Gothams gaga over grads

NYU-trained helmers abound at this year's indie bash

The nominees up for the Gotham Awards’ breakthrough director category are an eclectic group whose works stretch from the ghettos of New Jersey to small towns in Colombia. Yet four of the five directors have one thing in common: they all got their master’s degrees at New York University (they graduated between 1993 and 2002). Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”), Nicole Kassell (“The Woodsman”), Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) and Lori Silverbush (co-director “On the Outs”) say their studies helped them become the independent filmmakers they are today.

The range of these nominated films points to the diversity of students at NYU, says Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (which includes the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film & Television). “Our job is to allow you to make the film that you want to make,” she says. “I love the idea that we are halfway between Hollywood and Paris. There’s no great pressure to make films that the industry wants, nor to make only small quirky independent films. It’s the passions that students bring to the table.”

Marston says he picked NYU over other top film schools because “it seemed the least directed towards the industry and the most directed towards independent vision.”

That’s geography as well as approach. Similar production skills may be taught at West Coast film schools, but Marston notes “there’s not a lot of time spent at NYU talking about getting an agent, doing a deal, how options work — for my taste that was a good thing.” Still, while Marston says he had a “formative” experience in film school, he notes that his current filmmaking inspirations come more from life experience than classroom time.

Silverbush, who got her MA in Cinema Studies from Tisch but didn’t attend the production program, felt nurtured in the open-minded atmosphere. “There was trust in our innate ability to find our story and find our material,” she says. “NYU fostered a sort of rebellious, go-for-it attitude, which was very freeing.”

But NYU’s not all touchy-feely; the school prides itself on an intensive hands-on approach. Unlike most other film schools, each student in the Graduate Film Program directs several shorts and assists on others. Kassell remembers, “I had to learn every aspect of filmmaking — grip, recording sound, cinematography — so it makes me feel extremely well trained.”

Granik was also drawn to NYU because of its “fierce production side, like a boot camp that would make you physically jump in the trenches with your classmates.”

There’s also something of a connection to these NYU grads’ student films and their Gothams-nominated projects. Granik’s “Down to the Bone” was based on a “life model” she met during a school exercise who later became the basis for her student short “Snake Feed.” She points to associate professor Boris Frumin as a major influence on her work today. In a controversial move at the time, Frumin had added a docu short to NYU’s narrative-heavy curriculum.

“It greatly helps with the quality of the narratives being made — instead of trying to think of fabulous Hollywood love stories and chases and crime, he was asking us to explore what we see in daily life,” Granik says.

Kassell also sees connections to her NYU work in her filmmaking now. “Both of my student shorts were very quiet, understated, with very little dialogue, and that sensibility is still in ‘The Woodsman.'”