately learning something about my own desires and myself. I feel very fortunate that I knew from an early age that I wanted to work in the film business.
I met my producing partner, Jennifer DeLia, in Austin in 2009. After sharing some of my writing with her, we decided to collaborate on a short film that I directed called Abracadabra. Jen produced it and acted in it. She was such a solid creative producer and my experience on set was invaluable. After working so well together on Abracadabra, we decided to start our company Poverty Row Entertainment. Jen had just started shooting her directorial debut feature Billy Bates and when she shared some of the footage with me I was blown away by her style of storytelling. It was, and is, unlike anything I’ve seen before; so unique, visceral and expressive. There was still work to be done on BB. Footage to be shot, money to be raised and all of post-production left. So, Jen and I finished producing the film together, screened it at some festivals, and secured U.S. distribution. The movie is set to come out in theaters this November and I could not be more proud of how it turned out.
We’re currently in development on a feature about the life of Mary Pickford entitled, The First, starring Lily Rabe, Michael Pitt and Julia Stiles. As a production company, we have produced music videos and commercials as well. The short format work we do is so much fun. It’s great to be able to work on something from start to finish and have that on-set experience. I learn something new every time.
NYFA: What drew you to NYFA as an aspiring filmmaker and producer?
JP: I grew up in New York and always knew about NYFA. I love how NYFA attracts people from all across the world. I also remember reading on the NYFA website that students get to make their short films on an Arriflex 8mm camera and I was like, “Okay sign me up.” The idea of learning how to shoot on a film camera seemed like such a great opportunity to me since seemingly everything is digital now. I love the silent b&w shorts I made at NYFA. I met some close friends there as well!
NYFA: What lesson in particular did you learn while at NYFA that you continue to apply to your professional career?
JP: I learned a lot at NYFA but I would say the most important thing was something they told us on the first day of classes—“The more sleep you lose during pre-production, the smoother your shoot will go.” Preparation is so important if you want to have a successful shoot. As a producer, making sure that you’ve got all your bases covered and anticipating any potential problems is really the key. Of course, there are some things that you just can’t plan for and then it’s all about how you deal with the stress, how you troubleshoot and how you come up with a solution. That’s the challenging part, but who doesn’t like a good challenge?
NYFA: Some of the projects that your production company Poverty Row has produced actively tackle issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and how these universal issues relate to art, such as Billy Bates and the upcoming film about Mary Pickford. What draws you and your producing partner Jennifer DeLia to these themes?
JP: We love to explore the psychology behind our characters. Billy Bates is the portrait of a tortured artist who’s in the thick of reconciling his past and dealing with his inner demons. He’s able to channel those feelings into his art and create something tangible. Similarly, The First is also a portrait of an artist. Mary Pickford is experiencing the beginning of film as a creative medium as well as what it means to be the first celebrity of all time. It’s about how she processes the world around her and how she uses her inner turmoil to fuel her creativity. We all deal with insecurities and struggles when it comes to any type of identity so these themes are very relatable. It’s an opportunity for us as filmmakers to offer our perspective on the creative process and what it means to overcome adversity and initiate change in oneself.
NYFA: Poverty Row’s upcoming production of Scott Organ’s play Phoenix is a story centered around a one-night stand that evokes a compulsion in the male lead, Bruce, to re-connect with his one-off paramour Sue who states that they never can repeat the experience. What themes in Organ’s play attracted you to bringing it back to the stage?
JP: We read a lot of great plays before making our decision this summer. Phoenix ultimately presented the most opportunity for character exploration, and felt the most open to interpretation and development. Scott Organ is such a talented writer. His material is subtle, but with really fascinating nuances for Jennifer DeLia (director), Julia Stiles (Sue) and James Wirt (Bruce) to sink their teeth into.
The play explores sexual identity and the journey of these two people discovering what it means to get to know one another. There’s a lot of projecting that goes on in relationships and Phoenix is a nice reminder that connecting with someone and truly knowing who they are shouldn’t be taken for granted. There are also some really interesting themes about the nature of the universe and how fate affects our lives.
