[Editor's Note: We asked filmmaker David Henry Gerson to share his experience of attending the American Film Institute and how it lead to his being the recipient of a student Academy Award for his highly celebrated short, 'All These Voices.' Below, Gerson shares both the film and the key ways that filmmakers on the fence about attending film school can take advantage of the potential opportunity].
While film school is not for everyone, I’d like to share with those considering going to film school some of the pros and cons of what I got out of attending the American Film Institute (AFI) and of making a short film in that environment.
In my case, I wanted to bend some rules. I should say right off the bat that film school might not be the most logical first place to try and break rules. But the process of coming up against the school’s guidelines, preconceived notions, and being exposed to conflicting voices helped me find my own aesthetic while making All These Voices (the winner of Student Academy Award in 2016).
I wanted to tackle a difficult subject (the memory of the Holocaust), one that was deep in my DNA (my grandparents were survivors). I wanted to make a film that would function a bit differently than the typical World War 2 film, one that might scratch the surface of shocking the senses into looking at the past in a new light.
1. Film school provides a structure that you should welcome
It’s worth comparing the process of making All These Voices to that of making Chapel Perilous, a short film I produced and acted in outside of film school at around the same time (it won the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival). At Sundance, a programmer who watches thousands of shorts told me once that AFI was notorious for making very long shorts (20 minutes or more) that were a bit heavy-handed and always had a crane in them (fancy toys does not great drama make, necessarily…).
We had total freedom to do virtually anything we wanted on Chapel Perilous. It came together over the course of a week or so, while All These Voices came together over almost a decade of thoughts, a year of pointed researching, and a half-year of script development. Chapel Perilous had a crew of around 10 while All These Voices were around 100.
While the films were totally different, the first point is that if you want to just go and shoot with total freedom, you don’t need to do that in film school. However, film school provides a structure to develop your aesthetic sensibility. It can make you question what you truly care about as a filmmaker. It demands a practice of more formal communication in pre-production.
At film school, both students and professors challenge and force you to grow in a very condensed way. While you will find friends and foes who challenge you outside of school, film school pressure cooks it. Instead of making a few films over a decade, at AFI I made four shorts in two years and was exposed to so many conflicting opinions that I was forced to figure out exactly who I was and who I wasn’t.
2. Take advantage of the collaborators film school will introduce you to
The number one benefit of making a thesis film at AFI was that I was immediately able to find my collaborators amongst a wide array of talented artists and craftsmen. I met my fierce producer, Beatrice von Schwerin, and learned how valuable it is to have a producer whom you know has your back. As filmmakers search for our shots, it is essential to find someone who will protect your vision and push to keep your “weird” grounded in reality.
Previously I had only written alone, but film school taught me the benefit of working with other writers. Screenwriter Martin Horvat traveled with me from Slovenia to Auschwitz, to my father’s parents’ town of Zamosc, Poland, and back down to Ljubljana. Finding a collaborator who is willing to bounce around ideas is essential. Brennan Peters then came aboard as well, a second writer who helped us to put structure back onto the many ideas and masks, ephemera and ghosts, we had amassed in our extensive research.
In exposing me to the work of the great minds of the past, AFI taught me an incredible amount about my own aesthetics. Many of the visual references for our film came from films viewed at school.
"I found a cinematographer and a production designer who were simultaneously being trained at AFI to ask the kinds of pointed questions you hope for from collaborators."
3. Use each of the available resources that film school provides
I learned the nuts and bolts of cinematography in school and a definite pro of being a film student is the ability to get discounts at places like Panavision and Kodak. I found a cinematographer, Eli Arenson, and a production designer, Daniela Medeiros, who were simultaneously being trained at AFI to ask the kinds of pointed questions you hope for from collaborators, such as what sets were left behind on the stage in our film? Why it is essential to shoot on 35mm film? When does flat space versus deep space make sense? How do we make something visually new in dealing with an old story?
My other key AFI collaborator was Spencer Koobatian. I had seen Spencer’s editing in another fellow’s film, and saw how he could find hypnotic meaning in rapid editing montages. I needed his mind on this project, his philosophical eye towards depicting the Holocaust, and his technical acuity. All these collaborators together helped push the film to be far greater, and each spent countless hours doing so.
4. Your student colleagues will have more time to dedicate to your project
I should also mention that I was able to bring on some other talented key collaborators who were not in film school (our choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall, our composer Brian McOmber, our casting director Stacia Kimler, the actors, and many more…) who brought immense meaning to the project.
However, the sheer fact that we weren’t together in school every day meant that I had less time to build with them in the ways I was able to build with other AFI fellows. A key pro of film school is that fellows have more time to commit to your projects, at least more than working professionals outside of school will have.
The challenge of film school is that the professors and administrators have been used to doing things a certain way. In this environment, if you’re trying to make a film that functions a bit differently, it’s always going to be a bit of a challenge to hold your own. Professors will demand perfectly clear communication, especially on intangible or abstract ideas. What are the potentially horrific implications of telling the story from a Nazi’s POV? Don’t make a Holocaust film, everyone does that. You will fail…
You can’t just “go and shoot,” especially when your crew size is 100 vs 10, and so I found myself having to answer difficult questions about my bizarre dreams, instincts, and thoughts. For some, the demands of professors can shake off one’s own instincts. For others, it can embolden them. This will always be true, and it’s important to bare this in mind when exposing yourself to film school. You are the master of your own sensibility. Fortunately, I was able to find professors who both challenged and supported me. Without their support, I might have folded on my instincts, which would have been a waste. Instead, I learned the value of holding onto them. These professors also helped develop the film from ideas to grounding them in reality.
"When revisiting narratives that have been told many times before, it is essential to have people around you who question why and how you tell the story."
5. Befriend mentors who will question and support your work
The last pro of film school for me was that criticism from varying voices was essential to finding my own way. In fact, I titled the film All These Voices to remind me of all the different opinions swirling around; the title became a calling to stay focused on the inner voice. I was not out to tell another traditional story of WWII, but rather to make peace with ghosts from my past, to contemplate forgiveness of Nazis, to contemplate telling the story of a Nazi.
In response to doubts about being ineffective in my communication, I was trained to make every single detail of what I put into the frame crystal clear. While some of the elements in the film might seem random at times, I was pushed to meticulously infuse the film with heightened thought. I designed meaning in every prop, every color, and every line on-screen.
I often think of something I call the Van Gogh Effect, how we can see a Van Gogh painting on subway ads, fanny packs, and billboards. Because we’re so exposed to an image, we become desensitized to it. When we see the actual painting in the museum, it takes us a good hour of looking to wipe away all of our preconceived notions. The same can be said for a film about the Holocaust.
When revisiting narratives that have been told many times before, it is essential to have people around you who question why and how you tell the story, who support you, and who push you to find means of telling it in ways that break preconceived notions. I found these at film school, and for those not going to film school, I encourage you to work doubly hard to seek out all kinds of varied voices when building your own films.
David Henry Gerson is a Student Academy Award®winning filmmaker whose work has also won prizes at Sundance and other international festivals. Born and raised in Washington DC, he is a graduate of Columbia University and the American Film Institute. David is the recipient of the AFI 2016 Richard P. Rodgers Award for Creative Excellence. His film, ALL THESE VOICES, tells the story of a young Nazi soldier encountering an avant-garde theater-troupe of survivors celebrating the end of WWII. It won the 2016 Student Academy Award®. David’s spec screenplay, ABOVE KINGS, was nominated to the 2017 Tracking Board Hit List.