#74 Film SchoolPosted: December 7, 2013
I went to film school in New York at 55 with 18 year olds. I was the only student without acne and the only one with my own car.
In all the years I lived in New York (Manhattan) and went to every play that opened and saw every film that mattered, it never occurred to me to find some little window to get involved in theatre or film.
I was living in Pennsylvania after my travels to Russia when I wrote in both stage and screenplay forms. I just did it. At a Neil Simon festival in New York he was asked the question about how to write. His answer was, “Just do it.” I don’t think I followed his advice specifically but I did learn by doing it and pretty early on got a very good statewide arts grant. Those grants don’t exist anymore. My play received a wonderful production. It’s a play that still deserves greater attention, but that’s a subject for another day.
I had been completely immersed in learning to be a publisher for a few years. But when the field before me was empty I stopped running. I read about a compressed course in New York that gave the same hands on film experience as a four-year liberal arts program, but in less than two months. And the school was right in the heart of student film territory in Manhattan with instructors recruited from a pool of active filmmakers. I wanted to write scripts and I wanted to know what was possible. I was even light headed enough to think I might get involved with productions through the school.
I visited there and talked with a nice young man who gave me a tour. He was involved with opening schools for them all over the world. The location is right on Union Square, from which I took the subway each morning to work back in 1971. This was 31 years later.
I put my furniture in storage and packed my car with winter clothes, and a few objects I might use in my student film. There was a play I had always wanted to write, a little one-act. Picture a blank stage with only a telephone. Well maybe some apartment furniture. It’s a play with voice mail only. Or back then, the beep of a phone message machine. I wanted to tell a story through the messages a person might get over time; sort of like detectives going through the trash to put together a life.
A dear friend who lived in Riverdale, New York, a part of the Bronx, had an empty apartment over her house. She used it as her art studio, but she offered it to me for my stint in school. It’s only a 22-minute drive downtown.
I had a temporary phone installed and took a garage by the month near the school. I was in that upstairs apartment when the new phone rang. It was a young woman at the school wondering why I wasn’t there. She had one of those one-name names. I had the start date wrong by one day.
So one thing about compressing a few years of film classes into eight weeks means you can’t afford to miss one hour of it. And I missed the day they taught lenses. You just can’t believe how important that is. I never quite got “focus.” Really. You’d think focus has to do with eyes looking through the lens. It’s a science and an art that’s so complicated, directors and cinematographers talk endlessly about what lens to use. It’s based more on measurement than looking. Watch the closing credits of a film and look for the occasional mention of a person listed as “pull focus.”
I was 55 and the closest person in age to me was the manager of the school. The next was our general instructor and he was probably thirty something. Each day was long and divided into classes with various instructors. And part of each day was spent splitting into small groups with the equipment kits. This was still in the days of film. I was looking forward to actually learning to cut film, but those old machines were now sitting in the hallways. Editing was digital.
Most of our filming was outdoors in the coldest winter in New York in decades. Fortunately I had ordered a heavy parka and had plenty of hand warmers, enough to go around to the crew. I wore that parka constantly and grew to hate it. But it’s still in the closet in case that kind of winter hits again.
We had directing classes, film appreciation classes, lighting classes, and cinematography classes. My fellow students were all 18 to 20, and from all around the world. By my first day their alliances had already formed. But at lunch a young woman from Taiwan invited me to join her with a couple of others. Another was also from Taiwan but spoke no English so the first one who spoke perfect British English translated. The other young woman was from Turkey. I appreciated that they were willing to dine with me.
I was commuting each day. The others were all in temporary apartments in the neighborhood, some of them sharing with strangers. They partied every night to let off steam. I went home and collapsed every night to try to find steam. I was exhausted but I knew it had an ending. I can do anything physically when I know it has an end.
The one unpleasant class was screenwriting. The woman who taught it told me, and the entire class, that my script couldn’t be done. “You can’t make a film with no actors,” she said. She was an actress and fledging director so my project must have seemed rude. I had already written the dialogue, which was made of the many messages that the audience would hear. She and I did talk briefly about playwriting and she told me to bring in another stage play I had written for her to read. I did.
The days flew by in the bitter cold and the hollow marble halls of the repurposed building. We were getting to know everyone who worked there. I borrowed their digital recording equipment and recruited actors as voices for my film. The school had a catalogue of young actors willing to work in our films for free. I even had some friends record phone messages. Just about everyone working and studying there made the cast.
Some of the guys asked for my help with their scripts. They had no idea how to tell a story. They were mostly there to film bloody murders. Hitchcock meets zombies. When we broke into crews, I don’t think anyone particularly wanted me. Ours was sort of made of misfits, except for the young Taiwanese who had invited me for lunch. She had a real knack for the science of it all and had a feeling for people. Our crew was pretty much set and we each made three films. We’d direct our own, and do whatever job was needed on the others. Mostly out in the bitter cold, which is tough on the delicate equipment.
Over Christmas break, I stayed put. I did not go back to Pennsylvania, or upstate New York with friends. I found the Food Emporium in Riverdale, bought comfort food and lived on that, watching old movies. I recorded some piano riffs for my film on my friend’s grand piano downstairs. I tried to catch up on sleep during the break, but also had classmates visiting for writing lessons.