The fact that it’s a two-hander is exciting because the audience gets to spend time getting inside these character’s heads. It’s dark and deep but at the same time, very funny.
NYFA: You’ve worked with James Wirt, who plays the male leads in both Billy Bates and Phoenix. What about him as an actor has drawn you to casting him?
JP: Jimmy is so fun to watch because you never know what he’s going to do. He brings an element of surprise to all of his roles and that makes him electric, especially on stage. He’s able to translate his character’s internal conflict into something that the audience can relate to. He’s got something special and is a rare talent. One of the best out there right now!
NYFA: On a similar note, Julia Stiles stars opposite James in Phoenix. What do you feel she is able to bring to this production that other actresses might not?
Julia is a true professional and so collaborative. She started in theatre, she’s done Shakespeare, she’s done Mamet, and so her experience really shows. Her presence on stage is astounding. The way she uses her body to express, as well as her ability to bring the words in the script to life, is unique and exciting to watch. On top of all that, her and Jimmy have great chemistry so it’s a perfect fit for the show!
NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for NYFA students hoping to form their own production company?
JP: Filmmaking is a long process. Patience and communication are very important skills to work on. As filmmakers we are responsible for the images that we put out into the world, so make sure to tell stories that are meaningful to you… Oh, and don’t forget to have fun.
Nicholas Jabbour presents PHOENIX Off-Broadway, starring Julia Stiles and James Wirt.
Producers: Poverty Row Entertainment, Rian Patrick Durham and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
PHOENIX will be at the CHERRY LANE THEATRE, in the West Village. Performances begin July 28th, and it has a limited run through August 23rd. PHOENIX is written by Scott Organ and directed by Jennifer DeLia.
NYFA: What is your personal background and how did you get your start in filmmaking?
Babar Ahmed: During a summer break I decided to pursue a hobby I once had at high school. So I went to the New York Film Academy in New York for a three month directing course. Inspired by the teachers and how they felt towards their work I decided to spend three more months pursuing filmmaking. Three months turned into three years and three years turned into over a decade.
NYFA: How did the international student body at NYFA affect or inspire the way you approach film?
BA: With NYFA I truly felt like I was in a diverse cultural and social environment. Other than being international, some students were much older than me, some were much younger than me. Some students were from artistic backgrounds, some were from academic backgrounds, some were rebels, and some were more conventional. Students had different goals, different priorities, a different dress sense, and yet everyone was firmly connected by a passion to make films. I had never been in such a diverse environment in my life nor in an environment where there was genuine passion towards something, regardless of the monetary benefits involved.
NYFA: What in particular about the course you took at NYFA has stuck with you?
BA: I had not really heard too much about NYFA before I started the course and I was a little bit skeptical at first. So I came with no expectations. But on the first day I remember our teacher talking about why making films is meaningful and then reciting a quote from Hamlet. The passionate way in which he recited those lines gave me chills. I remember sitting at the back of the class motionless like someone was at that moment lifting a veil from over my eyes. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
NYFA: What themes do you find yourself returning to in your films? What subjects and themes inspired the story that became your most recent film Amka and the Three Golden Rules?
BA: Generally the themes are about each person on this planet having a purpose, whether it is in a stranger’s life or in a friend or family member’s life.
For AMKA the credit for the movie certainly goes to many people involved with the project: from the great economist and singer Rogier van den Brink to a lady who has dedicated her life to helping children Susan Griffeth to our local crew and actors. I felt that the intentions of the entire team were sincere in trying to tell an authentic and meaningful story. And those intentions took us a long way.
NYFA: As a writer and director, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who wish to excel at both disciplines?
BA: I know that others can list one hundred reasons why you shouldn’t or couldn’t write your story or direct your film. But you just need one reason why you should and you can. And that is all you need.
Don’t wait to be discovered. No matter how talented or brilliant you are no one is going to come knocking on your door. If you want it then go and get it. I feel like that is the essence of what NYFA taught me.
Specifically for writing, it can be easy to lock yourself in a room and get lost in a world thinking about plot points and character arcs. It could be equally useful however, to also be actively involved with writing groups where you would meet other writers who will give you support and can share their experiences.
