AFI Fest Spotlights Dozens of Former Graduates

Ian Gavan/Getty Images; Courtesy of Subject; ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images
Duke Johnson (left) co-directed 'Anomalisa' with Charlie Kaufman; Alison Bagnall still carries three composition notebooks filled with notes from her AFI year (center); and cinematographer Matyas Erdely told himself, “I gotta go to Hollywood, to the best film school there is.”

This year's festival will serve as a homecoming for cinematographer Matyas Erdely, director Alison Bagnall and animation director Duke Johnson, who all graduated from the American Film Institute Conservatory and are returning to showcase their work this year.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

AFI Fest, which kicks off Nov. 5 with the world premiere of Angelina Jolie's By the Sea, isn't only about awards-season debuts. It also serves as a homecoming for nearly four dozen filmmakers who have graduated from the American Film Institute Conservatory and who will be returning to show off their work. Three grads who've made good:

MATYAS ERDELY, CLASS OF '05

Cinematographer Erdely, 39, will be represented by two films: Josh Mond's widescreen mother-son drama James White, and Laszlo Nemes' claustrophobic Auschwitz-set Son of Saul. Although he spent five years at the Hungarian University of Drama and Film (and earned two degrees) and had even shot his first film, he says, "I felt like I needed to learn more, and if I was going to learn more, I wanted to go where the real deal was, so I decided I gotta go to Hollywood, to the best film school there is."

Deciding that meant the AFI, he won admittance and focused on cinematography during his two years. He cites senior lecturer Bill Dill as "the best teacher I ever had in my life." He also met "my idol," cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who offered Erdely an internship on 2005's Munich. "That was like another film school for me."

Looking back at AFI, Erdely says: "It was the very opposite of the Hungarian film school, which was very free. You could do whatever you wanted once you got in. The structure was very loose. At AFI, the structure was very strict. It structured my knowledge in a very smart and very good way. Actually, the combination of the two schools was excellent for me." 

ALISON BAGNALL, CLASS OF '94

Bagnall didn't believe in film school. "I didn't think you could be taught how to direct," she explains. After graduating from Yale with a humanities degree, she directed several short films, but when she wanted to move into a longer format, she ran into a problem: "I really didn't know how to direct actors."

She credits AFI professor Daniel Petrie with teaching her that part of the craft. Petrie directed Sally Field in the TV miniseries Sybil, which Bagnall remembers watching as a 14-year-old. "That is what I loved about AFI — all of their professors were veteran directors as opposed to academics," she says. During her year at AFI, she filled three marble composition books full of notes. Bagnall, 50, brings her latest film, Funny Bunny, a coming-of-age dramedy centering on a love triangle, to AFI Fest. Even as a veteran filmmaker, she still carries with her everything she learned at AFI, quite literally. "I take those composition notebooks with me to every set because they are so valuable." 

DUKE JOHNSON, CLASS OF '06

Johnson, 36, is co-director/producer of stop-motion film Anomalisa, working alongside writer-director Charlie Kaufman. Paramount Pictures acquired it in September for just north of $5 million, and it's slated for a limited release Dec. 30.

Animation wasn't initially on Johnson's agenda. He studied film and TV as an undergrad at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts before heading to L.A. and AFI's directing program, focused on live action.

Then he invited his friend Dino Stamatopoulos to his thesis premiere. "He had a stop-motion animated series, Moral Orel, on Adult Swim, and he asked me if I wanted to direct an episode," recalls Johnson.

In 2010, he joined a few partners including Stamatopoulos in launching Starburns Industries, a production company specializing in animation. Stamatopoulos knew Kaufman, and, while looking for material, Johnson became hooked on the Anomalisa script. "The characters felt very relatable, nuanced. It's a story about people, our desire to connect." He counts among his mentors AFI professor and senior filmmaker-in-residence Peter Markham. "I invited him to the friends-and-family screening of Anomalisa, before it was finished. He offered support and encouragement."

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