There is a very slim chance an actor will make money or get discovered working on a student film, but there are many other benefits, like tape, experience on-set, exposure, and the most important: forming relationships. Meeting a future Scorsese or Coppola, your creative chemistry could overflow into a career. Years after you worked with that kid from AFI, he may end up making his mark on the industry in a big way, and isn't it nice you considered taking a chance on him, so now he may take a chance on you?
Film schools in Los Angeles, or more specifically, schools that most actors submit themselves for through BSW's casting section, include: Art Center, Art Institute, Brooks Institute of Photography, Cal Arts, Cal State Long Beach (where a 55-year-old Steven Spielberg finished his B.A. last year), Chapman University, Los Angeles Community College, L.A. Film School, Loyola Marymount University, New York Film Academy, and Orange County College. We focus on three: University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television (USC), University of California at Los Angeles' School of School of Theater, Film and Television (UCLA), and American Film Institute (AFI). Each of these schools boasts long lists of award-winning alumni and other highly established talent actively working in today's industry, which can be mouth-watering to an actor hoping to work with the next generation.
Picture the average student filmmaker: young, gangly, one hand shaking while holding a Bolex camera, the other holding a Jolt cola, ready to pull an all-nighter for tomorrow's exam. With some frustration, student filmmakers have had to face their stereotypical neophyte image within the industry. Yet they continue to work hard and prove themselves and their talent.
"They are not kids," said Delia Salvi, a full professor at UCLA and author of Friendly Enemies, a book about the actor/director relationship. "No. 1, the graduate students are 23 years old and up. And No. 2, we have a lot of older people who come in or back to school and decide they want to be screenwriters or what have you."
Director Grace Lee, whose thesis film Barrier Device took home a Student Academy Award and the Directors Guild of America's Student Award, among others last year, had already spent a few years working in documentary and independent film production before she joined the graduate program at UCLA, which gave her a very good idea of what to expect on her own films.
"Everybody is learning," said Lee. "Just because we are students doesn't mean we didn't have previous lives doing other things. Like, there was a composer in my class. A lot of people in film school had been working in film before, but maybe not as directors. Also, a lot of people these days seem to have a lot of connections coming into film school already."
"I think there is too much nonsense work to bypass the opportunity of a good [student] script," said John Nein, who's also a recent UCLA grad. "And look how many directors and writers have come from film schools. Actors have a choice. They can be a part of that, or they can do a commercial. And I don't think anyone is going to learn anything about acting by playing the detergent woman."
There certainly can be a lot of creativity and fresh perspectives coming out of these students' culture. And actors should consider this: Even if the experience on a student film is terrible, at least they may realize what it takes to better judge future projects.
Actor Mark Ballou starred in The Wedding Toast, Nein's thesis film. After working on a few student and independent films, he agreed there is always apprehension coming onboard any project. "Both [indie and student films] can be similar because you are dealing with people who have very little to no experience. I'm nervous every time I'm on a gig. It doesn't matter if it's student or some director who has been in the business for 40 years," said Ballou.
The coveted tape copy is high on everyone's list as the main benefit of working on a student film. After all, no casting director, agent, or manager will take you seriously unless he or she can see your range on a demo reel. Beginning actors considering student films may already have landed roles in feature film and television, but they may have had only a few lines. Or perhaps they're frustrated with being typecast and simply want to round out their reel. Whatever the reason, more tape can mean more opportunity to showcase your talents.
Plus, student films generally have a running time of five to 30 minutes, which means the beginning actor has the opportunity to score a lead and some tape a lot more easily than anywhere else. A beginning actor can also learn, under less stressful circumstances, how to act on-camera and other essentials like knowing where the light is, where the marks are, and dealing with the limitations that a set can put on a performance.
"The experience of having to deal with the technical aspects has a tremendous impact on an actor's performance," explained Salvi, whose former students include directors Alexander Payne, Mark Rydell, and Burt Brinckerhoff. "That is critical for the growth and comfort of an actor, so that when he goes on to a professional set he doesn't freeze up."