For directors I feel it is important to start by knowing what a director does. The primary responsibility of a director is to get good performances out of your cast. And that is probably the most important and most difficult part of making a movie. I feel that if you can get consistently good performances out of your cast then you’ve won your battle.
NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for NYFA students and aspiring filmmakers?
NYFA: Could you tell us a bit about your background and what drew you to filmmaking?
Paquita Hughes: I grew up in a small town in Mississippi and always had dreams of escaping to California to make movies. I was a Spielberg kid so nonetheless Star Wars and E.T. captured my imagination and fueled my interest in movie making magic! I didn’t know what I would do in the industry or how I would fit in, I just knew I wanted to be a part of the process. I began plotting my journey to Hollywood at an early age but was sidelined after my high school graduation when my family disagreed with my decision to attend USC School of Cinematic Arts. I was told to pursue a “realistic goal” and to get a more practical profession, like a Lawyer, Doctor or Teacher. Crushed by this revelation, I pushed my dreams aside.
NYFA: You served in the Navy for eight years as an Air Traffic Controller. What lessons did you learn during your service that have helped you in your development as a filmmaker? What led you to leave and pursue your filmmaking dreams?
PH: As an Air Traffic Controller in the World’s Greatest Navy, I faced many challenges and obstacles; mentally, physically and emotionally. It’s in the top 5 most stressful jobs in the world and going through a “crash-course” school through the military (6 months) was a validating process for me. It showed me I could definitely rise to any challenge placed in front of me. I controlled the best pilots in the world as an enlisted sailor overseas and on an amphibious assault ship during a time of war. I’ve had to deal with many personality and culture differences that have definitely prepared me to collaborate with a variety of filmmakers and performers. Working under pressure during a time of war in foreign countries and territories has toughened me to make difficult decisions on the drop of a dime. I’m a troubleshooting Diva!
The deciding factor to separate and attend school to pursue my dream came when I was being forced to take college courses to stay competitive for advancement of my rank. I had promised myself when I dropped out of college the first time, that I would never attempt college again for a profession that I absolutely had no interest in. What fun would that be? I wanted to enjoy higher education like I enjoyed my primary and secondary education years. I enrolled in the Associates of Arts in Motion Picture/Television: Producing course for Academy of Art University and never turned back. I studied online for the next 2.5 years while serving overseas and got hooked! I wanted to be hands on and actually start making movies! I aced every assignment and test, and as my military career hit a “glass ceiling”, I realized my motivation, drive and creativity would be utilized better in the civilian sector so I decided to get out and pursue it full time.
NYFA: What was it about the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles that attracted you to its filmmaking program?
PH: What attracted me to the NYFA filmmaking program was the key word “immersion”. When I describe the course to others, I say it’s the “Rosetta Stone of filmmaking” because you are immersed in the process while learning. I think it’s the best way. I spent two years learning the history and theory of filmmaking so I was ready to get my hands on equipment and scripts. I was also very decisive about my choice because of my military benefits. AAU was going to cost me more to continue there than it would have been for NYFA. NYFA’s Yellow Ribbon program allowed unlimited amount of veteran students to apply and AAU only allowed the first 50 who applied. Not to mention NYFA matched the VA at a much higher amount then what AAU matched. It was a better decision financially also.
NYFA: What lessons did you learn at NYFA that you still find yourself applying to your current work?
PH: Planning is everything! I’ve also learned how important it is to create positive relationships with my classmates and to not burn bridges with the talented students. You can ruin your reputation quickly by missing classes and showing up late. Collaboration is key in filmmaking and you want to have a plethora of collaborators in your Rolodex when it’s time to get a production off the ground.
NYFA: You’ve enrolled twice in NYFA, firstly studying filmmaking and then returning for the one-year digital photography course. What skills as a filmmaker did you hope to hone through the digital photography course? Have you always been drawn to still images alongside moving images?
PH: Photography has always been a passion of mine. It seemed fitting to enroll in the Photography course once it became available. A still camera was the first camera I owned so my filmmaking career started with photography. I wanted to take a skill I taught myself and honed for 20+ years and learn the proper technical and business processes.
