While UCLA and USC dominate the market for film schools in this city, there is a third. Loyola Marymount University's school of film and television bills itself as a film school with "storytelling as the centerpiece" and a vision "grounded in humanism, innovation and diversity." The school has both graduate and undergraduate programs and runs a summer workshop for high school students. Teri Schwartz, dean of the film and television school, and Rev. Robert B. Lawton, S.J., president of the university, joined the editorial board to discuss the school and its mission.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article listed the dean of the film and television school of Loyola Marymount University as Terri Schwartz. The dean's first name is spelled Teri.
Here are some highlights:
The vision of a film school
Teri Schwartz: We were looking at ways we could differentiate this school from others. And over 32 years as a producer, I'd often get calls to meet with a first-time writer or actor. And I noticed that people from film schools across the country had gotten slicker and slicker with the equipment, but they began to know less and less about story and about how to work with actors, and really the essence of what a film is. So I decided on my watch I had to create something unique and differentiated. So the vision I developed, in harmony with Fr. Lawton's vision for the university, was to develop a center for visual storytelling grounded in humanism, innovation and diversity.
And the way I define humanism is that you can boldly explore the whole range of human experience, and you can delight, entertain and engage. Innovation is to say yes, we're going to use all the technology, all the equipment you're going to need, and be imaginative, with digital workflow tools. But all that technology has to be in the service of story. And the third pillar is the diversity piece, diversity in all its forms, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic, philosophical, cultural, religious: the whole of it.
Summer creative workshop
Teri Schwartz: The whole idea was to bring 12 of the most creatively promising but underserved students we started with Crenshaw High School six in live-action and six in animation. They come to our campus for a 10-day immersive filmmaking workshop, which is endowed by an angel benefactor, and they work with our screenwriting faculty and our production faculty to learn how to work in collaboration. We pick four scripts out of the 12, and the students make four films. It's been quite remarkable, and has had an effect on how we teach in the classroom and how students work together in teams and collaborate. The other important piece of this was that on day 10 we didn't want to just say Goodbye. We wanted to make it clear that if you want to attend a premier film school like this, you can take advantage of full-ride and partial-ride scholarships, which are endowed by another angel benefactor. So we have tracked these students after they've finished the program. The same way you would track an athlete, why can't you track an artist?
About the school
Teri Schwartz: We have approximately 500 students 400 undergraduate and 100 graduate. At the undergraduate level there's screenwriting, animation, recording arts and film production. At the graduate level we have screenwriting and production. We have a very rigorous curriculum, and a one-to-ten teacher-to-student ratio. It's very hands-on.
Tim Cavanaugh: You mentioned the importance of storytelling. But you could make the argument that the two big film schools in L.A., and I guess the other nationally prominent one would be NYU, are all focused on narrative filmmaking, that what's actually missing is somebody who gets into more conceptual, Stan Brakhage-type stuff. What niche are you filling in film education?
Teri Schwartz: I think there is a difference. I think you could do the Stan Brakhage approach at any of the three schools probably less at USC because it's so geared toward commercial Hollywood. But one key difference is that if you come to our school you can make a film. At the crosstown schools you have to be put into a system where directors and writers are chosen. You can go through film school without ever having directed or written a film. We have what I like to call the best three-picture deal in town. You get to make three films if you're a production student, or write three screenplays. And there are class exercises, of course, so you actually do more than that.
Secondly, besides the idea that we stress collaboration rather than competition, the environment in the community we have is decidedly different than at the other two schools in the city. And you know, although storytelling now is being talked about in schools, when I started as dean, it was not. So it's become kind of a mantra now, five years later, in other film schools. But what differentiates us is the humanistic approach to storytelling, so we deal a lot with ethics and social justice. Whether they want to make big commercial movies like "Lord of the Rings" or if they want to make "Brokeback Mountain" or "Crash" or "No Country For Old Men," our students are thinking more about a humanistic approach. As they develop their films and their screenplays they're really thinking about the world around them, so it's not just going after a certain kind of fare that comes out of Hollywood.