Nevertheless you can't use good tape if you never receive it. Make sure on any student film you get the supervising instructor's name and contact info—especially if it's non-union—in case something goes wrong or you have trouble obtaining your precious piece of film.
Craft Services by Domino's?
Need a dressing room? The bathroom's down the hall. Craft services? Chips are over there. Where's your trailer? Are you kidding? A student film set, like any other, can be a tad on the chaotic side, and the amenities are usually by a little less than the studio norm. Student filmmakers are in the process of learning how to arrange a cast and a crew, wrangle equipment, stay on budget, all while trying to tell a story conveying meaning within a tight schedule. Making a film can be a battle for anyone no matter how experienced, and the on-set conditions can vary depending on whether a student film project is undergrad, grad, or a thesis. Thesis productions are like a culmination of everything they've learned over their time in a program, so those sets tend to run a little smoother than the average.
"Film school is a rehearsal for things you don't get to practice in real life," said Nein. "It's this great chance to actually experiment with things that you would be too frightened to experiment with when your career is on the line." This experimentation not only helps filmmakers but also gives actors an opportunity to adjust and mold their own craft.
For the non-union student film, the on-set conditions may be a little worse because there are no SAG guidelines to adhere to. On films like these, students may have no food at all, or they may offer their actors nothing but fast-food.
Actor Ballou understands the need for good grub on-set, which he was fed while starring in The Wedding Toast. "You knew you were respected. If they weren't going to pay you, they at least took care of you so that you could do your best work. John [Nein] and his people, as much as we had to rough it at times, took care of us, so we weren't just eating, like, Rice Krispies treats for lunch," he said.
Both Nein and Lee used all the resources they could to take care of their actors and make sure they had a more private place to dress and prepare for their roles. Lee shot half of Barrier Device on the UCLA soundstage, which has dressing rooms, and the scenes shot on location always had a room set aside for actors, makeup, wardrobe, etc. Nein shot The Wedding Toast at a college that allowed his crew to take over the dorms, and when there was no adjacent room to set up in, he would set up canopies.
Both filmmakers also used catering companies that service low-budget or student shoots with drinks, hearty entrees, and healthy snacks. Said Nein, "The food budget was actually pretty big—probably 10 percent of the total production budget."
Although there are always opportunities for grants or award money, budget issues can be as frustrating for grad student filmmakers as for independent filmmakers. A lot of student productions are self-financed. Professor Salvi believes that overcoming these kinds of budget constraints is commendable. "They beg, borrow, and steal. They max their credit cards. They make their families do a mortgage. It's wonderful. I tell you, film students are really to be admired," she said.
Courting the Establishment
If a student filmmaker is lucky enough to rope in established talent for his or her film, it's probably because of a savvy script, an organized production, and a SAG agreement awaiting the star who generously lends his or her name to the project.
UCLA grad Grace Lee contacted actor Sandra Oh (Arli$$) through a friend when she was casting her thesis film Barrier Device, about a researcher for a female-condom study who loses all objectivity when she discovers one of her subjects is dating her ex-husband.
"I will work on anything as long as the part is good," said Oh. "Honestly, the year we shot it, it was the best work I was offered. I did a bunch of short films at that time—one good, the others regrettable—because I was desperate to say more than three lines, and here was a real character. How are we actors if we're not acting?"
Second-year USC grad student Jennifer Kushner signed on in June to direct her friend, actor Erin Cardillo, in The Cutting Room Floor, a SAG experimental vehicle Cardillo penned about a lethally ambitious ingénue. Cardillo shares the same manager, Daryl Marshak, with actor Clint Howard. Even though Howard is a steadily working, well-respected character actor, he agreed to play the part of Ira, a seedy character who gets rid of the bodies of A-list actors for a living.
"The bottom line is, I don't need to practice. I don't need the film," Howard said. "But I felt like, if these young people have the dream and the courage to mount and do a short little film, I'm on board. Linda Blair is a friend of mine, and she says, 'Hey, it's a little bit like charity work, working on a student film. You're just kind of giving back.' It's a little bit like doing a day speaking at a college about acting or filmmaking. Listen, there's a lot worse things that we can do with our time."
