That Time I Went to Film Camp

Very Highbrow Goes to the New York Film AcademyThe summer I turned sixteen, I went to the same film camp as Steven Spielberg’s son. We weren’t in the same cohort – he was in the 4-week program and I in the 6-week – but I wondered if, by our programs’ respective ends, we reached similar conclusions about ourselves.

That summer I learned two things about myself. The first was that I didn’t have what it took to be a filmmaker. I had grossly underestimated the amount of work making a movie entailed, even the 3-5 minute short we were required to produce by the program’s end. I thought the whole thing was, for lack of a better word, a hassle. 

I learned that with student films the director was often also the writer, producer, editor, and props, music, and casting departments. Taking all these things into consideration, along with the beating Los Angeles sun, I tailored my script to be as hassle-free as possible, and mostly taking place indoor. It was hastily-written, poorly-thought out, and haphazardly-produced. The kind that makes one’s film instructors scratch their heads and wonder why a student of such low caliber – or why parents of a student of such low caliber – would agree to spend the $5000 it cost to enroll, not including fees for room and board. Looking back though, this was petty cash compared to what it cost for my repeat performance twelve years later in my MFA program.


The plot of my story escapes me now, but I do remember a woman ends up hanging herself. Probably a lover’s spat. I shot the final scene by asking the actress (I hope she’s since been presented with much meatier roles) to hang by her hands from a fire escape on the backlot of Universal Studios and filmed just her gently swaying feet from the knees down. For the soundtrack I used Sinead O’Connor’s “Lullaby for Cain”, which I’d happen to bring along with me, as part of the soundtrack to The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie I found both elegant and disturbing.

When the movie was “screened” at the program’s end, I could practically hear my classmate’s disparaging thoughts. But in reality they probably didn’t think much at all, so focused was everyone on the “reception” of their own films. The fact that I remember some of my classmates’ films better than my own hopefully indicates that my film was neither terrific nor abominable, just bland and forgettable in ways early attempts at any craft are.

The second thing I learned about myself was, compared to the rest of the self-proclaimed “auteurs” at film camp, my taste was pretty mainstream. Or as the cool kids say today, basic.

This was a different feeling altogether. To live to the age of sixteen and have always prided myself at being somewhat different from my peers and to, at least on the surface, seem obsessed not with boys, clothes, or makeup but with movies, and to declare the summer after sophomore year that I was going to take my obsession to the next step and go to film camp, I thought that made me pretty unique. A special flower from Orange County, California.

But in film camp it became clear that I was a suburban bumpkin with preferences to match (e.g. The Cheesecake Factory). I didn’t really know too much about film or its history. At least not compared to my classmates, many of whom seemed to come from big cities – New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where our program was held because, Hollywood – I felt I knew next to nothing about film and its history.

Their tastes seemed both more mature and varied, and to span decades that predated us all, when I didn’t even know film technology existed. They had been exposed to a much larger catalogue of films than I’d ever been. From them I observed that my love for film wasn’t love at all, but a middling interest. It wasn’t about watching Access Hollywood for celebrity updates and being willing to wait in line at the local AMC to buy tickets of whatever big budget blockbuster was being released at the time. It was to take the time to devour all the films that had come before, to peruse the middle sections of Blockbuster and even, to read about films and their makers, especially the ones that paved the way for the more recent, still living directors we aspired to be.

But at the tender age of sixteen, I was already well settled in my tendency to half-ass things. To see the tip of the iceberg and wave it away.

“I think I have a good sense of the rest, thanks.”

My classmates however, came with intellectual guns blazing, spewing forth film titles and auteur names as though they’d crammed for the program by memorizing the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time and some other countries’ lists as well.

In most of our classes, we were asked to introduce ourselves and name our favorite films.

Citizen Kane and Breathless.

The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction.” Over half the guys in my cohort mentioned at least one of these movies in their lists.

“Oh my god how can you even choose,” a particularly precocious kid from Chicago said, “I’m a big foreign film guy so…” – he rubbed his still hairless chin – “Ran by Kurosawa, The 400 Blows, 8 1/2, Delicatessen…”

Other classmates seemed to nod along while I immediately disliked the person and thought, “What is all that.”

As my turn drew closer I remember thinking really hard about the most obscure and possibly highbrow movies I had seen but drew a blank. Did Fight Club count? I really really enjoyed it. And wasn’t Edward Norton sort of like the actor’s actor and like it was cool to say his name? But we weren’t talking about respected actors, we were talking about classic films and people were going to judge me for the rest of the six weeks depending on what I said today because clearly, it matters what your taste in movies is especially if you’re at freakin’ film camp and Jesus why didn’t I do a little more research before coming here and watching a few more “classic” movies so that I wouldn’t have to tell the truth?

Jurassic Park,” I said, “And Indiana Jones one and three. I really like Steven Spielberg.”

