January 31, 2005

Reality Comes to NYU: An Alumnus Looks at IFC's New Documentary Series

New York University film student Alrick Brown (center), directs his short film about the shooting of Amadou Diallo called 'The Adventures of Supernigger: Episode 1, The Final Chapter.' From 'Film School' a documentary series that aired on IFC in September and October. Photo: Joshua Farley

Film School is a new documentary series that recently aired on the Independent Film Channel (IFC). This 10-part, five-hour series, created and executive produced by Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture; On the Ropes) and produced by Jordan Roberts, documents the efforts of four New York University graduate film students to make their second- and third-year films. The film credits Tamas Bojtor, Rebecca Cammisa, Sybil Dessau and Gregory Orselli as directors and cinematographers and Thomas Haneke, Mary Manhardt and Charles Marquardt as editors.

Both Burstein and Roberts are graduates of NYU. Burstein went to both the undergraduate and graduate programs, making her award-winning documentary On the Ropes as part of her graduate work, while Roberts attended the undergraduate program, where he met Burstein. Both filmmakers feel positive about their NYU experience and wanted to make a work that was not critical of the school.

 "IFC was wonderful to work with," says Roberts. "They trusted our vision and talent. They let us do the series we wanted." To select the students the filmmakers interviewed those who were interested in participating, read their scripts and looked at their work. 

Film School, created from over 1,200 hours of video shot over the course of a year, is a textbook study of what to do right in a reality series. The result is a tightly wound narrative about which one of the subjects, Vincenzo Tripodo, maintains, "I feel I was well treated by Film School. The relations with the filmmakers were always good; they did a great job. The nature of the show is somewhere between a reality series and a documentary. The entertainment quality clearly required some drama, some blood. So they had to sacrifice something: timeline, for example. Moving events around. Making choices. Trying to fit an entire year in 30 minutes for ten episodes. It's not easy. It's a very delicate balance."

It's evident that the filmmakers treat their subjects both ethically and fairly, without any of the cheap shots or false dramatics typical of many television/cable docs and reality shows. The filmmakers allow a complex and compelling narrative to develop about the students' struggles to script, cast, staff, shoot and deliver their films for screening at the NYU student film festival. The need for funds to finance the student films, along with the end-of-term screening deadline, propel the narrative arcs both within each episode and as a series. 

"The four directors got in with their subjects," Roberts explains. "The footage was then logged and screened by the two story editors, who would read production notes and watch footage and write out a storyline for the editors. The editors were cutting as they were shooting, and the story editors got the material three weeks before the editors started work on it. This is a model that's used in many documentary series, and it differs from shows where the directors screen material as it's being shot and direct the editors in the editing process, and story editors are not used."

For many of the episodes, the filmmakers shot interviews with such NYU film school graduates as Amy Heckerling, Spike Lee, Todd Phillips, Susan Seidelman, Brett Ratner, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Bruce Sinofsky. These interviews, used sparingly, provide an incisive counterpoint to the action in the episodes. In addition, a number of NYU faculty are seen in interviews and in interactions with the students. The dictates of the 30-minute format, however, limit these interactions..

Despite the complex narrative each show stands on its own. The four key characters are quickly cut to three as one of the filmmakers, a student in her third and final year, is unable to handle the assignment or the pressures of her life and drops out of school. The remaining students struggle with the process of making their films. Their poor planning, lack of financial resources, weak scripts, poor choices of crew and other mistakes made either by ignorance or incomplete instruction (they are second-year students) make their efforts heroic. They face impossible tasks and somehow get through without any accidents or injuries. Film School provides a series of rich case studies in short film producing.

As both an NYU film school alumnus and a film school teacher, I find the students in their well-equipped facilities interesting and engaging, but I am always wondering why they are so ill-prepared in a training or educational sense to make their films.