Even if the idea intrigues an established actor, not everyone can say yes to a role on a student film. Nein found this out the hard way while casting his thesis film last year. "I had one person—I can't say who—now a somewhat established actor, who came to my reading with somebody else just accidentally and loved the sides, and actually asked if they could audition," he recalled. "Then when I called them back a week later, they said, 'My agent won't let me do it. It's a student film,' and I felt like that was so wrong. The only chance you have to grow as an actor is to take meaningful roles, and I don't think it should matter where they come from."
Nein had better luck when casting his first film at UCLA, about Eastern European immigrants coming to the L.A. area. He placed a casting notice with Breakdown Services, while his other classmates were getting actors from the undergrad acting program. Yugoslavian star Mirjana Jokovic was looking to begin her career in America and submitted herself for his film. Nein grew up in Europe and immediately recognized Jokovic from her work on several big foreign films.
"I thought, There is no way," Nein said, laughing. "This is actually the star of Underground who wants to be in my film. So, yeah, it was a stroke of luck. I think it was refreshing for her to be in a longer piece playing a real character. She's actually done quite well since. She's in a lot of Broadway plays and things like that."
Director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) knows a lot about being a student. He attended Harvard for two years, Wesleyan for another two, AFI's graduate program, and finally the Sundance Writer's Program. At AFI, Arteta worked with several established names, thanks to the school's close relationship with SAG. "They had an office for casting [at AFI], and people know about it, so they volunteer," he said. "You can really get a good quality of actors there. I worked with [film noir star] Ruth Roman on my first video project there. It was the last movie she ever did." Arteta also listed Fred Willard, Ryan Stiles, Robin Duke, and Paul Dooley as actors he previously worked with on his grad films whom he would love to work with again.
Students have a much better chance of nabbing established SAG actors if they set up a contract with a SAG agreement. Some schools always use the SAG waiver, but for those that don't SAG has recently updated its website, www.sagindie.org, which provides great first-timer information, printable versions of contracts, and links to grants and funding websites.
"You can learn to make a film on your own," confessed USC grad student Kushner. "You don't have to go to film school to make films. But one of the best parts of film school is working with people who are also passionate and inspired and doing the same thing." Indeed, each school is like a conductor for electrically charged talent and, like static cling, students form lifelong working relationships. Martin Scorsese met his film editor Thelma Schoonmaker at NYU when they were both students, and from 1968 to '70 not only did he teach filmmakers Oliver Stone and Spike Lee but also helped student Michael Wadleigh edit the Oscar-winning documentary Woodstock.
"Jennifer [Kushner] is probably going to end up directing television or films," said Howard. "You never know when you're going to work with someone on an experimental student level or low-budget film who may end up becoming the next Francis Coppola or Robert Zemeckis. And if I left a good taste in their mouth, they're going to be at a party somewhere, or they're going to be working with somebody—they may not even be in a position of actually making a film—and my name pops up. Listen, it's a good idea to be out there and have your name circulate around this whole other little generation of filmmakers."
"It's really important forming those relationships," said Lee. "By the end of school, you've gone through so many things together. You're sort of like war buddies. It's a very short time that you know people, but it's very intense." When director Arteta attended Wesleyan, he met a slew of talented people he's continued to work with, including his producing partner Matthew Greenfield, Eden Shapiro, the executive producer of his first feature Star Maps, and Mike White, who has appeared in all three of Arteta's features and written the last two.
When Arteta was looking to cast a musical short for Wesleyan, he wasn't sure how to run an audition. He put a sign in the theatre department and had people sing "Hey, Good Looking," then cast the film based on how much fun people had singing that song. "It was wonderful," he said. "And one guy who got cast, Eric Slovin, is now one of the writers on Saturday Night Live. Dar Williams, who also got cast, has become a huge folk star. And [Stephen Trask], who wrote the music to the musical, also wrote the music to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I was very lucky."
"Jay Roach is an example of that," pointed out Bonnie Senter, director of Student-Industry Relations for USC. "Practically the entire crew on Meet the Parents was USC. I mean, if you have someone like Jay Roach who is doing this film, [who] is he going to call? Whoever has his back, and it's going to be USC people. I've seen that all the time. When they need people who know what they are doing, they are going to call their friends."
