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.