SEAN MCGINLY

FILM SCHOOL

It was May of 1994 and a miracle happened.  


In the previous year my life had gotten strange.  I’d graduated college in the spring of 1993 and then moved to San Diego to go to law school.  I only made it a few months before I quit and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a screenwriter and filmmaker.  This was crazy. I didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles.  I’d never written anything.  I had no money.  After a few months, totally broke, I got a job working for a magician.  Suddenly, I found myself living in Caldwell, New Jersey enduring some of the worst and most ridiculous months of my life.  Things truly felt hopeless.  I knew I wasn’t going to last in this horrible magician job. Going home hardly felt like an option. My parents were still mad at me for quitting law school.  I barely had any money and certainly not enough to start again in Los Angeles. I didn’t know where to go or what to do.  Every day I sat and thought to myself, what is going to become of me?


Back when I was in San Diego, before I’d officially quit law school, I’d applied to USC Film School in desperation.  I’d read that USC received hundreds of applications every year and accepted less than 10% of them.  The application form asked for samples of work you’d done; short films, screenplays, etc.  I had none.  They also asked for 2 recommendations.  I didn’t have anyone in my life that could attest to my suitability for a highly esteemed film program.  I forged the recommendations and wrote an essay explaining that while I didn’t have any work samples I really, really would appreciate them making an exception and just letting me come there out of the kindness of their hearts. 


The whole thing felt so unlikely that pretty much the second after I put the application in the mail I forgot about it.  It felt like buying a lottery ticket.  So, here I was, living in New Jersey, feeling lost and hopeless, when the phone rang telling me that I was being put on the waiting list for USC Film School’s fall of 1994 MFA class. A couple weeks later I got another phone call telling me that I was being taken off the waiting list and offered admission. I felt saved like I’d never felt saved before.


I remember that night I drove 45 minutes into New York to celebrate with my friend, Vlas Parlapanides.  I’d gone to college with Vlas.  He also had aspirations of becoming a screenwriter and would many years later have great success.  At that point though he was working as a production assistant on commercials and, if I remember correctly, occasionally substitute teaching.  I remember walking down a street in the Village with him that night and him saying, “Dude, this is the most amazing thing ever.  You’re set.  You’ve made it!”


And I felt like that was the case.  I didn’t grow up around the film business.  I had no idea how it really worked.  In my world if you went to a really good law school or business school or medical school you were basically assured a pretty secure career path.  I assumed the same held true for film school.  I’d done my research.  USC and NYU film schools were the best.  They were really hard to get into and just about all my heroes had gone to one or the other.  I didn’t know how it would happen exactly but I just assumed that appearing at one of these places somehow guaranteed that I’d have a successful career as a screenwriter and filmmaker.


I’d been a very lazy high school and college student.  Especially in college, I’d only gone to class as often as I judged it necessary to get a B.  A few times this meant that I went to class 3 or 4 times the whole semester.  Mostly, I spent my college years running around to bars and fraternity parties and hitting on girls.  The crazy year I’d had since the end of college had sobered me up.  I was now a man possessed.  I was going to be successful and have a career no matter what it took.  I stopped drinking.  I stopped going out.  I stopped hitting on women.  All I did was watch movies and read books about movies and try to learn how to write and make movies.  I was obsessed.


It had all started towards the end of college but during the summer before I began film school I turned it up a notch.  I saw every single movie that came out in theaters.  Every one.  I watched 3 or 4 movies a day on tape at my parents’ house.  I’d find a director like Eric Rohmer and watch all of his films.  This continued for years.  If I saw a film I really liked I might see it 3 or 4 times in the theater.  The biggest advice I’d give to any aspiring filmmaker is to do this.  Just watch lots of films and get a feel for how they’re made.  I’d also advise young screenwriters to read tons and tons of screenplays.  This wasn’t an option for me in 1994.  This was before the internet was ubiquitous and it was actually quite hard to get your hands on a real screenplay at this time.  There were probably ways to do it but I didn’t know what they were.  So I just watched a lot of movies.


