Film School Professors: The Mentors


Director Robert Rodriguez remembers the surprise he felt one day during a class he was taking about Latin images in film at the University of Texas at Austin. His teacher, Charles Ramirez Berg, showed the opening sequence of a movie Rodriguez had seen countless times and thought he knew inside out: 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Ramirez Berg twice played the sequence in which Harrison Ford navigates through a series of traps -- and the second time, he pointed out the four consecutive betrayals Ford suffers at the hands of stereotypical Latin characters.

It was the first time Rodriguez had even thought about the matter.

"It's just popcorn entertainment, but when you think about what images you put out there, these are things to keep in mind. You're reinforcing stereotypes," Rodriguez says. "That made a big impression on me."

Ramirez Berg is one of many professors who have made an indelible mark on the students they teach. In the decades since a generation of film school graduates took Hollywood by storm -- "the kids with beards," as Billy Wilder described them -- teachers like this have grown in stature, influencing waves of filmmakers who shape the way we view the world today. Ramirez Berg's own influence is visible in the Latino children Rodriguez placed at the heart of his "Spy Kids" franchise.

"Little kids around the country and maybe around the world were all playing at being the Cortez kids, and they weren't thinking about it," Ramirez Berg points out. "They were just doing it. (Rodriguez) figures out ways to subvert the stereotypes. But he's not hitting you over the head; he's just making it fun."

Fun. Fighting stereotypes. Those were two of the elements Ramirez Berg stressed -- somewhat different than the ones Haig Manoogian chose to emphasize. Few will recognize his name today, but as a film professor at New York University, Manoogian helped shape the work of Martin Scorsese and others.

"The idea was to be as serious about it as possible," Scorsese notes in the book "Scorsese on Scorsese." By that, Manoogian meant "serious in the sense that you could argue, laugh and joke about the films, but you really had to be there for the love of cinema."

If Manoogian emphasized the big ideas, USC's Ken Miura mentored students in some of the smaller ways filmmakers get those ideas onscreen.

Ben Burtt, who has since gone on to become the sound guru on countless blockbuster films -- from 1977's "Star Wars" to Disney/Pixar's "WALL-E" -- got a chance to experiment while studying with Miura, who taught sound. While most of his fellow students were pulling sounds from libraries, Burtt wanted to create new sounds, and with Miura's help, he came up with a flanging technique that makes an object sound like it's moving.

"(Ken and I) worked out a way of doing it with two tape recorders, running them slightly out of synch with each other," Burtt recalls. "And in that, I was able to create some of the first weird, Doppler-shifted sounds that became the basis for a lot of 'Star Wars' sounds later" -- in particular, the sound of the light saber cutting through the air.

Another USC professor, Drew Casper, influenced his students by showing them movies they might never have seen. "(He) taught my first film course in college. It was in that class that I saw (1941's) 'Citizen Kane' for the first time on a wide screen," says director John Singleton. "He'd give these long soliloquies about Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and (1952's) 'Singin' in the Rain,' and how it wasn't a hit when it first came out -- but it's a classic picture. You watch Drew Casper give a lecture and you really get a sense of the love of cinema."

But love does not mean emulation. True mentors seek not to impress upon students any "right way" of making movies, but rather to help them give voice to their own creative vision.

"When you look at films from the past, you see the many different ways that filmmakers solve storytelling problems," says Robert Rosen, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. "And you break with formulas because you realize there are many ways to solve a problem. By looking at the past, you get the courage to find your own voice."

UCLA professor and screenwriting chair Richard Walter helped David Koepp find not just his voice but his style: "(He) told us to write the descriptive passage that would set up an exterior scene on a college campus," says Koepp, who has written numerous blockbusters, including Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." "He let us work for 10 or 15 minutes. Then he had people read their lines, which of course tended to be extremely long and detailed. Then he read his. It was six words: 'Exterior, college campus. Students, teachers, books.' That really sank in."

Tackling a mountain of material about the life of Howard Hughes for the script of 2004's "The Aviator," John Logan found himself revisiting something he learned from another professor, Northwestern University's David Downs -- not a writing teacher, but a professor of acting.

"I had to keep wrangling that huge life back into what I thought the piece was about. I had to be able to boil it down to a man battling his demons," Logan says. "That became sort of a central organizing principle, if you will, behind the drama. That's not unique to me -- every dramatist in the world does that -- but David was the one who demonstrated to me how necessary that was."

Similarly, James Mangold, who calls himself a "messy writer," remembers how, when he studied directing with Milos Forman at Columbia University in the very early '90s, Forman zeroed in on the central moment in the first draft of what would become Mangold's debut feature, 1995's "Heavy."

"He said, 'Right here on page 47 -- this is what your movie is about,'" Mangold recalls. "When he suddenly focused me on what was just a pivotal moment in this mass of material I had generated, it was like a great book editor, someone just saying, 'There it is.' And from that moment, the script just came together."

Mangold got some of his best advice from Forman -- though Forman, the great Czech director of films like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," is coy when asked what he tells his students.

"The only advice is, don't be boring," he says. "And tell the truth, which is not easy, because the truth is boring."