And as I said, we have a hands-on approach. We have an office of external affairs, which provides full-time festival strategies. We're very committed to getting our students on the festival circuit, showing them how to negotiate the festival circuit. We send our top students to Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Tribeca. We actually have a comprehensive program that's available to all students. Along with that we have a Transition After Graduation program, on which Sony is our benefactor. This is a yearlong post-graduate fellowship program, where they get an Academy Award-winner mentor, get festival strategies, and get ongoing professional development.
Who needs filmmakers?
Jon Healey: Why does the world need more filmmakers?
Teri Schwartz: I think storytelling is the most powerful tool we have to link humankind together. It's the classic, timeless, unifying means of human expression, and Fr. Lawton could probably speak more eloquently on this than I can.
Robert Lawton: I lived in Florence for a while. And I was struck by the power of images. I just walked around thinking a lot about the power of images. And film is a very powerful way to tell stories. We're finding more and more that people want to tell their stories that way. When I grew up, I thought about being a writer. I never thought about being a filmmaker. We're finding more young people want to tell their stories through film.
So are there too many film schools? I would say no. There are too few good ones.
Hollywood money and values
Tim Cavanaugh: How important is it to you that alums get out into the industry? There must be some financial realities that would make you want your students to become successes in Hollywood. How big a role does that play for you?
Teri Schwartz: I think it plays a big role. First of all, what I think is most important is for us to develop the most complete media artists, who can negotiate the complete landscape of the film, entertainment and emerging media industries with real depth, grace, skill and real-world experience. The whole point of all these programs is to identify what path you want to go down. Then once we help to shape that, it's our hope that they'll be as successful in whatever path they've chosen. Now the commercial industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry, while in the emerging media or the indy route the financial rewards aren't as readily apparent. But look at "Juno," which made $150 million on a very small investment. So you can go the indy route and do well. But what's most important is to start out by finding out which way they're going to go.
Then there will be some time for them to develop professionally. It's rare that success will come right out of the gate. One of our graduates, Francis Lawrence, made his way through the music video world, then went on to direct a feature film called "Constantine" with Keanu Reeves, and just directed "I Am Legend" with Will Smith. Now there's somebody who took several years to develop as a professional, and now is giving back to the school by endowing the summer creative workshop, which will pay for another student to go to the school. So that's a success story, but it takes a whole cycle of time for that to develop. And we do have to give our students a real sense of the reality of this business.
Robert Lawton: And of course, there's no way to predict who's going to be successful, who's going to make great art and who's going to be constrained by their own limitations. And then there's just luck.
Teri Schwartz: You can't ultimately make someone creative. You can't make someone an artist or even a good business person. But we can try to create an environment where all that can come together. Give them the tools, and give them a situation where that can happen. When I came into the film business, I had no contacts or connections. So in building this school, what I've thought about is what I would have liked when I was starting out. I'm the only dean in the country who was a high-level professional working in the film industry.
Tim Cavanaugh: "Constantine" took some knocks for being anti-Catholic. So how much do you see the mission as moral or doctrinal? How does it compare, for example, with the work of Fr. Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, who had a very definite message he was delivering?
Robert Lawton: This is very different from what Bud Kieser was doing and what Paulist Productions continues to do. We're not about making religious films but rather, I think, films that raise important ethical questions. I have put together my thinking in life much more through reading novels than through reading religious books. I think of films that way. There may not be an obviously religious element, but we want films that are taking life seriously and thinking things through, however they play out.
It seems to me once you buy into wanting a film school, then you have to give the people absolute freedom to think and say what they want. And if you say something that's counter to what the official church teaches, that's OK. You have the right to do that. Hopefully at a university you've got various films and things about important topics, and you see all of those and put your own view together. But it's very different from just producing religious films...
