Skip film school. Make movies instead.

You want to be a filmmaker and you’re thinking about going to film school.  If I may offer bit of advice.  Don’t.

No, really.  Don’t even consider it.

Not for a second.

Look, the most important thing about making a film is your ability to tell a story.  And no school can really teach you that.  You either know how to tell a story or you don’t.  I truly believe that.  Great story-tellers are born, they are not mass-produced in school.

Sure, any good film school might be able to give you the tools, teach you about structure, etc., and so forth.  But a used copy of a Syd Field book, or “Save the Cat,” can do the same thing.  (Read it, see how it applies to films you love, and it’ll be as clear as daylight.)

Write dialog that sounds real.  Words that people would actually speak.  Listen to everyone around you.  Ride a bus or a subway, sit in coffee shops.  Listen to conversations while pretending to read a book.  You will quickly learn how people actually speak.  Use that knowledge.  Have a friend read your dialog out loud.  If they’re stumbling over words, change those words.  Be in love with the story you’re trying to tell, not the words on the page.

I recently read a number of interviews with film festival programmers and each one stated emphatically that story was more important than technique.  No one is going to care about seeing a magnificently shot film with a crap story.  But a great story that looks only mediocre will get people into the seats.  Have both and you might start developing an audience for your work.

So you have a story in mind, but how do you refine it?  How do you turn it into a film?  You start by watching the masters.

The Criterion edition of Godard’s “Breathless” with its hours of extras will teach you more than any pompous professor blowing smoke out his ass while trying to tell you why the film is so important.  Watch “Breathless,” watch all the extras, then watch it again, then again a few months later, while you work through a few of Godard’s other films like “Contempt” and “Vivre Sa Vie.”

Move onto Hitchcock, Chaplin, Fellini, and don’t skip Bresson.  Ask yourself what sort of film do you want to make?  (If it’s a documentary, begin with the entire Errol Morris canon, move onto Pennebaker, Maysles, and yes, Bresson again.  Skip Michael Moore.  We do not need another Michael Moore, which is something we can all wish Morgan Spurlock would learn.)

Now look, if you want to make big action films.  If McG is in your eyes our finest auteur, then stop reading this now.  Go to film school.  You’re an idiot.

But if you want to make great independent cinema, watch the films which brought that desire to life.  For me it was Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” which broke rules I didn’t even know existed.  Then when I returned to filmmaking in the early 2000’s, after a decade of writing books and scripts, it was Miller’s “Personal Velocity,” parts of which were so beautifully shot on no budget and with a Panasonic VDX100.

What is the film that made you want to be a filmmaker?  NEED to be a filmmaker?  If filmmaking is something you just think might be a cool career choice, but it’s not an urgent need.  Your life doesn’t depend on it.  Give up the dream now.  Become a brain surgeon. It’s easier and the pay is a lot better.  For me, I know how to tell stories.  Nothing else.  I would be lost and dead without the outlet.

But for those still reading, I’m serious, spending a year working through the entire Criterion collection is better than spending a year at film school.  And a lot cheaper.

Learn by watching, then put your own spin on it.  I loved what Errol Morris did with  “Fog Of War.”  One interviewee.  One point of view.  I so wanted to take that concept and turn it into a rock documentary.  But few rockers could sustain a film by themselves.  Most would have you putting the proverbial pistol to your head after twenty minutes.  Then the day of a “Color Me Obsessed” screening in Brussels, Belgium, I had breakfast with Grant Hart, co-founder of the legendary American punk band Hüsker Dü, and walked away from that meal knowing I had found my subject. “Every Everything:the music, life & times of Grant Hart” was born.

OK…so you have your concept, your script, your idea.  What next?

After all those DVD purchases, you have roughly $245,000 left from that $250,000 that you were about to piss away on a piece of paper that’s more-or-less worthless.