Through this course I honed my skills as a visual storyteller and strengthened my cinematography skills. I learned how to see the world with a different view and the many styles of photography opened my mind to the many styles of filmmaking that I can explore.
NYFA: As a veteran in the film industry, what avenues have you found that have allowed you to network with other veterans? Do you feel that veterans possess a certain skill set that makes them particularly adaptable to working in film and other industries?
PH: As a veteran in the industry, I had hoped I would find an organization or group that would shepherd me into the industry respectively. I found that in Veterans in Film and Television. It’s a non-profit organization founded in 2012 by two vets who wanted a central meeting avenue for vets in the industry to network with other vets who have made their mark already. Luckily, I became a member during its second month in existence and ever since I’ve pretty much found ALL of my work and collaborators through this group. I am also proud to have been selected to be one of the 15 vets used for the VFT Promotional Ad that was featured in Variety magazine and for their website www.vftla.org.
There are veterans who posses the skill set it takes to really handle working in the industry and I’ve met some veterans who probably weren’t too motivated when they were active, so they become lazy and too opinionated to get with the program. Not all veterans are made for the industry. If you were a hard charging, A.J. Squared Away sailor like myself, you could really make a name for yourself amongst your peers and colleagues. If you are a veteran who didn’t like the most basic things about the military, then the industry isn’t for you either. The infrastructure is very similar and if you had a problem with authority in the service, then you’ll have a problem with my authority on set and that’s not good.
NYFA: Your thesis film, California Dreaming, deals with a young woman who runs away from home to pursue her dreams. As someone who made a leap towards realizing your dreams in film, is this a theme you continue to explore in your current work? What other themes do you find yourself returning to in your original work?
PH: California Dreaming was my first film ever and I had to add a personal touch to the story because an instructor made a comment once to, “write about what you know, then go from there,” so that theme came easily for me. Currently and moving forward, I produce mostly and the work I’m attracted to is very eclectic. I’m producing a pilot for a web series that explores the taboo lifestyle of “Sugar Babies” and my theme for that series is simply, “all that glitters ain’t gold.” When some people are so desperate to escape their current situation, they have the tendencies to make drastic and irresponsible decisions hoping to temporarily fix a permanent problem. I’m attracted to creative stories and concepts with out of the box substance.
NYFA: What advice would you give current members of the military who have ambitions to enter the film industry?
PH: My advice to current members of the military with ambitions for the film industry would be to take heed to all of your military training and revisit the basics. Learn to be resourceful as hell and don’t expect to make friends (just like in the service) but focus on making strong bonds with others just as motivated and driven as you. Reach out to other veterans and organizations and please be prepared to give as much as you would like to receive. It’s give and take. The days will be long, the people will be difficult and disasters will occur but remember, it’s better than being on deployment. The most important advice would be to have a lot of money in savings to survive while making your mark in the industry. I know you hear stories of people making it big after being homeless or living in their cars, but that’s not a healthy way to start. You want to have your ducks in a row and have a PLAN!
NYFA: How have you navigated such a competitive industry as film and what words of wisdom would you impart to recent graduates who are trying to realize their career goals in film?
PH: I’ve navigated this industry by staying focused, keeping my eyes on the prize, planning and using my resources and time wisely. Also, I’ve made some great relationships with people I met along the way. I leave a great impression when working on any production no matter how big or small. You’ll never know who on the crew is watching and could have the next big gig with your name on it. I’m always pleasant and no matter the mood I’m in, I’m professional at all times.
NYFA: What upcoming projects do you have that you are particularly excited about?
PH: I’m excited about a few upcoming projects and one to note is a pilot for a dramedy series called, “Sugar” (sugartheseries.tumblr.com). It’s been a year of developing and production and it’s now in post-production. I have high hopes for this project because an instructor informed me to pitch it to Networks such as Showtime and HBO. I plan to pitch to Netflix and Hulu as well, but it’s a long and hard process getting everything in line the way I want. Nonetheless, I’m excited.