The instructor nodded, his expression one of “basic, but ok. No complaints from me.”

“Spielberg is, well, Spielberg,” he said.

The kid from Chicago said, “Third Encounters of the Close Kind is sick.”

Great, I thought, I haven’t seen that one. 

But my anxiety lifted a little. Yet even though it seemed that after me, the unspoken ban on listing mainstream, commercial success stories was lifted, it was clear that Scorcese, Tarantino, de Palma and anyone foreign and/or dead were way cooler directors to cite than Spielberg.

I wish I could say that that summer, I transformed into a true film buff. Or someone who took the learning of any craft as seriously as I took changing into comfortable pants before settling in to watch a good movie. But instead, like a handful of students, I embarked on a fleeting sentimental education.

I saw kids my age smoke for the first time, holding cigarettes in the world-weary way I’d later see college students do at NYU, and talk matter-of-factly about blowjobs and drugs.

I met a very smart sixteen year-old Asian kid from New York whose parents worked on Wall Street and who walked around with a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl in the back pocket of his expensive jeans. He only crushed on petite, blonde girls who clearly did not see him in the same romantic light and, even more than scripts, wanted to write poetry. He said without irony that poetry wasn’t going to make him any money, which is why he was also into film. When he showed me some of his work, I found it long and disappointing. It didn’t rhyme. Because of him, I haven’t yet cracked into Ginsberg.

My roommate was a 15-year old girl from Connecticut whose mother called every day to see if she needed anything. If she did, it would mean that she’d forgotten to pack it in one of her three large suitcases and one carryon, which was filled exclusively with underwear. I don’t remember her name but can still see her large forehead, bulging eyes, and the almost translucent paleness that she attempted over the next six weeks to radiate away with the California sun.

And I met a guy named Bart from Kansas who made me laugh and laugh and in a very chaste but odd display of physical intimacy, would roll my hands and then suddenly crack my knuckles. By the end of the six weeks we had stayed up late many nights talking – about what I remember none of it – but never kissed. At “graduation,” he brought me over to meet his parents and we exchanged addresses so we could write each other.

There were plenty of rich kids like the Asian kid and the Italian princess from Connecticut, but there were too a handful of not-so-rich kids who came on scholarship or a payment plan or their grandparents helped them with tuition.

One of the better films our cohort produced was by a girl whose grandma had paid for her. Her airfare and lodging she paid for by herself, from her part-time job as a waitress. She was social but intense, and poured hours into her script and editing while the rest of us – or I should say them – were secretly getting drunk or calling cabs to go to clubs with fake IDs or, like me, just hanging out with the nerdy, actual film nerds who wanted to talk more about movies than to make them, and I was cool with listening and laughing.

After the screenings – well, now years after the screenings of our films – I only remember hers – a simple, comedic short about a girl trying to hide her smoking habit from her disapproving boyfriend. In the end when it seems like he’s about to get serious and leans in for a kiss, all of her hidden cigarettes come tumbling out. The acting was fine, the editing precise, and the music well-selected. Looking back, I marvel that she was smart enough not to overstuff the film with her ambition, as many of us did, with forgettable results.

At the program’s end, I had watched a few scenes of The Godfather – indeed very good, I made a note to watch the whole movie on my own – and discovered a new black and white favorite in Sunset Boulevard, which made me feel somewhat legitimized as a film student with blossoming tastes. Also, the program had taken the whole class to the ArcLight see the latest Spielberg film, Minority Report. I loved it and judging by my classmates’ enthusiastic responses, they did too.

At the program’s end, my parents came to pick me up and asked me if I still wanted to be filmmaker.

“I heard USC has a good program,” my dad said, “You wouldn’t have to go far.”

I nodded. I’d heard many of the kids talking about using their films as part of their college applications to the prestigious film school, but I was mostly thinking about Bart. Would I ever see him again? And what what the heck was I going to study in college if not film?

Bart and I exchanged two or three letters. Years later, he moved to California for a graduate program in film and messaged me via Facebook. Did I remember him? We should go get a coffee, he wrote, once I was back in town. I was in my first year at Berkeley at the time, having gone through not one, but three colleges and was still, struggling to make it through the Art History major.

“I’m not that interested in Art History.” I wrote, “I sort of regret not taking a creative writing class or two, or just majoring in Comparative literature – I’m thinking about pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing.”

We never met up, but a few years later, applying to grad school, I messaged him about Kansas University. He had studied journalism before going to grad school.

He responded five months later. “Sorry I missed this message,” he wrote, “KU is awesome. I think you’d dig it.”

By then I’d already submitted all my applications – KU not among them – and a month later, heard back from Columbia. Every couple years or so, I go to Bart’s Facebook and see what he’s up to.

Between going to concerts and national parks with his girlfriend, he’s making shooting music videos and commercials. It makes me smile. A film camp success.

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