What I Learned In The First Week Of Film School

On the first day, they handed us a notebook and a pen.  And we began taking notes instantly.  Mostly orientation materials, procedures, the how’s and the why’s to just about everything they are going to have us doing for the next 3-4 years.  But then we got into story.  Crafting characters.  Psychology of camera choices.  We hit the ground running quickly.  It felt a bit overwhelming at first, especially coming from straight from undergrad.  But here I go, about to begin the heavy lifting work of my first year in Columbia’s MFA film program.  I wanted to take a moment to share some small pieces of advice that I wrote in that notebook during the first week.  We hit the ground running fast, and were asked to submit to the ideals of the program; a filmmaking “boot camp” as it’s referred to.  Granted, none of these notes are mind-blowing or life-altering in any way. But it goes to show the amount of emphasis that is put into a strong story. I thought it may be helpful to share.  Who knows who will read this, but, since filmmaking is a collaborative medium, sharing is caring.

This is what I learned in my first week of film school:

  • Do not let your character off the hook.  Force them to make a choice.
  • Give the lead character control of the decision-making.
  • Consider the power of non-verbal exchange of power within a moment.
  • Know the world you are shooting in.
  • Prep early.
  • Shoot local.
  • A character’s action needs to be justified by what we know about the character.
  • Who they are happens before what they do.
  • Don’t argue with critique.  That’s why you’re here.
  • Raise the stakes.  Read my lips..”Bigger.”
  • Proportional stakes:  If yes, X = If no, Y. X should always be equal to Y in scope.
  • Know your meat and potatoes.
  • The greatest asset for a director is a low threshold for boredom.
  • “Raise the curtain late and lower it early.” ~Francis Ford Coppola.
  • Know your character’s thru-line.
  • Casting.
  • Raise the stakes of relationship dynamics.  Character A likes X.  Character B hates X.
  • You can have black and white, but you cannot have grey.
  • Fuck grey!
  • If you’re sitting down to fight, pour them wine before ripping their head off.
  • This moment will not happen again, so capture it!
  • Create tension by leading to a reveal, or reveal the problem immediately to create tension; commit to one.
  • If you’re unhappy w/ results of a story, vent on paper and then let it go.  Then roll up your sleeves and see what the film Gods offer you.
  • The dialogue is never the primary channel for tension.
  • A film should be able to be watched silent without losing the conflict.
  • Do not cut corners on set.  You will hate yourself later.
  • The “yes/no” story is not enough.  There always needs to be a third force.
  • Your story is not what you have in your head; it’s what the audience sees.
  • There are beats that build up to panic.
  • Be consistent and deliberate with camera choices.
  • You never want to confuse the audience.  Misdirection is completely different.
  • If you are going to do a high concept/fantasy project, have characters deeply founded in reality.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • If you must be ambiguous, have a concrete answer w/ deliberate clues to justify that answer; at least in your own head.
  • The most important moments are silent.


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