I recently attended the GI Film Festival in D.C. for a film that I directed for the 48 Film Contest. It was my first festival selection and it was a great feeling seeing my name in the line up of filmmakers. It was an accomplishment of mine that felt satisfying. It will also screen at the GI Film Festival in LA this year so, I’m excited to walk the red carpet in my own stomping grounds.
I’m also currently a freelance Associate Producer for an awesome production company called Imaginary Forces and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some talented producers, directors, designers, animators and more on projects I used to dream of being a part of. The first project I was attached to was the 2014 MTV Movie Awards. Since working at IF, I’ve helped produce for Discovery ID (Swamp Murders), MPAA, Sapporo and Electronic Arts.
NYFA: Any parting words of advice you have for aspiring filmmakers?
PH: Rome wasn’t built in a day; so don’t expect your career to happen fast. The important thing is to keep moving forward and stay focused.
Over the past decade, The Tribeca Film Festival has become one of the most prestigious international film festivals for aspiring filmmakers. It’s an honor when we hear about our students’ thesis films being accepted into the festival. Given the importance of the festival, we had filmmaker and New York Film Academy Instructor Abraham Heisler speak with Sharon Badal, shorts programmer for the Tribeca Film Festival. Sharon provides insightful advice for students submitting their shorts to TFF. This Q&A is a must read if you’re considering submitting to Tribeca or any film festival for that matter.
Abraham Heisler: Thanks for joining us. Would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about your background?
Sharon Badal: Sure. My name is Sharon Badal. I am the head of shorts programming for the Tribeca Film Festival. I have been with the festival since its inception and my job is to program all the shorts for the festival. I am also the director of short film programming and initiatives for Tribeca Enterprises. I am a film school graduate myself, from NYU, and worked in the studio system for 10 years. I did freelance production and actually started with Tribeca in 1999, several years before the festival began. I’ve also produced different projects for various Tribeca entities, but once the festival started, that became my main area of focus.
AH: Obviously, Tribeca is one of the premiere film festivals, but can you tell us what makes it a unique festival?
SB: I like to think that Tribeca epitomizes the phrase, “There’s something for everyone!” because in addition to, obviously our very strong slate of features and shorts, we have our public events like the Family Festival and the drive-in. We have a very diverse Tribeca Panel Series series, which covers many different topics about the film industry and entertainment industry in general. And so I think that what makes Tribeca unique is that it is just like New York. There are a lot of different things for a lot of different people. And we are part of the fabric of the city by reflecting that in what is admittedly a very large festival with a lot of different activities.
AH: Tell us about the submission process. How many submissions do you receive and how many slots do you have to fill?
SB: We receive approximately 2,900 shorts each year and it’s not so much about the slots, but it’s about the programs. We have eight programs. We have five narrative programs, two documentary programs, and one experimental program. So, the amount of films we accept can range anywhere from 55 to 70 depending on the length of the films we select.
AH: What determines the theme of each program?
SB: Depending on the year, we decide what those programs are. Last year, we had very strong genre submissions, so we created a specific genre program. The year before that, we had very strong animation submissions, so we created an animation program. The themes of the programs are dictated by the submissions and what we select, and that is the magic.
Once you get to that point where you have that group of films that you love the most then you put them together and curate how they are going to play and what the ride is for the audience from the beginning of a program to the end of the program. And the very last thing that happens is that you look at each group of films that you now have put into a program and create a thematic element. “What do they all have in common? How do we tie a loosely creative ribbon around them?”
So, there’s no specific thematic that we go into from the get-go. The exception to that, of course, is because we are a New York Festival, we love to have a New York shorts program every year, and whether we have that program is dependent on if the shorts we love the most fit into that category.
AH: Who views the submissions?
SB: I have a co-programmer whose name is Ben Thompson. He’s been with me for years. And I have a dedicated group of screeners who are all industry professionals and do this on the side because they love the short film format as well. One of us watches every single submission and then Ben and I sit together watching all of our top choices. And then we make the final selections.!
AH: And what do you look for in a short film?!
SB: Good story! That’s really what it is. I mean, I can go on and on, but in the end the film lives or dies by the story and if it’s strong enough.!
AH: That’s the first thing we tell students at the New York Film Academy.