Oddly, the students seem clueless about Scorsese's career or his early student films, such as It's Not Just You, Murray (1964), a very traditional work. Film school myths, like urban legends, are evident from assumptions the students make about what "the industry" is looking for. One wonders what the students did in their first year of graduate school, or what their classes are covering. Such potential production problems as raising funds for a complex and risky script with multiple characters, casting a film a few weeks before filming, shooting a work in San Francisco that could have been shot near New York City, and working in film formats (instead of inexpensive video formats) suggests to this writer that the students are either not getting good advice or are ignoring it. Hopefully, that's not the NYU approach. 

The student filmmakers make difficult choices, and usually do the right thing, although one, Leah Meyerhoff, clearly has problems. She brings a very young actress-a minor-to California from New York for her shoot. Violating California State law by not having a social worker/teacher present during the shoot, Meyerhoff should not have cast this young actress in this role, and the faculty should have insisted on an adult actress. The student filmmaker further complicates her production by having this young person perform in a very sexually charged scene with an adult actor, to the consternation of her crew, who bravely shut the production down and force the director to speak to the young girl's mother. Oddly, the finished film is praised by the school's faculty for its honesty. One wonders why this student is not asked to leave the program for her behavior and ethics. (Meyerhoff could not be reached for comment, nor was a copy of her finished film available to screen.)

Film School's directors/cinematographers aim their cameras in the right places while maintaining a proper distance to cover the stories. In a few cases, though, they are banned by their subjects from shooting. For example, the would-be producers of Tripodo's work don't want to be filmed during a particularly embarrassing moment, and Meyerhoff also asks them to leave the set during part of the aforementioned seduction scene and on some other occasions. Film School cuts smoothly between footage from the student film shoots to documentary footage covering the scenes to provide the spectator with solid, behind-the-scenes access.

Students Alrick Brown and Tripodo both struggle to find the financial and human resources to make their films. Brown is talented and chooses to make a very stylized work that deals with the violent death of an innocent man by New York City police. His choice of using a caped character, "Super Nigger," flies in the face of conventional filmmaking and makes the work far more risky in terms of accomplishing the goal of getting work in the "industry." Tripodo's work is equally edgy and suggests a love of Fellini and Italian cinema. We're told he's directed opera. Like Brown, though, he is forced to deal with an imagination and creative spark that far exceeds his credit cards, family friends and other financial sources.

What's seems odd is that none of the young filmmakers seem to have a clue to how the fiction film industry works. Their student works seem unlikely to help them accomplish their goal of breaking down Hollywood's doors. Some of the more prominent NYU graduates like Stone, Heckerling, Scorsese and others made fairly conventional but highly original student works so they could begin working for producers like Roger Corman doing "B" pictures. With the bulk of industry directing jobs being in television, the students' work seems targeted to making independent features, which offer few first- time directors professional paying work.

Because Film School celebrates student work and the work's creators, the series should be required viewing for both perspective students and their parents. Since 1996, NYU's graduate program's students won seven Student Academy Awards of the 27 awards presented (two First Prizes, two Second Prizes and three Third Prizes), a record only bested by Columbia's University's Graduate Program (five First Prizes, one Second Prize). One might wonder what's going on at the NYU Undergraduate Program (which is awardless), but the series shows a program that celebrates creativity over pragmatism and artistry over networking in the industry. 

IFC should be applauded for its willingness to produce this 10-part series. The opportunity to cover any activity for a year is rare. The filmmakers ended up with an outstanding process documentary with a solid rich texture. This is one film that treats its subjects fairly and provides rarely seen insights into the creative process of artists in training. 

 

©2004MWB All Rights Reserved


Mitchell W. Block (mwblock@aol.com) is president of Direct Cinema Limited (www.directcinema.com) and works in Los Angeles producing and consulting on documentary productions for broadcasters as well as numerous independent productions worldwide. Block went to NYU for his BFA and MFA in film and television production.  He has been teaching independent film production at USC's School of Cinema-Television on an adjunct basis since 1979. He has been doing workshops on producing and finance globally for over 30 years. He executive produced the 2001 Oscar-winning film Big Mama for HBO. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the University Film and Video Association.

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