Filmmaking is for Warriors: Teaching

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“Do you know any famous people?” the tiny child asks me.

“Famous people?”

I don’t know what else to say. I’ve been a filmmaker for 10 years, but most of the people I know aren’t plastered on the cover of People Magazine. I do know some actors who have been plastered all over the billboards in Kansas City, which is pretty cool. Mostly just because those actors are totally awesome, and it’s nice to see them achieve new things.

Inevitably, it doesn’t matter if I have an answer to her question, because there’s a half dozen more questions flooding my way. I wave my hands at the brood of small people and do my best to change the subject back to the class I’m teaching and away from my filmmaking career.

Teaching.

I started teaching theater and acting when I was 19. I shouldn’t have, really, because I had no idea how to teach. Those first few years my head was under water and the kids drowned with me. I’m sorry, kids, I didn’t know what I was doing.

But like Dory the fish said, “Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!”

So I kept pushing my way through teaching, class after class after class. I taught basic and advanced acting, improv, film acting, film production, costumes, musical theater (as a sub, ’cause I don’t do music), black box and radio theater. I’ve assisted in directing shows. I’ve subbed for ages that I would never have chosen to teach – 4 year-olds are not my buddies. I’ve taught subjects I knew very little about and had to research – radio.

And then I was burnt out. And I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Kids take a lot of energy. Kids need a lot of attention and help. Kids are SO MUCH FUN TO TEACH.

Plot twist.

I love teaching. I love talking to those kids. I love playing games with them and seeing them grow. I love seeing how kids learn to rely on each other in theater. I love seeing how theater changes lives for the better – confidence, friendship, coordination, memorization, basic theater skills, communication, trust, loyalty, diversity and a host of other things. I’m sure people learn this stuff in sports, too, but I was a theater kid so I can’t speak to that.

I had a screenwriting teacher who loved his job. He really did. He loved interacting with his different students. I had another film teacher who loved her job. She was the most understanding teacher I think I ever had, always open to giving students a second chance to learn.

And I think to myself, why don’t more people teach?

Because every single person who loves teaching, also hates it. At the end of the day you feel wiped out, left for dead and drained. Your job is to push other people into greatness, whether that is in theater, writing, math, science, robotics, music, computer, filmmaking or military training.

People push back.

Sometimes they do it on purpose. Sometimes they’re just too scared, as some of the 8-year-old students in my class the other night.

The better you are at being a teacher, the more you hold yourself accountable to the things you are teaching. Your students are pushing back, and you are learning more than them.

That’s a cliche. I hate that cliche. It’s obnoxious. Obviously if you’re teaching a child multiplication, you already knew how to multiply. Duh. That kid didn’t teach you that.

But while you were teaching multiplication, that kid was teaching you patience, kindness and long-suffering, because that kid’s probably an aggravating little dude with a numbers complex that needs a reality check.

I subbed for a theater class this week and last. I haven’t taught in a very long time. It was hard work corralling all those little people. I was hungry and my throat hurt and I wondered why I would put myself through all this when I was still in my month of recovery.

But when I went back last night to teach, the kids told me I was an awesome teacher. Their words, not mine.

And I thought, I love teaching. Why don’t more people do this?

Filmmaking is for Warriors: How to Break a Filmmaker

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Empty white tables. 9 students shuffling in, at least 3 of them super early for class, and at least 3 of them walking in about a minute late. The teacher, a distinguished man with an uncanny resemblance to Tony Stark, sits at the side of a large white board hanging on the wall in front of the pressed-together tables.

The students settle into their normal spots – when you only have to deal with 8 other people, keeping your sacred seat is easy. The majority of these students are graduate students in writing. The rest are split up between undergrads in Communications or English.

I am one of the students that is majoring in Communications, Film Emphasis, and I always feel like everyone else thinks I’m a few dollars short of full-on eccentric weirdo status. I’m the one who wrote the short film about my brother leaving the kitchen cabinets open. I’m the one who dislikes reading aloud in class. I’m the one who did a presentation of the definition of “chick flicks.” (Which is actually an interesting topic that I’d be happy to explore later.)

Let’s be clear: No classmate ever bullied me or said anything malicious in the entire 2 years I attended that school for my Bachelors. Or, if they did, it was done in such a way that I didn’t take it as an insult.

But I was very shy.

And, for the sake of reality, I am a little bit short of normal.

Class starts when Tony Stark begins interacting with the students. He’s fairly informal, but it’s clear that he is in charge, has a plan, and knows what he is talking about. Today is a criticism day, so the format of class is already known to the students. Basically, the first 10 pages of a student’s script are going to be dissected in front of the group, shredded to bits with choice words and “feedback” and then left for dead out on the cold, white tabletop.

