Mark J. Harris isn’t just a Distinguished Professor of Film and TV Production in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC. He’s a three-time Oscar winner (most recently for writing/directing the 2001 documentary, “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.”)
Here’s part 2 of WWTW’s chat with the professor/filmmaker: (Here’s Part 1)
WWTW: Are your students well versed in modern filmmaking technology before they set foot on campus? What technological advances do they see as the most beneficial to their careers?
MH: Students grow up these days with computers and digital recorders and are adept at using them. Although we make a point of accepting students with no film experience, many come to us having made videos and edited them at home with Final Cut Pro.
What we look for first when we screen applicants, though, is not technical facility but fresh ideas. We?’re looking for students who have something they?’re burning to say, who have ideas they want to explore. If they have something to say, we believe we can teach them how to communicate their ideas in film or video.
Most students who have grown up with computers are comfortable with the current technology of filmmaking, particularly post-production. But it doesn?t matter how skilled you are with the tools, or how quickly you master them, if you have nothing interesting to communicate.
WWTW: Are students pragmatic about their chances for success in the film industry?
MH: No, in general students are very naïve about the actual workings of the film industry and have no realistic sense of how difficult and competitive it is. Especially undergraduates. But why would anyone expect them to at 18? At film school you have a chance to discover if you have any real talent at this and whether you love it enough to pursue a career in it, despite the competitiveness of the field.
Many people discover that yes, this is what I want to do with my life, and others realize that they don?’t have the temperament or passion or perseverance to withstand the rejection and disappointment that is entailed in pursuing this particular dream. So they go to law school or choose a different career.
WWTW: How has working with young, impassioned filmmakers affected your own work? What have students taught you through the years?
MH: It’s kept me continually optimistic and hopeful about the power of film to enable us to see the world anew. Their energy and idealism has renewed my own belief in the incredible, transformative power of this medium.
I always hire one or two ex-students on the films I produce and direct, and I have served as executive producer or consultant on several films of my students. Students continually make me re-examine my beliefs and convictions and help me see the world freshly. I am a far better filmmaker today because of all the students I have taught.
WWTW: Are there any misconceptions about film school in general you’d like to correct?
MH: Film school provides you the opportunity to do three things: see films, make films, and talk about them with people who are impassioned as you are.
It’?s not the only way to become a filmmaker, but it provides you the chance to discover if you have the talent to pursue this as a career, and more specifically what the nature of that talent is, whether, for example, your strength is as an editor or cinematographer, whether you can work well with actors or you can?’t stand them.
Film school also allows you to make friendships and develop relationships with people who are potential collaborators and with whom you may work for the rest of your professional career. None of this guarantees you a job when you graduate, but it?’s an experience that few students I know regret – ?even if they decide afterwards to try a different profession.