Tim Cavanaugh: Would there be any red lines in student films, anything you might ask them to dial back?
Teri Schwartz: The faculty has the freedom, within the classroom, to monitor that. So if they decided there was something that really crossed a line, it would be up to the faculty member to draw that back. And in the five years I've been there I've never seen anything that crossed that line.
Robert Lawton: I would never ever call Terri on anything and say, "Don't let this be made."
Teri Schwartz: But we're very much in harmony on this, and I think everybody at the film school shares that perspective.
Jon Healey: What do you do to expose people to diverse points of view and particularly to develop an interest in the kind of humanistic storytelling you think differentiates your university?
Teri Schwartz: In terms of the programs we do, we have a Monday Night Special Event series, just for the film and television students. It started out from my colleagues calling me up and saying "I have something I'd like to show." And five years later I'm still curating it. The idea is to show as broad a view as possible of what's available creatively across the industry. In the classroom, your education needs to be very experiential, in terms of the internships you have, and how you learn what the landscape looks like.
This here modern world
Tim Cavanaugh: Today everybody has a camera, a lot of the technical challenges of filmmaking have been solved, and web-based distribution has created an environment where Steven Spielberg is competing for attention with the "Leave Britney Alone" guy. So what's the role of film education now?
Teri Schwartz: We've worked really hard to create a curriculum that creates a 21st century, digital-workflow model. So if you want to make mainstream movies or documentaries, or you want to make web-based content, we have all of that. But as the technology changes every five minutes, that's all well and good; over 32 years in the industry I saw the technology change constantly. If you put story at the center, that's the classic, timeless piece, the bedrock. Whether it's created for devices held in the palm of your hand or for a movie theater, unless you have a great story to tell, whether it's narrative or nonfiction, it doesn't really matter what the technology is. As YouTube shakes out, I think we're still going to see it's the best storytellers who emerge. It might have a different story structure or form, but that's who's going to emerge.
Jon Healey: But isn't there something about the interactive environment we're in now that is fundamentally different from the unidirectional model of the 20th century. People can talk back, interact, reedit...
Teri Schwartz: Yes, and that's all great. But you still need to have an interesting conversation or an interesting story to tell. For example, think of when television came along: the episodic and sitcom structures are unique to television. They came out of film and theatrical, but the structure is really geared toward advertising. So in episodic TV you have a "Perils of Pauline" type cliffhanger ending at the end of each act. That was designed for television. The movie of the week was a form with a five- or seven-act structure, instead of a three-act structure. Some kind of story structure will emerge, which may be very interactive. But at the end of the day, adult conversation is adult conversation, and you still need a good story.
Tim Cavanaugh: But when you're teaching people, are you still teaching them, "This is an establishing shot, this is a two-shot" and so on?
Teri Schwartz: Absolutely, because that's the vocabulary. The same way you have to string a coherent sentence together, there's a syntax, a form and a structure. We can get into experimentation, and I'd like to see more experimentation in syntax and form. Picasso was trained classically, then he broke all the rules. I don't think anybody's broken through to the other side yet, but having something to say is the ultimate measure.
Tim Cavanaugh: It's interesting to me to go back to watch stuff I liked as a kid and see how slow everything seems.
Teri Schwartz: The whole time signature of media is so much faster now. And with the internet there's a tremendous acceleration in the syntax. It's more cutty, much faster, and there's less patience with spending a lot of time with the characters...
I'll take myself back. When I started out in the early '70s, film was using that kind of syntax and pacing. The first big break in my experience was when "Star Wars" came out, and that changed a lot of other things because of the commercial aspects, and the ancillary markets became more important than the film itself. But it was told with a new technology, telling the story. The next break after that came when MTV started, the era of the music video. I actually took a break from movies and started a successful video company. You began to see technology and the time signatures being played with. And certainly with the internet you've begun to see things change very dramatically. In terms of television, the commercial business has really driven television, but it seemed like when "24" came out that changed some of the ways story was being told.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times