SB: Absolutely! Keep telling them.!
AH: Students are always concerned with production value. How much does that weigh in on your film selections?
SB: Well, I have to emphasize that sound is very important. You know, with the newer technology, the visual image has gotten much, much better. But, I do think that the sound, the quality of the sound from the beginning and the final sound mix are very important. If we can’t hear it we can’t show it.
AH: Out of your 2,900 submissions, how many appear to be homemade or amateurish?
SB: You know it’s an interesting question, Abe, because I can’t tell anymore. If you asked me this question five years ago, I could’ve told you I can see immediately when a film was shot on a home video camera. But the technology makes that no longer visible. I would say the place where that is most noticeable is in the quality of the acting. That is where you know if it’s an “amateur production.” That’s usually where the weakness is, in the acting and not the physical production itself. We wouldn’t prejudice a film if the production quality is less than 100% but the story and the acting holds up. If you showed me blind three films, I would not be able to tell you which ones are trained filmmakers and which ones are untrained.
AH: Would you say the winning combination is story + acting + good sound?
SB: I would say the winning combination is … first of all: SHORT! We are an academy qualifying festival and we go by the running time of the academy, which is under 40 minutes. But, the longer your short is, the better that script has to be. And I would say it is rare that I see a 28-minute student film that shouldn’t have been 15 minutes. That’s where technology has hurt us because in the “old days,” time was money. Every frame of film meant a cost. It meant a cost in film stock, a cost in development; it meant a cost in the editing room. Now I think that because the technology is so inexpensive and those costs don’t apply, that filmmakers are not containing themselves enough.
If I see a shot of someone walking, I don’t need to see them go down the entire street slowly. And that’s where I find the weakness. So, by short I do mean the most expedient storytelling possible. I’m not saying that every short has to be under 12 minutes, don’t misunderstand me. But, I’m saying that the story has to be told in a very concise [way] and [with] sustained action. It’s not a feature. You can’t use the time the way you would to develop a feature.
So, the winning combination is short + story + acting.
AH: What “do’s” would you recommend to filmmakers?
SB: Do get your audience into the film quickly. No feature main credit sequence. Do make sure that your ending is satisfying. I would say that’s one of the biggest problems — that you could be with the short all the way and it’s pretty obvious that the filmmaker didn’t quite know how to end it. And that’s very disappointing. The ending has to be satisfying. Do spend as much time in the script stage as possible getting that story into its best shape.
AH: How can a filmmaker benefit from having their film programmed at Tribeca?
SB: Our mission, basically in terms of the film side, is to discover and nurture filmmakers and bring their work in front of an audience. So, one of the things that we do, especially with the shorts programs, is screen at least three times each. And we also have a very strong filmmaker component to the festival, which are private events — networking, socializing, educational — that are available only to those filmmakers whose films have been invited. And that is part of our nurturing part of the formula where we want them to meet each other and have opportunities where they are exposed to the press, exposed to the industry. We feel that, and especially for the short films this is quite often the case, that when we invite you we are helping you to launch your career.
And our press team works very hard and does an extraordinary job of making sure that the press outlets are aware of the shorts, are aware of the filmmakers. They build stories that come out of the festival and that are interesting to the public. So, I think that’s where we’re different. We really have this very strong desire to make that festival experience a career changer. !
We’ve had shorts filmmakers return to Tribeca with features. We’ve had shorts filmmakers win Academy Awards. We’ve watched our shorts filmmakers go on to do many other things and when a filmmaker is at Tribeca they are forever part of our family. We do want to see what they do next and we are their cheerleaders from that point on.
AH: What would you say to filmmakers whose films do not get accepted?
SB: You know it’s simply a matter of the math. Really, when you think about it, let’s say we program 60 shorts out of 2,900 submissions. That’s about 2%. And I would have to say, don’t take it personally. My hope is that for every filmmaker whose film we decline, to use a music analogy that they are not thinking of themselves as a one-hit wonder, but they want to be Bruce Springsteen and be around for a long time and therefore their reputation is important. So when we decline, it’s nothing personal and it’s even nothing personal about the film. It might not have anything to do with the film. I might be able to slot 60 films and you were 61 and I loved your film and I just don’t have room for it.
