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Hey, That Wasn't in the Script!

In a new book, film school grads unreel tales of survival, from set etiquette and power dining to whisker fights, hooking the big one--and wondering what's behind door No. 2.

November 10, 1996|Billy Frolick | Billy Frolick is a screenwriter and journalist whose book "What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Seven Film School Graduates Go to Hollywood," from which this article is excerpted, is being published by Dutton on Tuesday

Mother Teresa spends a lifetime serving others. After decades of feeding and sheltering the world's hungry and homeless, she is visited by God.

"Selflessness has long been your way of life, Mother Teresa," intones God. "Now it is your turn. What would you like? Name your desire, and it shall be granted."

"Well, since you're asking," Mother Teresa replies, "what I really want to do is direct."

*

The notion of a career in filmmaking does conjure an aura of power, glamour, mystique, history and immortality. The very word "director" connotes authority. And today it seems like everyone--OK, everyone except Mother Teresa--wants in.

Submissions to this year's Sundance Film Festival increased by over a third from 1995. NYU received 1,200 applications from aspiring movie makers for its 1996 film program (fewer than one-quarter were accepted). Multi-picture studio deals are now routinely kick-started by not just low-budget films but virtually no-budget films.

But an education in cinema--which now rivals the cost of a professional degree--might be the most "worthless" major since philosophy. When I graduated from NYU with a bachelor's in film 17 years ago, most of my classmates wanted to play the studio game and make polished, big-budget features. Only one actually went on to do so: "Home Alone" director Chris Columbus.

In 1980, 35% of all first-time studio directors were film school graduates. By 1992, that number had jumped to 72%. That year, M magazine ran a cover story featuring NYU alumnus Martin Scorsese, and calling the film school degree "The MBA of the '90s."

Curious about this growing phenomenon, I contacted department chairs at the country's five major film schools four years ago. I screened films of 40 or 50 recent graduates, many of whom were talented and, when I met with them, quite personable. But in the '90s, during a creative slump in an adverse economy, it seemed that the odds of legitimate success as a feature filmmaker were off the chart. I finally narrowed it down to seven.

Despite the long odds, each one of these pretenders to the Tarantino throne is firm in the belief that his or her name will someday become an adjective like "Chaplinesque," "Capraesque," or "Hitchcockian."

*

"My father was into gadgets," recalled 1989 Columbia graduate P.J. Pesce, now 35. "We got a microwave in the '60s when it was still this huge thing that you had to approach with a Geiger counter, and it would take an hour to cook a hamburger. He also had these 8-millimeter cameras.

"In the back of my house was a lake, at the bottom of which was this white clay, like what all the natives are covered with in 'Apocalypse Now.' We would go down and cover ourselves with it. I must have made this movie 'The Attack of the Clay Monster' three times, minimum. The first time it was really primitive, just filming the clay monster going around and picking my sister up and stuff. The second time, I conceived a story. I didn't know about editing. I didn't even have the concept of a moving camera."

At Columbia's film school, Pesce had an idol for an instructor.

"Martin Scorsese came to teach at Columbia, and I was one of eight people chosen to be in his class. Everyone else had to sneak in.

"Our class met at Sound One, where Scorsese was finishing post-production on 'The Color of Money.' It was amazing--here's this guy, who made this movie, 'Taxi Driver,' that was the most important movie in my life when I was 16, and still was--and I was going to meet him.

"So the first day, we're all totally afraid we're gonna say something stupid and Scorsese's gonna throw us out or something. I had written this script the first year that I thought was kind of dopey. But I thought I would read it because it never failed to get a laugh.

"The script was about this old Italian grandfather who comes back from the dead and wants to have sex with his grandson's girlfriend. I started reading this thing, and I was doing all the accents, and I was terrified. If it goes bad, I'm an idiot, and I've made a bad impression.

"But it went well, and Scorsese actually started kind of laughing. He encouraged me to rewrite it, and then I did and said, 'OK, let's shoot it,' and he said, 'No, no, no. You gotta rewrite it again.'

"In the original ending, the girlfriend doesn't actually do it, and they go off all happy. And Scorsese would say, 'What do you think about the ending?' And I'd go, 'Well, I guess it's kinda sappy.' And he'd go, 'Yeah, what would be the truthful ending?' And I'd go, 'The old man would [sleep with] her, and the kid would be upset.' And he'd go, 'Yes, it's a comedy, but yes, that's the truthful thing--and in fact that's the funniest thing.' "

*

Liz Cane, a 1992 graduate of UCLA, was a finalist for Paramount Pictures' annual directing fellowship.

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