Double Vision

The so-called “Film Brat” generation of the middle to late 1970s has been blamed for, or credited with, many things regarding independent filmmaking—from sparking off a studio-sanctioned Golden Age (Scorsese, Coppola) to ushering in a studio-sanctioned Dark Age (Lucas, Spielberg). But whatever the myths or merits of that motley band, there’s no denying one salient detail: collectively, emphatically, they put film school on the cultural map. What before were seen as havens for dilettantes and theoreticians—if they were seen at all—suddenly looked like auteur factories. Indeed, in each decade hence, another muscular corps of industry players and indie visionaries seemed to spring fully formed from the film school godhead, from Spike Lee and Robert Zemeckis in the 1980s, to Robert Rodriguez and the Coen Brothers in the 1990s. And hundreds more hopefuls could point to these examples to validate their own film school ambitions, in perpetuity.

They should know better. There was no factory then and there isn’t now. (Spielberg and Rodriguez, tellingly, both dropped out of their respective programs.) But regardless of geographic location, equipment resources, or faculty expertise, many film schools try to be all things to all students—trade school, industry launch pad, artistic incubator. Few succeed on all fronts, and even the top programs in the country acquire reputations for unofficial specialties that highlight their strengths and downplay their weaknesses.

Then there’s the University of Texas at Austin. Nestled in the heart of a city recently deemed the “best place in the US to live and make movies” by Moviemaker magazine, UT’s RTF (Radio, Television, and Film) program is angling to match its nationally renowned documentary reputation with a unique drive to teach commercial narrative filmmaking—all within the auspices of an affordable state school. Oh, and its production and post equipment is top-shelf, too. UT may not be all things to all students—yet—but it might be the closest any film school has come thus far.

Thom Mount at the UT Film Institute’s launch in September.

Let’s start with what the school already does well: grassroots documentary. As with other top film schools, the graduate program at UT sets the standard for the RTF department as a whole. Dr. Thomas Schatz, Ph.D., author of seminal film studies texts like The Genius of the System, and a mainstay on the RTF faculty for nearly three decades (he served as department chair several times), has closely tracked the program’s growth. “This MFA program is ten years old,” he says, “and I’d say we really began to hit our stride when we hired Paul Stekler.”

Stekler, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker with a Harvard doctorate in government, joined RTF as head of the production program in 1997 and immediately set about reorganizing the MFA program, hiring a slew of renowned documentarians (such as Andy Garrison, Ellen Spiro, and Richard Lewis) and setting up a new student fee structure to fund expanded equipment purchases. The result has been a steady stream of student accolades including three student Academy Awards, a David L. Wolper Student Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, and a regional Emmy.

While Stekler insists that “there is no philosophic orientation toward any particular kind of filmmaking” in his program, he acknowledges that “it’s a lot easier in some ways to have student success be seen in documentary work.” Sean Cunningham, an RTF undergraduate who says he “fell in love” with nonfiction filmmaking partly because he couldn’t afford the costs of celluloid, shares this assessment. “If you talk to any of [the faculty], they don’t just know about documentary—they’re very well versed in a lot of other aspects of filmmaking,” he says. “But I think that the way the department is structured right now sort of lends itself [to documentary]. It’s cheaper to have classes offering a digital experience, and all the instructors are working heavily in documentary, so those two factors in combination do slant the department in that direction.”

Documentarian Paul Steklar helped form the staff of the Institute.

In fact, the program’s documentary reputation is so strong that it often attracts students who might have otherwise focused on fictional narrative—if they were even filmmakers to begin with. Take Ryan Polomski: after graduating from the University of Montana with an English degree, he applied to both the RTF and the Journalism departments because he “didn’t have a lot of experience as far as what went into filmmaking.” He’s now a third-year MFA student working on a thirty-minute documentary thesis film.

“My application was full of short stories and poems and this one [undergraduate] narrative film, and some of my profs thought that I was going to be a dramatic narrative filmmaker,” he recalls. “But I was impressed by the documentary filmmakers that were here, and when it came time to decide what stories I wanted to tell, they always ended up being documentary stories.”

Even Cunningham, who has lined up some promising post-graduate job prospects in editing, says he’s seriously considering continuing into the MFA program. “We sometimes shared class time with Paul Stekler’s graduate class,” he says, “and we really got to see the quality that exists at that level.”

Still, not every UT film student wants to be the next Morris or Maysles—in fact, Stekler admits that the majority don’t. “We have close to 700 kids in forty classes doing production each semester,” Stekler says. “That’s a gigantic program, and considering that most of our students want to have something to do with narrative filmmaking, it would be irresponsible of us not to help them come out of here with skills that will help them if they go to L.A.”

Matt Ryan is one of those students, or at least was. Although he was never fully admitted into the RTF department, he says he “took all the classes I could before you have to be in the major.” He dropped out of UT last semester to, as he puts it, “explore other options”—like interning on local Austin shoots and producing indie work through his own company, Mister Films. (He’s completed two features and a handful of shorts since 2001.) “I met a lot of people who were in [the department],” Ryan says. “I don’t know anybody in RTF who graduated and went right into the film industry, which is what I’d like to do.”