How do you break a filmmaker? Enroll them in a screenwriting class and let the games begin.

Here’s the drill: each student has 3 months to finish writing a feature film, a short film script or a TV series script with a full series bible. Since I always worked on a feature screenplay, I won’t waste time explaining the other two concepts in this post.

A feature film is typically between 90 to 120 pages. It must adhere to script guidelines, which are very specific, but if you have Celtx or Final Draft the program has your back on most of that formatting. Script formatting is not something that the teacher devised to ruin your life, though, as opposed to other scholarly guidelines. Script formatting is in place to paint the pictures of your story into the heads of every person on the production crew. By refusing to follow script formatting you are not making a statement about your individuality, you are giving the potential director, cinematographer, set designer and a host of other people a headache.

I wanted to be a professional screenwriter, so I always worked on features (that’s not a commentary on short film writing – generally shorts are harder). I took screenwriting 4 semesters in a row, in addition to other writing classes. The first semester was the easiest, in a way, because I don’t think we actually had to complete a full feature for that one.

Now, imagine this, you have 3 months to write at least a solid 90 pages of workable script. After the first 4-6 weeks you have to have something to be reviewed in class, because your classmates and teacher are there to help you become a better screenwriter. So you write and you write and you write. And those weeks fly by until it’s the night of your work, and everyone has been sent the first 10 pages of your script. As Tony explained, if you haven’t created all the expectations and set-up in the first 10 pages, you better revise.

So me, shy me, introvert me, I bring copies of my script to be read aloud in class. And when the dust settles, all the prose and dialog finished, I stare down at the white pages with black print in horrified anticipation of the reactions.

Tony Stark starts with an opening line like,

“Jessie, I want to like your script…”

(Brace yourselves, he’s about to shoot  me in the heart, and add a double tap to the head for good measure.)

“…But I just don’t get it.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“Yeah.”

Agreement surrounds me. I wait, patiently, the blood pumping out of my heart, as Tony Stark continues, his words carefully chosen for maximum punch.

The descriptions are falling flat. The characters are too cartoony. Motives are unclear. The environment is difficult to grasp. The plot is too complex.

By the end of the class period I’ve nodded and thanked everyone for their feedback, and I stand awkwardly to gather all of my things. The 9 file out, but I’m waiting til the last, not even a Hobbit in their fellowship. My work of the last month has been reduced to a few lines of a concept, and every bit of my soul that I poured into those 10 pages is withered and gasping, a fish that survived the Pelican, but was dropped on the dry beach to breathe itself to death.

There will always be a time for constructive criticism, but the surest way of breaking a filmmaker is to show them what that really means.

But in the breaking, that filmmaker will be re-made. And the new creation will be far better than the one that was broken.

I left that night, and I contemplated giving it all up. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a screenwriter. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. Maybe this was my sign to stop killing myself and become an FBI agent instead.

So I went home. And I rewrote that whole script. And I let them tear it apart again. And I signed up for the next semester of direct hits from the man who made billionaire status cool again (or his look-alike anyway).

Because this created better scripts.

And no matter how hard they broke me, this filmmaker never gave up. Because writers write, filmmakers make films, and we do it all the better when we listen to constructive criticism and refuse to give up.

Sound and Other Mysteries

During filming this past weekend I was script supervisor, boom operator and sound person.  This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but I like to keep busy.  I have run sound once before, but I don’t really count it.  That movie was never finished and I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time.

Not that I did this time.

For the past 9 weeks I’ve been teaching a children’s class on radio drama.  I used Soundtrack Pro to record and edit my class’ radio episodes.  This editing program is maddening, but I think I’ve finally mastered the art of keeping up with the madness.

I have never been awesome with sound.  I have some sort of hearing loss that keeps me from understanding some tones easily.  My siblings listened to books on tape and all that when we were growing up.  That wasn’t my thing.

I watched movies.  And read books.

I try to tell people I’m visual.  With teachers it was the hardest.  I had a teacher once who played Psycho without sound on a giant screen, then stood in front of it and lectured.  I have no idea what she said that day.  I was too busy trying to figure out why the blonde lady was running off with all that money.

When I taught this class, I was learning alongside my students.  I love the idea of sound.  And recently I’ve been paying more attention to the sounds in movies.  It’s pretty cool.

I read in a great book, The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide, that sound is the most important part of filmmaking.  If you mess it up, no one will take you seriously.

Okay.  Later tonight I will post my class’ radio drama on Youtube.  Check and see if I messed it up.