Film School (USC)

The headline makes it sound like I’m about to talk about why you should (or shouldn’t) go to film school. I have no fucking idea. That’s the answer. My journey to and through film school was something that came as a blessing and curse for me. The specifics and reasons, I’ll go into later. But suffice it to say, it was a journey I was meant to go on and wouldn’t take any of it back. What this is really about is my own personal journey through film school.

I was a college dropout for many years. I had gone to USC studying theatre back when I was eighteen and dropped out after about a year and a half. At the time, I felt like school was just getting in the way of me doing what I really wanted to do - study theatre. Sigh. Anyway, when I finally went back to finish my bachelor’s degree to study theatre many years later, it really became about finishing something that I started.

When I got into USC film school for their grad program, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go. I honestly just wanted to see if I could get in. I didn’t think past it that much further. So when I actually got in, I was suddenly pressured to really figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Or at least what I wanted to do with my life for the next few years. I remember thinking I could just continue doing what I was doing work-wise as an actor/producer and just do this grad school thing on the side. Didn’t quite work out that way.

It was sink or swim during the first semester of film school. More intense than anything I’d been through. There were projects upon projects and deadlines and exams and on and on. I realized pretty quickly that if I was going to do this, then I had to commit. This meant taking a sharp turn away from my career in order to basically learn and reevaluate said career. At the time, I just jumped in without really thinking clearly about what I was doing or what I wanted my path to be in grad school or any other questions that I probably should have considered. Instead, I went through grad school like a tornado and eventually burned out after my second year. I’ll get to that.

The first year of USC film school is probably similar to most other film schools. Very intense. You make a bunch of shorts with a bunch of strangers. You learn about story and production. For me, I learned a lot technically about filmmaking that I didn’t know before. That was probably the biggest thing I got from film school in general. For other people where the technical aspect of filmmaking comes naturally, they might find themselves learning more about development and storytelling. It was all about visual expression for me.

During the second semester of my first year, you make three shorts. I produced/edited one, shot one, and wrote/directed one. You get split up into groups of three and alternate through all three positions. The one I stumbled with the most was the one where I was the cinematographer. It was like learning a new language for me and I was working with equipment that I’d never even heard of - like this thing called a camera. It was the position I struggled the most with, but was also the one I probably learned the most from. My friend, Sean Addo, was the director on that short and was very patient with me and I actually learned a lot from him. He’s an incredibly talented cinematographer and director. The one I produced with my friend Heidi Hathaway as the director was probably the easiest because of my producing background. I can do producing with my eyes closed even though I hate it. The one I directed was an interesting (in a good way) experience and one that I will elaborate on in next week’s post.

By the time I finished my first year, I was kind of on a creative high. And rather than giving myself the rest that I probably needed at the time, I kept going. So off to summer classes I went. I didn’t stop. I studied year round two years straight. This right after finishing my undergrad studies. I’m not sure what I was thinking but at the time it seemed to make sense.

During my second year, I produced a short (Ostrichland) with a bigger production and budget and it was really stressful. When I got on this crew as producer, I declared my emphasis (in school) to be in producing even though I was more interested in directing because it seemed like the faster way to get through the program at this point. There were three short films that were being made and I was on one of them as one of two producers. Each short had two producers. There were some filmmakers whose experience was an absolute nightmare making their short. A NIGHTMARE. I was one of the lucky ones. I worked with a great producer, Peter Siesennop, and we just gelled really well together. He was so easy to work with. And our director, David McCracken - man - this guy is SO DAMN TALENTED. And somehow, throughout even being sick for most of production, he was able to pull through and lead our team through what turned out to be a really great short film. It was one of the best experiences I’d ever had. We shot in the desert. Even though it was hot as hell, I had a great time.

So what happened? I’d just had this great experience with a great group of people. Sure it was stressful, really stressful, but ultimately I had a blast making that short film. Something was off with me. But instead of taking a break which I clearly needed, I kept going. I went to summer classes and took an internship with Scott Free in their development department. By this point, I was hell bent on finishing school early for absolutely no reason at all. It was like an obsession. I had another semester left after the summer, but by the time the summer ended, so had my energy.

I had started my final semester and was suddenly struck with severe depression. Most days I couldn’t get out of bed. The worst part was that there wasn’t any specific situational thing that was going on in my life. In that way, I guess it was a good thing because I was able to quickly determine that I was dealing with some sort of clinical thing as opposed to something external. I’ve dealt with depression throughout my life off and on. But this was something new. It was a bigger struggle than before and I was conflicted with school because I knew I was so close to finishing. But I also knew my mental health had to take precedence. Ultimately I decided to withdraw from school and take care of myself. I have to thank my Dad for that one. He convinced me that school isn’t everything. And that my health was more important than trying to prove something to myself. Thanks, Dad.

The short version is that I got some really great help and got well (eventually). Things turned around and soon I was back to trying to decide if I wanted to go back to grad school and once again finish what I’d started. Two years had passed and I felt like I was a different person. First of all, I was now married. Yay marriage equality! And I’d also had time to think about what I really wanted out of grad school finally. And what it came down to was - screw producing. I wanted and needed to learn as much as possible as a writer/director. So when I finally went back to school to finish, I took everything I had learned and was learning and immediately applied it to Devil’s Path which I was already developing by then.

I didn’t walk across the stage to get my degree when I finished. Instead, I opted to have them mail me my degree and be done with it. I guess I was a little embarrassed that I’d left grad school in the first place, which I realize now is just silly. But I finished and that’s what mattered most to me anyway. Now, of course, I wish I would have walked across the stage. But that’s probably my ego talking.

When it comes to deciding whether or not to go to film school, or grad school, or any school, I think it’s really important to give yourself the time and space to figure out if this is what you really want. And more importantly, to figure out what it is that you want out of your experience. I wish I would have thought about that more specifically at the time. I was so wrapped up in thinking that I should go just because it was USC film school to be honest. I mean, I’m glad I got in and even glad that I went. I would do it all over again. I just wish I would have gone into it with a different head space and intention. But hindsight is always 20/20 and I believe in looking forward.

I will say this about film school for me and my experience. I probably learned more about myself than anything else. Of course I learned a lot about cinematography, story structure, visual expression, etc. But what I learned about myself and the kind of filmmaker that I want to be was far more valuable than anything else. This made the entire journey, ups and downs, meant to be for me.


Matthew MontgomeryComment