Sunday, January 15, 2012

Film School Confidential, Part 1: A Confession

This blog is basically one big fraud. The day I put up my first post, I had that freak-out that all bloggers have: “Why should anyone listen to me? What authority do I have to talk about anything?” And so I gave in to my moment of weakness and put a bio in the sidebar that assured my readers that I have an MFA in Screenwriting from a hoity-toity university. And I never took it down. It’s still there today.

And so, on more than one occasion, fans of the blog have said to me, “I feel like reading your blog gives me all the benefits of a Columbia education!”

[record scratch sound] Um, no.

Of the 102 rules I’ve covered on this blog, I can think of maybe two that I was taught at Columbia. Almost every other rule is the exact opposite of what they teach there. In fact, anyone trying to teach these rules there would be fired.

It’s time to admit the real reason I started this blog: because I suddenly realized that almost everything I learned at film school was dead wrong, which is why far too many of my fellow graduates have careers that are dead dead. This blog is my attempt to unlearn almost everything they taught us, and forcibly re-educate myself from scratch by re-examining the movies that made me want to make movies.

My school was run like a summer camp, rather than a professional program. We were encouraged to dabble in everything and specialize in nothing, to follow our muse wherever it led us, content in the knowledge that we were in a “safe space”, free from serious criticism. The following concepts were verboten in most of my classes:

  • Compelling Characters
  • Universal Structure
  • Emotion
  • Sympathy
  • Selling a Screenplay
  • And the most verboten concept of all: Pleasing an Audience

Instead, we were supposed to talk about:

  • Executing Our Own Perfect Vision
  • Big Ideas
  • Self-Awareness
  • Post-Modernism
  • Awkwardness
  • Ennui

Yeah, sure, okay, you say. Art school is arty. That’s no surprise. But at least it helps your career, right? We’ll pick up there tomorrow…


j.s. said...

It's not any different at the supposedly best MFA film programs on the West Coast either. Or in my undergrad writing classes at a perennially top rated liberal arts college. Schools, by and large, don't teach you anything about story. At best they can maybe connect you with a few good ones and get out of the way. Of course, I always marveled at the number of my classmates who didn't seem all that interested in learning from the greats in their own medium. Anyway, yeah, thanks for starting this blog again and teaching us all stuff we ought to have been learning in school.

Matt Bird said...

Actual quote from a student at my school: "The only old movies that interest me are early Madonna videos."

Greg Hatcher said...

I knew film school was bad. As I'm sure you suspected, so are most collegiate Art and Creative Writing programs. I have former students of mine crashing headlong into this right now and I'm getting frustrated emails from them like, "They don't even CARE if you get your work out to an audience," and "This kind of thing would have gotten us laughed out of your classroom back then." I like to think their time with me has maybe immunized them a little bit.

Matt Bird said...

I will have praise for one good program later in the week, though, and on the same day I'll have some thoughts on what you're pointing out: the lack of standards in most programs.

mima said...

Hi Matt,
*sigh* I really love your blog. I wish I had endless time to read all your posts. Alas, I am a writer as well, and have to keep my time online to a minimum to, you know, actually get anything written. Still, thanks so much for sharing these tales, etc. about your writing life. You make me laugh. Not just because you're funny, but because I feel your words to the depths of my writerly soul.
Okay, back to it. Oh, one more thing. There are MFA progs for writers out there that teach the goods. I attended one (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) and learned a TON about character, story, plot--the works. I have an agent now (yes, someone not paid to like my stuff:) AND I've had a couple of short stories published. There are even three editors out there who have requested my novel. I'm sad you had such a crap experience at Columbia, but, well, sounds like you are on a productive track now.
Good luck with your writing!