"It was a proud moment for me a few years back when I learned I was the recipient of the School of the Arts Film Program Andrew Sarris Award. In a funny way, he was the man most responsible for my interest in film. When I was in my last year of high school, I discovered his landmark book The American Cinema, which I carried around with me everywhere, combing through his appreciations of Pantheon Directors as if they were gospel. At a certain point I was convinced I wanted to be a foot soldier in Sarris’ army and do battle against Pauline Kael and her followers. I would pore over his reviews in the Village Voice and parrot his positions as the film critic for my college newspaper. There’s no denying that I was an annoying fellow.
Somehow, when I finally got to Columbia’s Film Program, I never took a class with Andrew Sarris—by then I wanted to write screenplays and direct. I came to Columbia to study with Frank Daniel, whom I consider the greatest teacher I ever had. Frank was a wonderful mentor: Santa Claus with Pilsner in hand. I latched onto him the summer of my junior year at Tufts, when he arrived to teach a seminar on screenwriting. And what a summer I had! Our relationship was not unlike that of Chaplin and the wealthy guy in City Lights. After class, when Frank held court over a beer or two or three, I became his special buddy. The next day, in the bright glare of the classroom, I would desperately try to regain that particular kinsman-ship achieved the night before, only to learn that I was just another student.
But it was in the classroom that the real magic happened with Frank. That’s where one astute comment on his part could turn your pedestrian treatment into something that clicked with internal logic. It’s where he showed you that remarkably there was a three-act structure in Hiroshima Mon Amour. It’s where he taught you how drama works. I was thrilled when I learned at the end of that summer that Frank was taking over the Film Program at Columbia. After delaying admission for a year in order to open and run a movie theater in Chicago, I packed my bags and moved to New York to study with Frank and become a filmmaker.
The School of the Arts Film Program was a wild place at that time. Frank had very specific ideas in mind on how to change the program, but they had yet to take hold. Contradictions were everywhere. You would learn one thing in Frank’s screenplay analysis, only to learn it was preposterous in Stefan Scharf’s film analysis. Each teacher had something very different to say, and after listening to them all, your head was left spinning. But there was so much to learn, and at the end of the day you were forced to draw your own conclusions and develop your own voice.
Another curious thing about the Film Program at Columbia was that there didn’t seem to be any great desire on anyone’s part to train for a job in the industry. If you wanted a job, you went to NYU. At Columbia you studied the history of drama and film theory and art history, as opposed to lighting or sound. At Columbia everyone was going to be a screenwriter, a director, or a film critic for the New York Times. In other words, everyone was an auteur. That gave the crews on Columbia student films a peculiar chemistry—everyone was overflowing with significant ideas but no one knew how to do anything.
Through all the charming madness I came to understand two essential truths. First, there is a language and structure to films that can be learned. And then, after absorbing this knowledge, you have to figure things out for yourself. For me, these simple ideas were the most important thing I learned in film school. There are rules and there is your personal voice.
Perhaps the strangest thing about my Columbia experience was that I never considered becoming a producer. I certainly had no direct training at Columbia. At the time I thought producers were oddball bean-counting business guys and I wanted nothing to do with the profession. It was only after 10 years as a screenwriter that I decided to take the plunge. I had become frustrated that the only work I was getting as a writer was either projects that weren’t being made, or ones I didn’t feel a connection with. Most of all, I felt I wasn’t making movies. I came to realize that as a producer you can pick projects that you love, and you can figure out how to put them together yourself. You simply declare yourself a producer as opposed to waiting for someone else’s validation. You’re often the first person on the film and you stay with it all the way through until the end. Essentially, you’re engaged in every aspect of the filmmaking process. The greatest tribute I can give to my Columbia Film Program education is that without any tangible training as a producer, I felt totally prepared."