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What I Learned Teaching Film School

Variety critic shares lessons gleaned from the front of a graduate film studies classroom

When Dodge College dean Bob Bassett initially approached me a year ago about teaching a film studies course at Chapman, he charmed me with the idea of how much the students could learn from a film critic who sees several hundred new releases a year. The truth is, no one learned more from my first two semesters of teaching than I did.

It’s been just over a dozen years since I graduated film school from the U. of Texas at Austin, a program where world-class professors shared their passion for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean Renoir — for the canon of accepted masters, in other words.

But Bassett came to me with a different pitch. An outside-the-box thinker at the helm of a relatively young (and well-funded) film school, Bassett was determined to innovate — as opposed to imitate — what other film production programs were doing. A few years earlier, he’d poached a sizable chunk of the American Film Institute’s faculty, but he wasn’t interested in re-creating their conservatory model. He raised the funds to build a $52 million, state-of-the-art production facility for his students (reportedly the model for USC’s new George Lucas-funded complex) and preached a practical, hands-on approach.

As Bassett explained, the goal of my graduate Evolution of Narrative Film class wasn’t to rehash film history, but to identify the trends bubbling up in festivals and megaplexes. Rather than teaching “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane,” I might show “Borat” and “The Bourne Identity,” addressing everything from non-linear storytelling to mock-doc techniques and the recent found-footage craze.

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Now, here’s where I suspect I got more out of the class than my students. For years, I had been watching movies strictly as a critic, but this assignment gave me a second set of eyes. Instead of viewing in a vacuum, I found myself considering how all those movies connect to one another, asking what each one borrows and how it innovates. In deciding which pics to screen, I was astonished at how many of my favorites (including those “Bourne” sequels) didn’t hold up, while others (like “Borat”) were even more revolutionary than I’d given them credit for.

We began the semester by discussing Dogma 95, a liberating back-to-basics movement led by Lars von Trier and his Danish cohorts that transformed cinema by rejecting artifice, big-budget technique and stale genre conventions. Although the movement arose as a self-serving strategy, suggested by a group of foreign helmers who couldn’t afford to compete at the Hollywood level, their aesthetic ultimately paved the way for the recent DIY revolution.

My primary message to the class was that constraints encourage creativity — an idea reiterated by everything from von Trier’s “The Five Obstructions” (which supported a crazy group project, in which students drew five “obstructions” from a hat and worked together to pitch an imaginary film that fit those arbitrary limitations) to a Hollywood film like “Panic Room,” a physically demanding thriller confined to a single location and starring a pregnant actress who’d been recast at the last minute.

Each week, I would set the context with a few clips, then screen a film the class hadn’t seen (such as Michael Haneke’s “Amour” or the staggeringly ambitious sci-fi epic “Mr. Nobody,” which has finally been acquired for U.S. release by Magnolia), ending with a group discussion in which the students could share their reactions.

During these conversations, I noticed a key difference between these aspiring filmmakers and the professionals I interview on regular basis at Variety: Ask working directors their opinion of someone else’s film, and they invariably focus on the creative choices, pointing out how they might have done things differently. But in class, the students responded like film buffs, focusing on whether they were bored or entertained, getting hung up on plot holes and technical mistakes.

And therein lies my biggest eye-opener about film school: It attracts people who love movies, which isn’t necessarily the same as those with the aptitude to make them. The students in my class showed enormous technical potential, but were still early in their journey to becoming storytellers. Suddenly, I realized my task was getting them to think as directors, so I revised their big project, challenging them to make their own manifesto — to declare a personal Dogma 95.

In my day job as a critic, judging others’ creative decisions comes with the territory. When it comes to teaching, however, one shouldn’t impose an aesthetic. Instead, the key is to present options and help the students unlock the artistic principles that matter most to them.

Meanwhile, on the students’ side, it’s not enough to say, “I want to become a movie director.” As Roger Ebert told such dreamers, “That’s your first mistake — to word it that way. Say, ‘I am a movie director.’ Give yourself the title. No one else will. Then go off and make your movie.”

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