AFI After the Revolution: Dean, CEO on New Initiatives, Quentin Tarantino and Challenges Ahead

Courtesy of American Film Institute
American Film Institute

A year ago, the legendary school was in the midst of a civil war. Now THR talks to Richard Gladstein and Bob Gazzale about the chances for peace on its L.A. campus.

It's been a time of great highs and one very notable low for the American Film Institute and its half-century-old Conservatory. Shortly after celebrating wins in all three of the top categories at the 2015 Student Academy Awards — and just a year before the success of graduate Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman — the Conservatory was thrown into chaos by a faculty rebellion against its dean, Jan Schuette, who agreed to resign in November before departing in June. Now AFI has a new dean, onetime Miramax Films exec Richard Gladstein, 56, whose producing credits include The Hateful Eight and The Cider House Rules. He and AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, 52, sat down with THR on campus, on the fringes of Griffith Park, to discuss the challenges ahead.

What went wrong with Jan Schuette?

GAZZALE To quote Frank Pierson [writer of Cool Hand Luke], it was "a failure to communicate." Change is essential, particularly in this art form. It was never a disagreement about what the change was going to be. But there was a chasm between that and the implementation of change, which sometimes requires a deft hand, consensus-building and all those things. Here's what I saw happen: I saw passionate people dis­agreeing, and that's essential. But I was waiting for this synapse to connect. And it didn't.

Richard, now that you're the new dean, what are three changes you'd like to implement?

GLADSTEIN One is that we've created an advisory board for the Conservatory, [with director] Gus Van Sant and [editor] Fred Raskin and others, and we are going to assign each of them to a thesis film. Two other changes? More interdisciplinary classes. And the third one — I hope to discover a really good one soon and then we'll do it.

Richard, you went to film school at Boston University. What did you learn there?

GLADSTEIN It was very different. We studied theory and criticism, we didn't study filmmaking. But one of the things we learned was the ability to critique and talk about films in an intelligent way. And that's something we hone here in [the AFI's] Narrative Workshop. The fellows, the students, make 84 films their first year. They team to make three films each. After they finish one, they're forced to sit in front of the other fellows, who eviscerate the narrative that they've created — and the filmmakers benefit from it, and the fellows benefit from it, because they are every week learning how to speak about film. And that's cool.

After film school, who taught you the most about movies?

GLADSTEIN Quentin Tarantino. His ability to utilize all of the different tools to make a movie, his expertise at deploying the actors, the words, the lighting, to seamlessly tell one story, is a magnificent ballet.

You spent some years as an executive at Miramax. What did you learn from Harvey Weinstein?

GLADSTEIN Don't give up. Keep going. There's always another answer.

On a broader level, what's AFI's purpose?

GAZZALE Its purpose is to ensure that people, that our nation, if not the world, appreciate that the art form is more than box office. And the AFI exists to ensure that we honor people like John Williams and Diane Keaton and the family comes together to say, "Shine a light on this." We're here to educate today's audience about this kind of information and to educate tomorrow's storytellers.

It's obviously been a challenging year, but what have you been most proud of recently?

GAZZALE We've worked with the White House on something called the Student Film Festival. The White House called us three years ago, because we had done a 50th anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird there. [President Obama then introduced the movie on television.] Now that we've met each other, they call us and say, "We're going to do this student film festival and we're in over our heads. We need your help." For three years in a row, [there were] thousands of submissions, K through 12, from filmmakers from around the nation, creating great stories. We curated them and selected 15.

Are you doing it this year, under Trump?

GAZZALE We're in discussions, but I'd say they have other priorities right now. I wouldn't say I'm optimistic, but we live in hope.

Has there been any talk of AFI expanding internationally?

GAZZALE We've talked endlessly about this, even at the board level, where there has been interest from name-a-country. Will the AFI participate in a program in Korea, China, Saudi Arabia? And time and again, what we come back to is: Our value proposition for our young storytellers is that we're here in Los Angeles with the most talented people in the world. I don't believe we can export that. We're in an endless conversation still about how we can partner with people to do those things, but I believe the value of the AFI and what really sets it apart is that it's right here, in the beating heart of Hollywood.

So that's what makes AFI a great film school?

GAZZALE [Another] of the things that makes this a great film school is that the average age [of the students] is 27, so everybody's lived a little and they've failed a little and they've hurt and they want to share. On opening day, it's always quite an emotional experience to welcome the new class, because you see a failed stand-up comic; you see a cellist; there's a woman who got her Ph.D. in microbiology in Sweden; there's a woman who ran a bar in Kashmir. And all these people are coming together to tell stories.

Keeping to the same theme, what makes a great film school dean?

GLADSTEIN I don't have the answer to that question yet. [But when] the principal faculty interviewed me, I asked them what they would like, and just as importantly, what they wouldn't like. They asked for someone to unite them, to bring the curriculum together, have the different disciplines be more entwined and the courses be more interdisciplinary, and those are good steps I'd like to take, and if I can achieve some, I think I'll be a good dean.

GAZZALE This is a full-blown production studio, with this collection of people from all around the world, and what I saw when Richard walked through the door was a producer who could take 250 points of view and put them in one story, and that was a metaphor for what the AFI needed.

Richard, you've been on the job since May. What's surprised you the most?

GLADSTEIN People here are quite passionate about what they do. And while I'm used to that, there's passion coming from lots of corners. And passion's got heat. You've got to be on your game all the time, because the most casual conversation seems to have some heat.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.