“Life … at 24 frames per second.”
— Tagline for Film School Confidential
OPEN ON: a smoldering, post-apocalyptic hellscape. The once great city sits desolate, its iconic landmarks reduced to rubble. A mysterious red carpet unwinds into the distance, indicating — I don’t know, some sort of dystopian Emmy party? The king of this land wields his standard issue Arri-S camera like a magic scepter. His power is mighty, evidenced by the throng of ladies grasping desperately at his bulbous calves. In the mid-ground, a villain in a beret and Che Guevera T-shirt scowls, the intensity of his ire matched only by the girth and heft of our hero’s rippling muscles, who is shedding his USC shirt in a Bruce Banner-esque manner …
I am trying not to judge, but the alarming cover of Steve Boman’s Film School: The True Story of a Midwestern Family Man Who Went to the World’s Most Famous Film School, Fell Flat on His Face, Had a Stroke, and Sold a Television Series to CBS demands comment. The book does manage to live up to the promise of its cover, but not in the way the author intends. The scorched earth and smoke clouds reveal themselves to be as portentous as they are pretentious. Set against the backdrop of the University of Southern California’s famous School of Cinematic Arts, Boman’s memoir is a tale of tribulation and triumph. Portraying himself as the prototypical Midwestern everyman-in-big-city-made-good, Boman shows off the crowd-pleasing story techniques practiced and preached as gospel at USC. Dealing in broad strokes and archetypes, Film School follows him from stumbling student to respected director and, finally, successful television producer. His USC is one of emerald towers to be scaled, gold to be mined, and bad guys — Simon Cowell-like professors and anonymous latte-chugging intellectuals — to be overcome. It is, in essence, mythology.
Save for the technology, little about film schools has changed since 1929. They are trade schools playacting as art schools and moonlighting in remedial business courses. Yet the market for these programs has grown insatiable. For a previous generation, going to film school was an uncommon decision that required real grit and determination. Witness Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls recounting the 1970s iconoclastic golden age, or Richard Walters, in hisEscape From Film School, fetishizing the USC of the early 1960s, which had seemed “a most unlikely venue for any center of creative expression,” though there was, he admitted, “something seductive about the place.”
Today, while film schools remain seductive, they have dropped the grit and doubled down on the glamour; their sharp edges have been carefully filed off and their values have been kid-tested, mother-approved. The still prevailing myth of the film-student-as-rebel obscures the banal truth: These are highly profitable institutions, buttressed by a wildly irresponsible student loan system preying on thousands of starry-eyed individuals all vying for “their shot.”
According to David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson and other luminaries, these institutions offer the same practical value as a game of Three-card Monte. But film school advocates extol the unique connections and the opportunities available, and admissions officers trumpet the various accolades lavished on their graduates. Less mentioned, by either side, is the actual education provided. Discussing learning alone, it would seem, does not sell books and does not fill up the lecture halls.
Deciding whether to spend over $100,000 dollars to attend graduate school should be one of life’s more sober decisions, but the promise of film school is deeply intoxicating. I, too, went to USC SCA, (Production Program, Class of 2008) and the new Lucas building, which Boman duly venerates, literally stuns with its columns and arches and endless hallways filled with classic movie posters. It is not uncommon to find prospective students staggering around this academic Olympus, jaws hung open, trails of drool leading back to the entrance.
Students cite many different reasons for attending film school. Some, like Boman, are looking for a fresh start. Others, like me, are pursuing our passions, following in the noble Hollywood tradition of chasing one’s dreams at any cost. Though, practically speaking, we know the odds of actually “making it” in the film industry are stacked against us, we choose not to pay attention. And all of us, privately, are thrilled to get a short respite from the real world. It’s not for nothing that new students at USC are met with the slogan “Reality ends here.”
Having been accepted to USC for the spring semester, I was waiting tables to pass the time and needed to make a conscious effort to engage my usually active cynicism. While my hands were juggling hot dishes and sorting cutlery, my mind was mostly in another time zone. For six months I lived in anticipation. USC was not an academic institution; it was a storage closet for my hopes and dreams, for my images of all I wanted to be and accomplish. For me, reality ended the moment my acceptance letter arrived in the mail.