In fact, UT alumni (like Warner Brothers director/producer Thomas Schlamme and Newmarket Films president Bob Berney) have risen to the upper echelons of The Business—but Tom Schatz agrees with the basic essence of Ryan’s sentiment. “We’re doing okay in terms of narrative, and we won a Student Oscar two years ago [for Helen Haeyoung Lee’s film Sophie], but it’s still not at a level we’d like, in terms of the student work or the quality of the program.”

As a result, Schatz says, UT-Austin is often referred to as “the best film school between the coasts”—faint praise enveloping an implicit comparison to well-known narrative/industry powerhouses like NYU and UCLA. Schatz hopes that the recent creation of the UT Film Institute will remedy this situation and send the RTF program to the top of the narrative filmmaking heap.

Five years in the making and officially launched last September, the Film Institute—according to Schatz, its principal architect—is “an add-on to the existing MFA program,” and meant to fuse conservatory-style film school pedagogy with “real world” feature film production. Burnt Orange Productions, a private for-profit production company formed expressly for this purpose, will partner with the Institute to produce “eight to ten high quality, low budget independent feature films during its first three years of operation,” according to a UT press release.

Working either as apprentices to professional department heads or as department heads themselves, RTF graduate students who wish to specialize in one of six production areas (producing, directing, editing, cinematography, production design, and sound) can collaborate on these features to receive credits in both senses of the word: toward a graduate degree and on a professional feature. Schatz oversees the initiative’s academic side as the Film Institute’s Executive Director; Carolyn Pfeiffer, former vice chair of the AFI Conservatory and a successful independent producer, manages the commercial angle as President and CEO of Burnt Orange (which opened up shop in October).

“It’s clichéd to say, but this is a classic example of a paradigm shift,” Schatz asserts. “This will have a conservatory dimension to it akin to an art school, but at the same time, without question, it’s moving toward an architecture school, and particularly a medical school, model. In certain aspects of higher education, particularly in science and technology, this whole idea of commercialization of resources is not an issue. In the arts and humanities we’ve not learned to think that way at all; but a film school is a different breed of arts/humanities education. We are not a trade school, period. But we are a professional school.”

The presence of two such ambitious production programs under one roof raises questions about the respective philosophies behind narrative and documentary filmmaking in an educational setting. How distinct are they, and how will such distinctions affect RTF faculty and students? Schatz says that the Film Institute’s apparent status as a separate entity (UT technically designates it as a “research unit”) stems mostly from legal considerations and that “it will have a very fluid relationship with the [RTF] department.” At the same time, Schatz adds that its mere presence “implies a fundamental difference” between the two forms of filmmaking.

Other faculty members, like Richard Lewis, who teaches graduate-level producing and screenwriting courses (and has been involved in generating ideas for new Film Institute-related classes), believe the difference is more skin-deep. “For a successful documentary you need much of the same stuff that you need in a fictional film,” says Lewis, who has worked both as a Hollywood story analyst and a producer for PBS and National Geographic television. “It sounds crass to say, ‘OK, where are your turning points,’ but when you pitch something to A&E, they’re going to want to know, ‘When we go to commercial, what are we ending on?’ To me, storytelling is storytelling and that’s what I stress in the classes I teach.”

Besides, he adds, the culture in the RTF department already fosters a good amount of overlap between the two orientations. “We make a conscious effort to split the incoming MFA admits [into] half narrative and half documentary-oriented,” he says. “In the years which follow, it’s amazing to see how many of the people we bring in as documentary filmmakers end up doing narrative and vice versa. It’s happened time and time again.”

Ryan Polomski attests to this intradepartmental cross-pollination first-hand. “I bring along my narrative film colleagues into the field to shoot for me,” he says, “and I helped a fellow classmate write the script for his narrative thesis film.”

In the end, Austin itself will continue to unify the RTF department’s production priorities, as it has for the past decade. Whether they’re documentary or narrative, commercial or grassroots, UT filmmakers are universally passionate about connecting with their community. For the past two years, Andy Garrison has been using his “Introduction to Digital Documentary” course to forge a link between UT students and the underprivileged minority community of East Austin. Twice a year he and his undergraduate students collaborate with East Austin citizens on a number of intimate documentary shorts, which are then screened for the public in their own neighborhood. Garrison recently secured funding to archive these “East Austin Stories” on video and furnish them for sale and checkout at a local community center.

“If you’re going to make documentaries in a place, it’s important that you’re there the next day and people can come to you if they have some issue with what you’ve made,” Garrison says.

As for Burnt Orange and the UT Film Institute, Carolyn Pfeiffer says that “if we are a window to anywhere else in the world where people want to go and make films, fabulous; but we’re really an Austin-based program, and the emphasis is really on working with the community and sustaining the crew base here.”

With its documentary and narrative programs looking more solid each semester, the difference between UT and its better-known coastal competition may soon be merely geographical. And that alone may still be enough to tip the scales—although perhaps not in the direction you’d think. After all, Austin needs its film school just as much as the film school needs Austin. Specialties and Student Oscars aside, that gives it an edge that the coasts just can’t claim.

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