January was even colder. Most of the work was outside. A few years ago I had a sudden painful flair up of frostbite. I assumed it was caused by a lifetime of painful ski boots on my especially high arches and insteps. But maybe that winter was the start, in spite of the hand warmers that I put into my boots. Look up that winter in New York. It was a bitch. And so was the screenwriting instructor. She never did return my play, in spite of my many requests. That has legal implications but it was mostly rude.
Our first films were silent. Try telling a story without sound. A great experience. Another project was to incorporate music into a story. We were always shooting on the fly, fighting for locations with the NYU kids in the neighborhood. We learned about getting permits and getting around getting permits.
When it was time for our final films, I scouted over a dozen hotel suites to use as an apartment. My young friend and I decided to split the cost of a hotel since her story needed an apartment too. I was shooting in color so I got the help of a cinematographer who worked with the school. He was dashing to Florida for a project so I had to move fast. He shopped for rental equipment and gels with me. I rented a dolly for the main shot. We found a hotel suite downtown near Ground Zero. It’s a tough area to reach by subway so my van came in handy. There we were in a huge warehouse renting equipment where famous filmmakers get their equipment. Everyone there was kind, maybe because of this aging student. They loaded everything into the back of my van and we unloaded it at the back of the hotel. They sent along a green screen, which got sent up to the suite by mistake. We folded it into a big lump in the bathroom and shot around it. Time was ticking and I was going to lose my camera guy. No time to send it back.
A young guy in school who hadn’t been on this crew before joined ours and was I glad he did. Ironically he was from the same part of Pennsylvania. One miscalculation was the hotel carpet. The dolly sank into it. So he and his young back pushed that thing holding the cameraman over the carpet for the eight hours it took to get our opening shot. He told me he could build me a dolly when we got back to Pennsylvania. We were part of his crew too, but he seemed to have no real story and stopped using us as crew. And a homeless, or mostly homeless guy he had met came with him on our shoot. After the first eight hours I asked the young guy to have him leave. I felt terrible but the clock was ticking and space was limited.
The hotel chef helped with food. I asked him to put bananas in the freezer. He thought I was crazy but it made them brown to show the passage of time. I bent flowers over and one shot has a petal falling with perfect timing. They sent many dirty dishes and newspapers. All the papers were from the same day, so we opened them to different pages. I thought I was well prepared but after each shot my camera guy asked, “what’s next?” He saw my dazed look and guided me. We took an hour break. They all slept while I went over the remaining script. We got through the rest with some improvising and he made his plane for Florida. As soon as he left, the actors arrived for the other film. That all went pretty well in spite of our fatigue.
It was time to edit. The film is processed, transferred to digital for editing, back to film and to another format to project onto a screen. We had edited our other films, but this was a bigger project. It took 23 hours to shoot a ten-minute film. Getting time in the editing suite was a contest too. I stayed in a hotel near Gramercy Park. That place is unaffordable now, but back then it was still a bargain. I went back for a few hours of sleep. There was a flaw in one scene where the cameraman crawled onto the bed to get a shot. The bedspread moves and this is a film without people or ghosts. I didn’t have the skill to cover it. They actually brought in an editor for me to cover that spot without detection. You could get seasick from the opening. The camera on the jib takes a pretty fast swing. But I like my little film.
The dubbing department made copies and we were ready for graduation where our final films were going to be shown on a big screen. Most invited parents and families. My friend in Riverdale was my audience. I met a film instructor that day, a really nice man, and he showed up. But I never saw him again, unfortunately.
It was time to see what everyone else created. I worried about the young guy who had quit filming for his final film. But what they showed that night surprised everyone. He wove together stark black and white shots of the city from his other films with the homeless guy telling his story over it. It was brilliant.
Most of the films had murders, only a few had sound, some were silly, some funny some clever but everyone managed through all the pressure and little time to pull their visions together. Mine got a great reception and seeing it on a big screen is thrilling. Our primary instructor gave out certificates and made a fuss about my advanced age. Oh well. It was over. I had more than survived and this was something I always wanted to do.
When I returned to Pennsylvania, it was accepted in a film festival. In fact the review was wonderful. We had a marvelous movie critic here. Unfortunately she died before I ever got around to writing her about the encouraging review.
One of the best parts of the film school experience was the location of the hotel. Our cab drivers told us stories of how the hotel got people out on 9/11, a year earlier. Cabs took passengers uptown, then returned again and again. Some people were dragged out of a shower. There was no modesty that day, just survival. A year later I took a copy of my film to the woman who worked at the hotel and made our arrangements. Her home has been used in Woody Allen movies so she understood the process. She was no longer there and they had no contact information.
What I did not accomplish was getting contacts from the school to get work. That really wasn’t their thing. I just wanted to write and get involved in productions. To this day I have not accomplished that and have not yet written about it.
I also lost track of the young man who offered to build me a dolly. I wanted to encourage him. What he created showed striking insight and talent, and most of the time we barely noticed him. I hope he’s telling stories.