  1. Buy a good camera, one that you like and are comfortable with.  And no, I don’t mean blow your whole wad on a RED or something of that ilk.  Honestly I’d recommend a DSLR, either the Nikon D800 or the Canon 5D.  Both great cameras, that offer breathtaking quality.  Hold them, play with them, decide which rocks your world.  They will become like a lover, you will know their every nook and cranny, love or hate their every eccentricity, and revel at the way they see the world you put in front of them.  Now find some lenses you like.  I’m not a fan of zooms.  I prefer old manual primes, with a nice fast aperture, which you can usually find on ebay for under $500 a pop.  Get a 20mm, a 35mm, a 50mm, an 85mm and a 135mm.  (If you do prefer a zoom, make sure you get one with a fixed aperture, so if you want to shoot at f/2.8 when it’s wide, you still can when it’s zoomed in.)  Pick up a Zacuto Z-finder.  A few fast memory cards.  And get a good, but light tripod (Manfrotto is the place to start).  And for roughly $7K you’ve got a package that can shoot anything.  And yes, you can project it on a screen 60 feet wide, and the image will blow your mind.
  2. Sound.  Pick up a Zoom H4N, a great shotgun mic (make sure it’s compatible with your recorder), a boom pole, and a durable mic stand.  Complete: about $2K
  3. Lights.  Two Lowel Rifa’s (what you can do with these is amazing.) And one Arri 1K.  Four stands.  A Road Rags kits.  Extra bulbs.  Total: $2K to $3K.
  4. Throw in a few good cases (Porta Brace cases are amazing and will protect your gear even on flights), clamps, batteries, cables, extension cords, tape.  $2K
  5. Editing: Buy a souped-up Mac Pro.  Pick up a used copy of Final Cut Pro 7 (not Final Cut X…Final Cut X is a piece of amateur shit for which Apple should be ashamed), some 8TB G-Tech drives, at least two monitors.  Here we’re talking anywhere from $6K to $10K depending on the Mac you get.

But still, for $25K give or take, you’ve got yourself a freakin’ production company.  And that would have otherwise just covered housing for a year at NYU.

Now what? You ask.  Take that idea and shoot.  Make a film. That IS what you want to do right?  Don’t be one of those people who just talk about making films (y’know, like hipsters), actually make a fucking film.  Then make another.  And another.  Do at least one or two shorts first, before moving onto features.  You’ll learn much more from actually making a bunch of films than you ever will from sitting in a classroom.  You’ll learn from your own mistakes.  You’ll find your own ways to do things.  (Not your professor’s.)  You’ll learn how gear works, what it can and cannot do, better than you ever would from taking a school-owned camera out for a long weekend.  You’ll live and breathe your camera.  And you can work with the people you want to work with, not classmates, most of whom you can’t stand, and most of whom are there because they think filmmaking sounds like a cool thing to do.

But remember to keep your crews small.  Four or five people tops, and that includes you.  Anyone else is just wasting space and eating your food.  Get people who are not afraid to work.  Feed them well.  (I always go out of my way to treat my crews to great meals, and amazing coffee.)

Once the films are complete actually do something with them.  Submit them to film festivals everywhere.  But do your homework first (what did the fest show last year?).  Avoid first-year festivals, they are usually cluster-fucks (it does you no good if your film screens hours late, and in the wrong ratio).   Find good fest fits for your specific films.  WithoutABox is the place for that.  And DO NOT limit yourself to your home area.  If you just want to make films to show to your friends and locals, you’re not a filmmaker.  You make home movies.  Reconsider brain surgery.

6 thoughts on “Skip film school. Make movies instead.

  1. film school, unfortunately, WILL NOT teach you how to make an action movie. i fell into the trap of thinking that, and recently graduated from temple with a bfa in film. not what i was expecting.

    it was all about artsy “personal” movies, and the lazier folks could get away with holding their digital cameras upside down, filming traffic in slowmotion with a black and white tint and call it art, and still get an A.

    i DID want to learn to make huge action movies, but it turns out i learned how to do that before i went to film school by reading books like save the cat and filming TONS of stuff on my own. i must have made 40 short movies before film school.

    the last action flick i directed, “sins of the dragon,” made it into a few film festivals, and it wasn’t because of what i learned in film school. in fact, they refused to let me make the film for my senior project because it was too violent.

      1. It’s a bummer that it turns out like that. I bet most kids I graduated with will never make anything again

  2. I feel like this could apply to a lot of jobs. You go to school and learn a bunch of random stuff, but where you really learn how to do your work is from internships and jobs.

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