"The quality of the student films at USC is excellent for our advanced undergraduates and our graduate students," assured Doug Wellman, adjunct professor at USC. "Many of their films you could put up against any professional film and would not have to feel in any way that you are looking at a student project." Wellman made mention of one former student, David Greenspan, who won the Golden Palm for best short at Cannes in 2001 for his film Bean Cake. "It wasn't even in a student category, so you know we're talking some quality films," he said.
While director Arteta was at AFI, only a quarter of the people who made it the first year were allowed to come back for a second year to get a degree. "AFI is very intensely competitive and very productive. You made three movies in the first year, and then if you made it to the second year you made a longer movie," said Arteta. With this filtering system, you can bet that the average AFI grad student will probably not be wasting your time.
When a production is directly connected to a college, actors can feel safer knowing that the filmmakers are directly connected to professors who are, for the most part, fairly hands-on when fostering the film in class. However, be warned that professors generally do not visit the set or watch over take after take on location.
"Mostly it depends on what class you're talking about," explained USC professor Wellman. "For example, on advanced projects, which run generally 20 minutes, there is sort of a constant interaction with the professor on everything, from creative issues of script, story structure, safety issues, casting, all the elements of physical production as well as creative, and through the various stages of postproduction for various cuts."
"The faculty supervise the scripts very closely, particularly the thesis scripts, and each thesis script has a committee," explained UCLA professor Salvi. "I've served on the committee many times, and everyone gives the director some feedback on the writing of the script. But on the set, while [the students] are shooting, the faculty does not interfere."
Nudity in student films is not common, but, when it makes it past the script phase, you can count on it being handled with care, especially if SAG is involved. Under the SAG Student Film Letter Agreement, the producer must warn the actor about any nudity prior to the first meeting, close the set to only key people, forbid any still photography, and get written consent regarding any use of doubles.
"I think most actors these days are willing to do anything discreet, but I don't think too many of them would go for frontal nudity, because really, What does that have to do with the story?" noted Salvi. "I don't think I've ever seen a student film that had that kind of nudity in it. Ever. They want to tell a story, and they are really not geared toward that kind of exploitation."
"I've only seen one film that had any nudity in it in the six years I've been here," said Wellman. "The scripts are very carefully scrutinized for issues of safety and content with things involving nudity. Safety is another thing that is very closely watched, as well as use of children. We adhere not only to state Labor guidelines but also we have our own rules regarding children, like the students are responsible for getting a studio teacher. So professional guidelines are always followed."
End of the Line
If students are proud of their completed films, they will quickly submit them to various film festivals, hoping for the interest and prizes that will help fund their next projects. USC hosts an exhibition-only film festival twice a year, called First Look, at the DGA and on campus, and members of the entertainment community attend, which can be very appealing to actors hungry for exposure. UCLA's Spotlight Awards are similar to First Look; they are held at the end of the year and the films are judged by industry people.
If festivals aren't enough, USC has its own division, coordinated by former William Morris agents Larry Auerbach and Bonnie Senter, which helps bridge the gap between young talent at USC and the entertainment industry.
Nein's film The Wedding Toast scored big at the 2003 Spotlight Awards, taking home awards for best narrative film, best directing, and best screenplay. "As soon as I heard that the film was not only screening but that it had done so well, I just buckled down and put out a huge mailing of like 200 postcards to casting people and agents just to let them know that it was happening and how it had been received," said actor Ballou. "I got one call from one agent who said he was going to be there, but I don't know if he was. Even if nobody showed up, the fact that I was able to send out a mailing worked out well for me timing-wise."
"You never know who will see it," said actor Oh. "I know I recently got a job in Curtiss Clayton's film Rick [also featuring Bill Pullman and Dylan Baker] because he was on the short-film circuit with Sunny Lee's Cowgirl [which Oh also starred in]. Just a note to all the harder-choice actors—you know, us non-mainstreamers—these are places where people are. Schools are where many of the great directors start, and if you're from the same tribe, chances are they'll be able to recognize you." BSW