A dark haired man stands, holding a film camera, looking at the image in focus: the subject, a young woman. A man dressed in black holds the “cut/action” clapper board in front of the woman’s face.
Credit: Lisanto via Unsplash

Film school versus free spirits: does good directing truly depend on years of study?

By Marine Ourhali

Marine examines the pros and cons of the output of creators who deferred to the traditional academic route, compared those who were self-taught and experimented on their own terms.

When asked who my favourite director is, I answer without hesitation every time: Darren Aronofsky. I fell in love with cinema thanks to Requiem for a Dream, the psychological thriller released in 2000. This film introduced me to the language of cinema, from editing and framing, to photography and directing – it was my first lesson in film. If we look at his biography, we can see that Aronofsky studied film at the prestigious Harvard University, as did other great names in cinema such as Damien Chazelle and Terrence Malick. Other directors who have graduated from film school include Denis Villeneuve, Spike Lee, Ang Lee, and Martin Scorsese. So, is studying at film school a prerequisite for success in the film industry? 

Film schools are often criticised, especially by those who have attended them. Krzysztof Kieślowski, the director of The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy, confessed: “Of course, you could, no doubt, call my going to film school the biggest mistake I ever made.” The criticisms levelled at film schools are numerous, and they are particularly criticised for being elitist and disconnected from the film industry. Film schools tend to teach their students to be academic, to adopt a certain way of making films. Homogeneous limits should never be imposed upon artistic mediums.

“Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee” – James Cameron

Many great directors, famous for their creativity and technical skills, have never attended film school, including Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino stated,  “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films’”. So, by watching films, each person develops their own imagery, which will be transcribed in their filmmaking output. Thus, each film is a remix of all the influences to which the director is attached. Tarantino is an excellent example of this because every frame in every film of his references works that comprise his cinephilia. As Wong Kar-Wai, the director of In the Mood for Love and Happy Together said, cinema is the best film school; “I’m not coming from film school, I learned cinema in the cinema watching films”. The overpowering sentiment is that you learn successfully, and perhaps more effectively, without institutional influence. 

Moreover, almost everything that film schools teach can be learned in a simple, self-directed way, which explains why most of today’s popular directors are self-taught. Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia, summed it up perfectly: “My filmmaking education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and magazines, and with the new technology, you can watch entire movies accompanied by audio commentary from the director. You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it”. Cinema is above all an art, and like all arts it is forged with practice, so quite simply, to learn cinema you have to make films. Film schools can offer the opportunity and, above all, the means to make your own film, but they are not the only way. The most important thing is to have a vision and a good story to tell – the technique can be picked up along the way.


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