In August of 1994 with the help of some pretty big student loans I moved back to Los Angeles to start at USC.  My biggest fear was that I was going to be totally outclassed. There were about 50 students in my class and I was convinced that I’d been let in either by mistake or just because someone there felt bad for me. I was going to be among people who’d written screenplays and perhaps even made films and who surely hadn’t forged their recommendations.  On the first day, we all sat in a room and introduced ourselves.  It looked like I was right. There were people who’d gone to Ivy League schools.  There was a woman who had left a career as a successful doctor.  Another guy had been a working and somewhat well known stand up comic who’d appeared on TV.  There was another guy who’d been kind of a pop star in a hugely successful band in South Africa. There were people who came from famous families. There were people in their 30’s who’d lived lives, had other careers, wives, husbands, children.  Even bigger than this was that all of these people felt mature, accomplished, fully formed.  They were intellectuals. They presented themselves with poise and spoke using academic terms like post-modernism. I didn’t even know what the word meant.


My first day in my first class something happened that changed my perspective slightly.  The professor screened a clip from The Last Picture Show.  He then asked who in class had seen the film.  I and perhaps 2 or 3 other people raised our hands.  This was the first clue but I soon came to see that a lot of the people here hadn’t approached film school with the same level of seriousness and obsession that I had.  I went on to see that a lot of these people didn’t really love movies.  Or perhaps they did but not the way I loved them. 


Our main class was called Production and it involved making 5 short films on Super 8.  We weren’t really given any help with these films or told how to do it.  The only rule was that they had to be silent films.  You could create a soundtrack with music and effects but there couldn’t be any dialogue.  The point was that they wanted us to learn how to tell stories visually. We were told to buy a camera, film, a splicer, a projector and just go.  There was a date when each film had to be done and we’d each screen it in class and then discuss it afterwards. No sooner had you finished one than a due date was set for the next.


I don’t think I’m being insecure when I say that it was quickly apparent to me that I was one of the least talented students in the class from a visual and filmmaking perspective.  There were people in the class who made dynamic films that incorporated color and shape and movement and different camera angles and lenses.  I hadn’t yet even begun to understand any of this stuff. 


But this kind of fed into a sort of mania that was inside me anyway.  There was a kind of collegiate atmosphere at USC.  People got together and hung out.  There were hardly any girls in the program so it seemed like every one had 3 or 4 guys who were in love with her. Crushes and rivalries developed. There was even kind of an “in” crowd. It wasn’t like high school and it wasn’t terrible but that dynamic did kind of exist, which was a little silly since we were all film nerds. Regardless, I didn’t participate in any of this.  I very much kept to myself, which was perhaps a little bit of a mistake.  At the same time I knew that if I let myself I could very easily drift back into being a drunken girl chaser and not get anything done.


Another thing that went on at USC is that many of the professors tried to disabuse us of any notions of grandeur that we might have.  They let us know in no uncertain terms that it was very unlikely that any of us would go on to become the next Fellini.  Every year 100 people went through the program and many of them never worked in the industry.  Most of the others struggled to make it in a very tough business.  The people we’d heard about who’d gone to NYU or USC and become famous writers and directors were the exception. So much for my assumption that film school would be some kind of shortcut to a big time career.  The teachers advised us to learn a trade: editing, sound design, lighting.  USC had amazing equipment and there was the opportunity here to learn how to use it and enter the job market with an actual skill.  This sounds crazy now but at the time it was a big deal to be able to get your hands on an AVID editing system and USC had a bunch of them.


I didn’t even consider learning a trade for a second.  In fact, I resolved to purposely NOT learn a trade.  If I wanted a regular job I would have stayed in law school.  I didn’t want to have a back up plan.  I had come to USC and taken out enormous loans because I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to make films. If that wasn’t possible than this whole thing was a waste.


In addition to the Production class we also took a seminar on silent film.  Here, we just watched silent films and talked about them and wrote papers.  It was more of an academic class, which I loved.  In addition to that we took on class on sound taught by Tomlinson Holman, one of the creators of THX. I didn’t enjoy this class as much but it was still very interesting.  Finally, there was an introductory screenwriting class, which was structured as a workshop where we wrote scenes, read them aloud and critiqued one another.


Just as I don’t think I’m being insecure to say I was one of the lesser students in the Production class – I don’t think I’m being overconfident to say that I think I was one of the better students in the screenwriting class.  I’m not saying I was a genius, far from it, but I understood the patterns of screenwriting instinctively and enjoyed it.  The writing I was doing wasn’t great but it came easily to me.  I never had writer’s block; in fact, quite the opposite.  I had tons of ideas and when I got them I immediately wrote them.  I was a font of mediocre material.  I think I stood out a little bit because of this.  Many of the students in the screenwriting class struggled and were constantly late with their assignments.  This wouldn’t have been acceptable in the Production class where you were expected to make the 5 films and have them ready on time.  For whatever reason the Production class was taken very seriously and the screenwriting class was considered kind of a side thing.  Or at least that was my perspective.


