On applying to a MFA film program, and if you should

It must be that time of the year when people are pulling together their school applications, because in the past few weeks I’ve gotten a few emails on whether or not an MFA program is worth applying to, whether my particular program was worth applying to, and if it’s worth getting a MFA to begin with. All fine, normal questions, which I’ll try to answer with a degree of straightforwardness here.

Most people emailing want to know about my experience getting a MFA and with film school in general. I’ll tell you the story of how I made the decision to go — some of you may recognize your own experience in my story, or it may help spur some productive strands of thought and reflection about your own.

I actually had a good deal of filmmaking experience before I went to get my MFA in it. I studied film as an undergrad, I worked in the industry in various production positions after graduation, I made a few shorts, and I wrote tons and tons and tons of screenplays. Even when I moved to San Francisco, I still worked with documentarians and got more into experimental film. Film was a big part of my life, and would likely have remained a passion even if I didn’t go. In fact, in every interview I had with schools I applied to, someone always asked, “Just why are you applying, anyway?” Not that I was so awesome, but it would’ve been easy for me to forgo school, move back to New York, and re-immerse myself back into film on a bigger scale without having to pay tons of tuition.

The answer lay in that small pile of screenplays I was beginning to accumulate. I wrote mad, mad, mad amounts and took a few random classes here and there. I read every book on screenwriting and dramatic storytelling I could get my hands on. But at some point, I felt as if I were working in a vacuum — I’d send out screenplays out for feedback, but it never felt quite enough. Sure, it’s nice to hear that characters felt real, or if something felt slow, or if something wasn’t working. But getting super-specific, hardcore feedback, feedback based in a serious grounding of how drama works and how narrative is structured — super-trad-writerly stuff, I guess — I was just dying for that.

I thought back to the poetry and creative writing seminars I took as an undergrad, and the workshop experiences there — I knew I needed something that rigorous, led by experienced writers, ideally surrounded by a community of colleagues with the same level of commitment and engagement. I knew I needed those to “get to the next level,” as they say in so many walks of life. I could write and write and write on my own, and with grit and determination I’d improve and get better, but I wanted to make bigger leaps. I needed teachers I trusted, and I needed fellow students working on the same page, immersed in similar waters of ideas, experiments, and concepts.

The great thing was, I got it when I entered my MFA program: all those workshops, all that feedback, all that relentless practice and experimenting. It goes back to the “M” in MFA — if you want to master your fine art, the right MFA program is a good place to do it. Not the only place, of course, but a good place. If you have the soul of an artist, there is likely a deep part of you that just wants to get better, for the pleasure of craft and the sheer joy of writing, filming, painting — whatever it is that your artist heart does. You don’t need to do this within formal study, but if you work hard and are in the right place for you (I can’t emphasize that enough), you will get better, and often you will get better fast. You’ll find community. You’ll get all the feedback you would ever want, and more. You may even get some “connections” (though I find school was more valuable for meeting colleagues and peers, more than typical “connections”). You’ll carve out a time in your life to focus on your craft and art. In short, you will embark on the process of mastery in a very serious, purposeful way.

Not saying it was all woo-hoo “look, I’m an artist!” all the time. (You have to be prepared, future MFAer, for everyone who isn’t an artist to think you just run around with a camera singing “la di da” as you shoot stuff, or flit around the library with your head in the clouds, dreaming up stories. This will sometimes irritate you, especially as you become increasingly malnourished and sleep-deprived.) You may have had a few writing classes, or art classes, and may be already familiar with the workshop or conservatory experience. Honestly, I thought film school would be like my undergrad writing seminars or filmmaking classes, but times six and without those pesky undergrad requirements getting in the way. I have to laugh at myself now, because going to film school was like the hardest work I ever did in my life.

The ironic thing was that I was warned, of course. People tell you that you will work hard in a MFA program; you may even think to yourself, “Man, I work hard already, this will be a piece of cake.” But it’s not. For the first two years of full-time classwork, I easily spent 60-80 hours a week in class, in screening, in lecture, shooting on set — and that is not counting the time it took to edit, shoot outside class or write. I had no real relationship, I ate nothing but vending machine food for weeks at a time, I had the worst insomnia ever, I didn’t exercise, I didn’t even see friends for the first two years of school, and that was NORMAL.

More pertinently, I underestimated the toll it takes to produce creative work relentlessly and essentially in public for two straight years. It is one thing to write papers for school, but when you are expected to produce creative work that reveals the depths of your soul whether you are “inspired” or not, and to do it week after week in front of people you barely know at first — that is hard and grueling in both the sheer effort you put in as well as the emotional and spiritual vulnerability you give out. The thing is, many programs are structured to make you find your limits, both personal and creative, and many programs are structured to make you “fail,” because failure is an important part of the learning process and also helps you realize what it is you truly want to say or do. And of course, you need to be prepared for competition — even in a collegial, friendly program like the one I went to, there is always going to be competition, and it’s up to you to use it to spur yourself to greater heights. There’s no room for easily hurt egos, and I highly recommend a strong sense of self-esteem, humility and appetite for risk if you’re going to go through the experience.

Of course it was glorious, and I wouldn’t trade that time in my life for anything else. (I’m actually getting a bit nostalgic for late night editing lab sessions, strangely enough.) Not only because it was mad fun and because I loved the people I was surrounded by — but because I was getting better as a director and a writer, and as a storyteller in general. I still struggle, not only with stories but with doubt and fear and insecurity, but after my program my skin has toughened and it’s much easier to soldier on, armed with a strong toolbox, as well as a much sharper sense of how to look at, evaluate and then approach my own work again and again. Not only did I learn dramatic storytelling, but I developed process, fortitude and tenacity, which is almost as valuable as the nuts and bolts and ideas.

But again, it’s bloody brutal work — any MFA program is. There’s no room for wishy-washiness, and any program worth going to will take care only to admit those who have a true passion and drive and ferocity to do what they want to go to school for. So be very, very clear on your commitment to your craft, your discipline, your heart’s and life’s passion for it above nearly everything else, and your seriousness of purpose of when it comes to creative growth. Because if you aren’t, you will likely open that loan payment statement every month really, really regretting your decision to get your masters. I open my statement and still feel grateful to have had the experience I did. If you feel like you won’t, you may not want to pursue that path.

Likewise, other reasons NOT to get your MFA:

+ MONEY. If you at all want your education to “pay itself back” in some way, you don’t want to get your MFA. Unlike law degrees or whatever, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you will get a job from this. If debt is abhorrent to you, don’t do it.

+ CONNECTIONS. Don’t get me wrong, you will make some, and they can be valuable. But as I stated earlier, I found school more valuable for the group of peers you will meet (and likely work with for years to come.) If you are going to school mostly for connections, you are better off interning, although God help your soul if you go that route.

+ OTHER INDUSTRY STUFF. This is particularly for film school people, but here is a red light: the industry is kind of shitting bricks now about making money and what the future is going to be. The old model is changing, or rather, it’s just not working anymore. No one knows which end is the ass, so to speak. (Gosh, film stuff just makes me so vulgar!) If you’re going in expecting to land a three-picture deal out of film school like in the halcyon days of indie filmmaking in the U.S. — those days are over, really.

Anyway, I intended this to be a lot shorter, but I hope this answers a few people’s questions about MFAs, film school and other related matters. Whatever you do, good luck with your work and your journey, and I hope your stories find a home in the world, no matter what you do.

xo k.

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