Essays

Wonderful, Horrifying Tales of Film School Failure

By  · Published on September 24th, 2015

Some of you may realize that there are academic pursuits that don’t involve handing ridiculously expensive equipment to people not old enough to rent cars. It’s absurd. You just sit there in class, reading a book that won’t shatter into a million pieces when it falls off your desk, wondering what the point of it all might be. Nobody trusts Philosophy majors with costly electronics.

That seems to be the key element to a host of horror stories from film school. Students show up not knowing much about cameras because they’re there to learn, only some of them don’t learn. Cue Benny Hill music. The other key element is when a budding young filmmaker already knows everything there is to know, which makes you the idiot for not getting their thirty minute static shot of a clown crying while petting a photograph of Desmond Tutu.

User ZamrosX asked the Reddit community for their cringe-worthy moments from film school, resulting in a slew of schadenfreude-tinged lessons in truly vulgar auteurism. Let’s wince through a few, starting with ZamrosX’s original tale of woe and want.

That last one is my favorite, and there are plenty more where it came from. Some involve bizarre subject matter, some involve people who think they can create a masterpiece at the last minute, some involve instructors who have no business telling other people how to make movies.

Obviously it’s easy to sit back and laugh, but it takes guts to throw yourself into a program that will entrust you with expensive hardware. It’s a hell of a place to realize what you don’t want to do with your life, and with so many film schools out there trying to make a buck, it’s no surprise how many students show up without any real capacity for learning the craft, humility to gain understanding, or fear of dropping pricey equipment down 12 stories of oblivion.

If you can pay the tuition, you can get in, and they have insurance for that kind of thing.

There’s also something fantastically valuable about being tested in a safety net environment that has the capability of telling you that you aren’t going to make it in the bigger, badder, real world.

On a recent episode of Scriptnotes, John August and Craig Mazin broke down the statistics of becoming a professional football player versus becoming a professional, working screenwriter. Guess who came out looking sweeter? That’s right. Start doing two a days.

The ultimate lesson of the towering numbers wasn’t simply that it’s bone-dry difficult to make it as a screenwriter, but that there’s a danger in the freedom given to someone with that dream. There’s a burly bouncer at the entrance to the career field, but he’s only going to bash your head in, not tell you that you can’t come back. For many, the impossible dream will consume them, demanding more time and resources that will sink into blank spaces that will get the dreamer no closer to the oasis.

Not to mention that the oasis itself is a mirage. The idea of “making it” is an illusion, perpetuated by a system that obfuscates all the hills left to climb after you arduously reach the top of the first one. The one without footholds, that still seemed unreasonably high even years after you started grasping upward. The one where, looking down to get a sense of how far you’d come, you saw the ground less than an inch beneath your feet.

At least in film school there are mentors who will (or, at least, should) explain clearly when a student doesn’t have the fundamental skills or talent to become a pro. Instructors have a responsibility to go against the vested interest of the school, telling breathing tuition checks that they shouldn’t come back next semester. Give up. Go do something valuable with your life.

Not that that will stop the most inexplicably confident. The Tommy Wiseaus of the world will make their way through it, and they will end up as fodder for “I can’t believe you’ve done this” stories.

At the same time, destroying a camera in epic fashion makes for a terrible/awesome tale, and it might severely injure your relationships with the camera owner (school or otherwise), but it doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t cut out for filmmaking. Firefighters don’t drive the engine perfectly their first time out, either. The important part is learning from the mistakes. It’s the ones who don’t – and the ones who flake on everything because they assume their talent is a given without any visible evidence – who should probably politely see themselves to the door.

To add one final layer to this sweet and savory trifle, let’s consider the return of Project Greenlight – a reality TV show where Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have coached aspiring writers and directors to a grand total of zero good movies. Here’s a money quote that sums up the previous incarnation of the show:

As an experiment in finding and developing talent, it failed. But that was never its value. Project Greenlight was a great long-form process documentary that showed its viewers something more instructive: Why most movies don’t work. Each season became a journey downward from aspiration to actuality, as the filmmakers – and the show’s producers – left their high hopes behind, and we learned, step by step, to see their films as the result of budget shortfalls, location problems, casting compromises, story points that hadn’t been fully worked out, erratic crew members, too-many-cooks creative battles, and (most unsolvable of all) individual deficiencies of talent, taste, and imagination. Project Greenlight offered a crash course – one that can’t be repeated often enough – in the fact that movies aren’t hatched whole: They are the end product of a thousand close-call decisions, the most seemingly inconsequential of which can turn out to be cataclysmic.

That’s Grantland’s Mark Harris in a piece brilliantly dissecting the worth of the new-but-not-really-improved season of the show, where former indie boostrappers helping the next generation have morphed into two of the most recognizable actors on the planet. He ends the piece by evoking the “death by a thousand cuts” mantra that is etched into many industry brains. It’s a reality that shines especially bright under the microscope of these film school horror stories, illuminating the filmmaking process as a minefield you’re meant to navigate with a thousand people in tow, trying to get everyone safely across while painting a 30 foot x 70 foot picture one day-long brush stroke at a time. All the while, Matt Damon is yelling at you for some reason.

Project Greenlight is its own brand of brutal film school where Professor Damon, mostly, shakes his head at a newcomer making reasonable and unknowingly outlandish requests. He’s been here and knows how things are really done. Despite the show’s limitation of providing its own entertainment – and subsequently needing drama more than it needs a stellar product pushed through the works – they still ostensibly choose the opportunity-winning writer and director based on the talent they show.

That fact, paired both with our God’s eye view of the process and the dismal batting average of quality help to prove just how often potential doesn’t translate to achievement in filmmaking. By the structure alone, Project Greenlight is essentially like if American Idol had its top contestants sing with a choir formed by 100 people of varying talent levels whom they’ve never met, challenging them to have their voices stand out while simultaneously delivering a polished musical presentation.

Thus, it might prove challenging for any reality show promising to add guidance and a budget to an aspiring filmmaker to create a great (or even good) movie. That should offer at least a little sympathy to every film student who got a memory card stuck in the wrong slot while delivering cold comfort for those undiscovered geniuses who believe they can cobble together masterpieces during the ten minutes before the school bell rings.

Filmmaking is insanely hard, even if you’re talented, even if you have everything in place, even if you aren’t lazy or delusional.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.