So part of it is not taking it personally. I mean, rejection is part of this entire entertainment industry and it’s something that you need to accept with grace and dignity because hopefully you’re going to come back with something else.
AH: Anything else you’d like to add?!
SB: I am now in my 20th year teaching at NYU undergrad film and TV. So I have to say that from a purely personal perspective, I hope that filmmakers still and always will consider themselves artists. That you don’t make a film because you think Tribeca might like it. But, you make the film that you want to make always and that it is creative first. That I think is really important.
Q: What is the first lesson to learn in becoming a successful filmmaker?
JW: Honestly, when you are starting out and are fulfilling an entry-level position, one of the most important things is “being on time!” In this industry, your reputation is all you have, so you better make sure you’re making a good impression on people the first time around — you may not get that second chance. You also want to pay attention. It seems so simple yet so few nascent filmmakers pay attention on set when they are not in a decision making role. If you pay attention, take notes and ask questions, you will learn the most and make a lasting impression. As your career progresses and you take on roles with more responsibility, you need to learn to trust the crew around you. Understand that your role is mainly to channel other people’s talents as opposed to imposing your vision on everyone.
Q: What do you wish you knew when you started your education in your field?
JW: I entered the industry with a high level of naiveté. For me, one hard learned lesson was that no one is ever going to give you anything. In order to make it, you have to actively (very actively) carve out your own opportunities AND when you think you have “made it” and can be a little more lax in your pursuit of the next project, you are in trouble, because you can never think, “I’ve made it.”
Q: How do I get the most out of my program at NYFA?
JW: By putting the most into the program, which is true of filmmaking or any life experience really. You must give everything you have with complete dedication. By working on as many projects with your classmates as time permits (maybe even with students from other departments). By spending extra time with your professors, asking questions and challenging them. By being open to constructive criticism and letting down your defenses. By networking with the students around you, these people will be your future collaborators once you leave school.
Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your professional career?
JW: Everyone who enters the film industry considers him or herself a creative person, and as a director or cinematographer you have to be open to their ideas, because people will become more invested in a project if they feel that even the tiniest part of the film would not have existed were it not for them. That is what you want, a crew that truly cares about the material and are not there just to garner a paycheck.
Q: Which pieces of equipment do you find most effective in your field?
JW: This may sound a tad lame but what everyone on set needs is a comfortable pair of shoes. It’s a long day, you are going to be on your feet for the majority of it. Beyond my go-to boots, I love my director’s viewfinder app on my iPhone. It allows me to quickly audition different focal lengths and communicate with my DP. Actually, there are some really great apps that I have found useful when on set.
Q: What are the essential first steps to breaking into this field after completing a program at NYFA?
JW: I would say to get as much experience and exposure as possible. Do not be afraid to take any job and never go onto a set thinking any role is beneath you, just because you went to film school. Everyone in this industry started somewhere, and for most of us, that was working for little to no pay as a Production Assistant. When you do get that first PA job, be an active participant on set, pay attention, take notes and make sure you introduce yourself to the key people. Make sure they know you are there. Maybe the most important piece of advice is never stop working on your own projects, whether that is writing, shooting, directing or editing, you still have to keep working. Keep yourself relevant and constantly add to your body of work. When someone does take notice of you and asks what you are working on, you want to have a whole slate of interesting projects.
Q: Who do you consider to be the most influential artists in your field?
JW: There are so many influential artists in my life, but if I had to choose one, it would be Roger Deakins. His work has been, and continues to be, an inspiration to me. From his multiple collaborations with the Coen brothers to his advising work on Wall-E, he consistently produces memorable imagery and beautiful frames without ever having the cinematography get in the way of the narrative. He’s also a very kind and giving teacher to those with whom he works and the online community at large. A very close second would have to be Chris Doyle, specifically his work with Wong Kar Wai — simply amazing. From a directing standpoint, I would have to say Martin Scorsese. He has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers, not just in NYC, but also across the globe. I almost fainted the first time I walked on set and heard him giving direction.