Before going to film school I worked for a year as a runner and camera trainee on a variety of productions ranging from music videos to feature films. On set I'd talk to the other runners and younger crewmembers and when I told them I was thinking of going to film school they all said the same thing - "Don't go!". The general consensus seemed to be that film graduates never end up in the film industry. They explained to me you have to start from the bottom and work your way up, climb the ladder and the sooner you hop on the better. Why waste two or three years doing a degree?
I can't quite remember why I ignored their warnings, maybe I was looking for something more stable than random days of work or maybe I was sick of making cups of tea in polystyrene cups for curly haired commercials directors. Either way, I signed up to the Met Film School in Ealing Studios and did their two-year BA in Practical Filmmaking.
So I suppose the question is do I think the two years I spent at film school benefitted me more than the two years I would have spent climbing the ladder? The answer is a resounding yes.
I went to the Met Film School as a writer/sort of director, I'd made a few shorts and written a few scripts (I'd even sent one to the BBC, convinced it would be instantly picked up for series, shock horror it wasn't). I'd read Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and I'd even attended a Robert McKee lecture. All this, I thought put me in good stead for the journey ahead.
I started at the Met and it didn't take me long to realise I knew very little about filmmaking. I knew nothing about cinematography, working with actors, experimental film, producing. I didn't know how to edit, I don't mean how to work Final Cut Pro or Avid, I mean how to edit, criteria for a good cut, choosing emotion over continuity and as for film movements I'd never even heard of French poetic realism or 5th generation Chinese film.
On my first day when a fellow student asked what my favourite film was, I panicked and blurted out Casablanca. Now, I'm not saying it's not a great film but I'd seen it once, when I was thirteen. I just thought it made me sound like I knew what I was on about. It was pretty clear I didn't.
The course was extremely practical. On my first morning I was told to write and shoot a one-minute film that included someone being punched. I found this surprisingly challenging, I probably wouldn't have believed within two years I'd have directed documentaries, experimental films, a dark comedy, music videos, a television pilot, two web-isodes, and co-written a feature film.
Something else that's easy to overlook is the importance of feedback. I was worried to say the least when I first discovered that each time I shot an exercise or film I had to present and screen it to the whole class. There's no hiding away or ditching the rubbish stuff. I had to sit there and watch it in front of friends and tutors and then hear their thoughts! It was horrifying, daunting, unnerving but incredibly useful. When you know you're going to get asked why you put the camera where you did and why you used that piece of music, it makes you think about every decision you make. It doesn't matter if it's a two-minute exercise or your graduation film you end up trying to make everything the best it can be.
By the time I left film school I wasn't just a writer/sort of director, I'd produced, lit, directed, and edited multiple films. This included my graduation film, which was an adaptation of that very first script I sent to the BBC years earlier. I wrote, directed, edited and produced a 25-minute comedy film. It was selected by the Met as one of eight films to be a part of their annual showcase and was screened at the BFI to agents and industry professionals. After the screening I was approached by several agencies and I signed with one three weeks later.
My advice to future film school students would be to try and make each piece of work better than the last. I look back on the work I did at film school and find most of the early stuff I made cringe worthy! It sucks! But I kept trying to do better and ended up very proud of my graduation film. Fortunately it was the only one I had to show to industry professionals and from it I got an agent and many opportunities presented themselves to me. It's worth remembering that it only takes one piece of work to kick-start your career and every time you get behind a camera you have a chance to make that film.