I Didn't Go to Film School

I don’t hold any type of degree in film—not in film production, not in film theory, and not in screenwriting—yet I managed to write, direct, and produce an independent feature film. That meant that along the way, I had to put myself through a crash course in what it takes to make a movie, and the lessons came frequently and often the hard way. In this blog, I’m going to look back at the entire process, from conceiving the film to its completion, and reflect on those lessons, and this week, I’m going to kick things off with how I managed to even get to the starting line, despite having very little formal education in the world of film.

So how did I get away with it? There are a couple of factors that were essential to forming the base that led to West of Her.

For one thing, I watch everything. About a year ago, I combed through Letterboxd and logged every film I can remember having seen, which means I’ve seen at least 1,834 feature films in my life. I watched exactly 300 features in 2015 alone. And when I say I see everything, I mean it. I’ve seen Battleship Potemkin and I’ve seen Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and I got a kick out of both. My love of film isn't limited by genre, country, era; under “Favorite Films” on Letterboxd, I list Stand By Me next to Tarkovsky's 1972 3-hour Russian sci-fi epic Solaris. To make a good movie, you have to love movies, and I believe that if you want to contribute meaningfully to an art form, you need to be really, really well versed in its history. It worked for Scorcese, and I can only hope it will prove to have worked for me.

But there's also the fact that I’m not a passive viewer—I think about these movies, I talk about them, I read about them, whether it’s navigating over to The AV Club review immediately after the credits roll, or pulling out the Criterion Collection booklet to read an essay by a scholar. I've put myself through an ongoing film theory course, and I find just about any word written on film to be fascinating. Ever since I was two years old, sitting in a theater for the first time, wide-eyed and awed as I gazed up at Oliver & Company, movies have been the fuel I run on intellectually and emotionally, and I could never have made a film I felt proud of without gorging myself.

But more importantly, and this is why the headline is a bit of a cheat, I did go to film school, sort of. In 2006, I attended a four-week film production intensive at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, ME, and it changed my life. No matter how many camcorder movies I edited on my Mac, if I thought before Rockport that I knew how to make a movie, I was dead wrong. Going in, there were things I knew I didn’t know, but they were utterly dwarfed by the things I didn’t know I didn’t know. In four weeks, I wrote and directed three short films, one of them halfway decent, and I learned what it actually means to make a movie, from hard and soft lighting to the 180-degree axis and beyond. And more importantly, I started forming my team when I met Cameron Bryson, the man without whom West of Her never would have happened. If I'd never made any connections in that world, and never gotten any sense whatsoever of how to make a professional-quality film, it should go without saying that I never would have made a professional-quality film.

So that’s at least the start of how I got away with making an independent feature without ever getting a degree in film. Check back here every Tuesday for another lesson I learned while making West of Her, starting next week, when I’ll look back at how I went about having an idea for a screenplay…