The pressure of making the 5 films for Production class was enormous.  First, you had to think of an idea that worked as a silent piece.  This was a lot harder than it sounds. We’d all grown up on TV where dialogue was everything.  It was a real challenge to come up with a concept that told a story where there was no dialogue between the characters. A lot of us wound up making films with two characters where they motioned to each other and mimed. It was kind of hilarious. You could practically feel the presence of a writer/director there just dying to be able to make a movie where two characters talked.


Once you came up with an idea you had to find actors who were willing to be in the film, for free.  You had to arrange schedules, crew, catering, locations and then shoot the thing.  After that you had to sit in a dark room and edit it and then go to one of the small sound booths at USC and try to put together some sort of musical soundtrack.  All this took a lot of time and in addition there was the silent film class, the sound class and the screenwriting class.  Anyway, it was all pretty intense.


It didn’t take me long to figure out that while I wasn’t overwhelmingly talented I did have a lot more drive than a lot of the people at USC.  Even with the heavy class load I still saw just about every movie that came out in the theaters and lots more on video.  In addition to this they occasionally had screenings at the theater at USC and I went to those as well.  I got the feeling that I was enjoying all of this more than many of my fellow students.  I remember talking to one guy after Thanksgiving break.  He’d gone home for the holiday and spoke about the dread he felt as his plane descended back into the smog of Los Angeles.  I couldn’t relate to this at all. I’d always assumed that I’d wind up having a job I hated just the way I’d hated to go to school since first grade.  USC represented a release, an opportunity to have a special and exciting life. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.


The other thing that hit me was that writing was my way in.  In the first year class we didn’t even attempt to write whole screenplays, just scenes.  I wrote a few anyway, on my own, outside of class.  They were terrible but they existed.  They had a beginning, middle and end and I felt like each one was getting a tiny bit better. I decided that I was going to use the three years at USC to do as much writing as I possibly could.  After the first semester you were allowed to take electives and I chose writing classes for all of mine.  It was my hope that by the time I finished USC I’d be ready to have a real career as a writer.  This wasn’t the case.  It took a few more years even after the time at USC.


I can’t say that all of my instructors were the best or even terribly serious about their work.  That said, there were a few great ones.  I took a writing class with a guy named Ted Braun, who was wonderful.  There was always a lot of talk in writing class about figuring out where the first act and second act should be.  Ted Braun told us not to get too caught up in all that and instead concentrate on tension. I never forgot that and it’s still the question I ask myself to this day as I write.  Does this scene have tension?  Does this sequence have tension? Does the script have tension?  I also took a directing class with Elliot Silverstein, who’d directed Cat Ballou among many other things and a lot of television.  He was a great teacher and just so dynamic and engaged.


There was a time when I was a little disenchanted by USC.  I was always a little resentful at how expensive it was.  And I was a little disappointed that everyone wasn’t as maniacal about movies as I was.  That said, I didn’t give everyone much of a chance.  If I’d been a little more open and social maybe I would have come across someone who I would have related to more strongly.  I did make friends; good friends who I have to this day who have helped me and been loyal to me.  But the people I’ve made films with, the people who were willing to give their lives to making films were people I met outside of USC.


I considered quitting USC after the first year.  I suspected I’d gotten all I needed out of the place.  But I finished up, partly because I knew quitting film school when just a year before I’d quit law school would really upset my parents.  And also, there’s a reality about being a writer and filmmaker that film school allows you to put off for a time.  Doing this work is very lonely.  You have to wake up each day and sit down and try to write something.  No one cares if you write or if you just sit and watch TV.  A lot of times you work very hard for months on a project and then realize that it’s misconceived or just not marketable.  It’s almost existential, doing this work all alone in a void and not knowing if it’s ever going to add up to a living. Not everyone’s cut out for this and film school provides a structure for a little while.  But then it ends and you see what you’re made of.


I don’t know if film school is something anyone needs to do in this day and age.  Especially now, there are just so many ways to make a film.  You can shoot a short film on your iphone and do the editing and sound on a PC and then post it on youtube.  Things were different back when I was getting started. And aside from that I was just so scared and lost.  I needed someone, somewhere to tell me that it was OK, to invite me in, to validate this strange desire I had to be a writer and a filmmaker.  I’ll never know for sure why USC did that for me. I guess it was just luck.  But in May of 1994 it saved my life.

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