My classmates, I found, also struggled to keep a grounded view of things. We had been handpicked to join the Lucases and Spielbergs of the world — the creative class. I tried to remind myself that I hadn’t accomplished anything yet, that this was only the first rung on a tall and perilous Jacob’s Ladder. But I couldn’t fight the feeling that, just by having been accepted to USC, I must be somehow special. Film schools are made up, almost entirely, of people who believe they are very, very special.
Of what use is this graduate film diploma, then? As evidence of the bona fides of the applicant. For someone capable of putting up with X years of the nonsense of school would be odds-on willing to submit to the sit-down-and-shut-up rigors of the bureaucratic environment.
— David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla
If film school is a game of Three-card Monte, then Boman’s the shill: the planted accomplice trumpeting his winnings to attract more marks to the table. The alpha male of his class, he claims unique insight into the machinations of the social laboratory of film school. His is a Horatio Alger story for a #winning age, a story of determination and advancement made visceral. Work hard and play the game with cunning and you will be set for life. Or so goes the myth.
Boman presents himself as the ultimate USC outsider, the kind of guy who uses “Jiminy Cricket!” without irony. Other obstacles to his success at USC include his health (he has experienced a lifetime’s worth of medical misfortunes), his children, his relatively advanced age (mid-40s), his morning commute, his hetero-hating professor, and his slacker partner. But he attacks film school with life-or-death abandon. He will, as he puts it, “Git ‘er done.”
He credits this gusto, more than anything, for his success. He charms his way into the supplies for his first major project, then successfully pitches a documentary around his passion for motorcycling. The latter ends with him nearly expelled for placing his cinematographer on the back of a subject’s bike traversing the most dangerous stretch of road in the country. The adage “rules are meant to be broken” is more than implied; it is proven. In Boman’s book, as in Spike Lee’s mantra, the winners get off their shots “by any means necessary.” While the losers are left crying into their lattes, Boman ploughs forward.
Film school can be a cruelly Darwinian place, with the push-and-pull of competition and friendship, multiple layers of contest and reward, and a rigid hierarchy in which some write and direct and others find themselves unloading trucks and picking up coffee. Students want to be clever, perfect, special, the best. Competition infuses and informs every aspect of the experience. The professors and administrators want them to fight for tangible and tantalizing rewards, which can then be held up to attract the next batch of students in a cyclical fashion.
In his ultimate achievement in the film school game, Boman successfully pitches a TV pilot to CBS. His large personality helps him stand out from his more diminutive peers, and the show he sells, a series about the go-go lifestyles of a merry band of organ transplant coordinators, plays perfectly in the room; it’s generic in all the right ways and delivered with a corn-fed sensibility that jibes perfectly with the producer who comes to judge his pitch class. Boman rides this momentum through a number of executive meetings until he confronts The Decision: to bring on a seasoned “show runner” and increase the chances of his pilot getting made, or take a bigger risk and push to helm the project himself.
He opts for the former, finding a veteran to take control and bring his project, now called Three Rivers, to life. The story of how his baby goes from concept to pilot episode to prime-time pick up to early cancellation is dizzying. He maintains the correctness of his decision to abdicate. But here, as always, Boman refuses to go beneath the surface to reflect deeply on what happened to him. His is a tale older than television: bushy-tailed kid pitches a show idea, idea becomes hot, producers throw money at kid to make him go away, show gets picked up. Kid sits on the sidelines while the big boys play ball.
Not to take the whispers-down-the-hallway of USC as gospel, but information spreads fast, especially when there is success and jealousy in the plot line. Boman’s fall sparked a good deal of consternation and a number of faculty members commented that the situation was a blemish on the school’s reputation. The hotshot of USC, the most “industry” film school in the world, was paid off his own project while his school offered nothing in the way of support.
