The directors: Ben Gibson
Ben Gibson is director of the London Film School, which is based in a former warehouse in Covent Garden. From 1988 to 1998, he was head of the now-defunct production board at the British Film Institute, where he worked with filmmakers such as Terence Davies, Lynne Ramsay and Isaac Julien. Before that, he was co-director of The Other Cinema and Metro Pictures
As a programmer, distributor, writer and producer in the 1980s, I didn’t hear directors talking about school. I was part of a convention of scepticism about directors learning formally. Although the ‘Movie Brats’ – Coppola, Lucas et al – had emerged in the US, we thought what marked them out was the films they’d seen – they brought a Nouvelle Vague sense of history to studio film-making. Some had been technically trained at schools, but we weren’t quite sure what as. Instead, Roger Corman’s production company New World, or the BBC Drama Department, or Universal TV for Spielberg who couldn’t get in at the University of Southern California – these seemed to be the very best schools for directors. When we did talk about film school, it was about the continental greats Lodz (pronounced ‘Wooj’), FAMU, VGIK and IDHEC, not USC, UCLA, Tisch, NFTS or LFS, here and in the States. Only the mysterious Eastern European factories had the dusty eccentricity to appear glamorous to cinephiles.
As head of production at the British Film Institute in the 1990s, I saw it as part of my job to discover good film-makers who wouldn’t choose or couldn’t afford film school. The ones I found had mostly been to art school – Andrew Kötting, Chris Newby, John Maybury and many others. The few people who had been to film school such as Terence Davies and Carine Adler testified that they’d done their time at the back of the class with the outsiders. The films they made seemed interesting in exact proportion to their ‘unofficial’ status. I concluded that film school was largely for cinematographers, designers, sound people and editors. For directors, it might be a place to cleverly defy stuffy teachers and make some trouble, but in the end it was probably best just to go out and make films, somehow. (Like many other critics of film school, I’d failed to get in to one myself, as a 21-year-old budding theatre director, so my ego provided me with a motive.)
I had a lot to learn. I came to realise that BFI Production was itself a kind of school – a demanding creative environment for low-budget film-making, putting a definite value on innovation. I also discovered that the first film schools had been invented not to train the privileged to be bosses and lord it over the ‘technical grades’, but to open film-making up to people with no family money or connections. Then I saw many middlebrow, crude and ingratiating short films made by directors who claimed they’d avoided training because schools were unrealistic and ‘arty’. In 2000, I landed a job running a very good film school, the London Film School. Now I was thinking on my feet.
Directing is a practical job, so schools have to train directors without any pointless generalising. For me at the LFS, the main answer is that all students should make many films according to precise rules, and only get theoretical after they’ve shown them to others. We have a studio which helps directors to learn simply by doing. And the school makes students spend time looking at other people’s films.
But the LFS doesn’t offer a degree in ‘Directing’. Instead it says ‘Film-maker’, and we recruit people who want to get to a high level with cameras, editing, sound, sometimes producing and design, as well as just directing. Students arrive as ‘writer-directors’ and at the end of the course many stick at craft jobs, but execute them much better having been made to direct along the way. This method is lovingly stolen from the Eastern Bloc schools and then updated in technology, but not in educational psychology.
From the perspective of an international school like the LFS (only 30 per cent of its students are born in the UK), film-making in the UK can look faux-industrial, but in attitude not scale: too orthodox, over-specialised and under-educated. In places where it seems to be happening – Copenhagen, Seoul, Mexico City, Barcelona, Taipei – they operate differently: they say ‘I’m directing this now, then I’m co-writing something which Y will direct and I have a project to produce for Z…’ Perhaps the best way to train directors is as everything.
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