If you want to be a filmmaker and you can’t afford film school, know that you don’t really learn anything in film school anyway. They can never teach you how to tell a story anyway, or all you’ll do is tell stories like everyone else. You learn to tell stories by telling stories. And you want to learn your own way of doing things.
— Robert Rodriguez, Rebel Without a Crew
USC markets itself as an inside institution, but what value does this insider status truly offer its students? From my short stint so far out here in the “real world,” I can say it seems minimal. The many go-getters who try to work their way up from the inside are very often passed over for talents from other disciplines who not only have more varied skills and interests, but haven’t rolled around in the same mud as the rest of us. A typical USC graduate still plans to climb her way from intern to production assistant to writer’s assistant to writer to producer to show runner — as if she were joining an industry that worked like that in any way. This is the fundamental failure of the film school myth. For all the claims of preparing us for a professional career in the industry, it turns out that, as Mamet suggests, the role it best prepares us for is underling.
But as I read Boman’s account of his own film school experience, I found myself once again seduced by the Myth. I finished the book like a soldier after war, yearning for another tour. Whatever practical value a film school education may hold, there is no denying how much fun students have there. Compared to its equally maligned brethren — law school and business school — film school feels like a three year rock-and-roll fantasy camp. During my entire time at USC, I was only ever worried with the immediate: the moment-to-moment artistic battles that consume the lives of creative professionals. Not a single decision, no matter how small, seemed the least bit trivial. Compared to the distasteful jobs that many students hold before and after school, this is an exhilarating way to live, and I pray dearly that I will be able to return to it one day — when I am not paying for the privilege.
Student loans kick in after graduation, which is why the majority of my classmates are still in school, long after the three-year benchmark USC advertises for its program. And, incredibly, I find myself growing increasingly jealous of them. I am one of the lucky few escapees with an actual paying job, working at a software company that services studios and networks in the industry. As far as positions go, it is everything a post-graduate with my age and qualifications could ask for. It is relatively secure, gives me a sizable check each month to chip away at the debt, and leaves me plenty of hours to pursue my writing. By all practical measures, I should be pleased with where I am. Where once there was constant action, now there is endless time for self-reflection. I try to take a Zen-like view of things, focusing on the journey more than the destination. But this does not come easy.
Boman’s story makes me feel like a failure, and I find that maddening. Compared to his “hero’s narrative” — his perfect arc of adversity leading to triumph — mine seems messy and unfulfilling. How desperately I wish my film school story could read like his! To look back and find that every beat of one’s journey carried purpose and meaning toward a surprising, yet perfect denouement must be remarkably satisfying. Even his health issues seem somehow neater and nobler than my personal bouts with emotional distress and creative uncertainty. If our stories were films, his would be the four-quadrant studio tearjerker, and mine the sloppy, tragicomic art-house flick.
At heart, Boman is an enterprising raconteur. As with many Hollywood icons before him, his primary goal is to tell a story engaging enough to keep the audience’s attention for whatever duration is required to extract payment. He succeeds here by telling his audience exactly what they want to hear, while gamely skipping over anything they might find distasteful. This is the skill that USC purports to teach its students, and it is a fantastic and lucrative one to have.
Boman played the game better than anyone and deserved his reward. But in the profoundly ironic ending, left out of Boman’s telling of the story, he now can take his place back at the starting line with the rest of us underlings.
That man on the cover with his ripped Trojan shirt: the image is meant to be over the top, of course, but it bespeaks the very real deception at the heart of all of this. The myth of film school only works if it sells itself like a blockbuster flick: big, broad, and sexy. It must be loud and vibrant, with copious amounts of flesh and muscle. This makes it is easy to imagine being there, amongst the fortunate few — the camera-wielders — living and dying with every shot, overcoming the challenges to fulfill one’s destiny up on the big screen.
With each passing year, a new and ever-growing horde of students arrives, checkbooks at the ready, poised to live out the Steve Boman dream. But film school is not a dream or a myth; it is a school, a place to learn the nuts and bolts of shooting a movie. If you are looking for anything more than that, buyers beware. All that glitters is not gold.