Mentors: Film School

These film school educators bring a wealth of life experiences to the classroom

Barbara Boyle

Professor and chair, UCLA Department of Film, Television & Digital Media

Many of the nation's leading film schools boast outstanding faculty who make it their personal mission to mentor motivated students to help them achieve their dreams of careers in the entertainment industry. But when veteran producer Boyle (1996's "Bottle Rocket," "Phenomenon") took over as chair of the UCLA Department of Film, Television & Digital Media in 2003, she decided that wasn't enough.

Although UCLA's elite two-year graduate Producers Program already had an intern policy in place, Boyle instituted a mentoring initiative that allowed her students to meet, get advice and coaching from Hollywood executives, producers, actors, screenwriters, managers and agents.

"The mentor isn't an employment agency or a script reader," Boyle says. "It's someone whose experience (the student) can feel is of value -- learning from the path they took can be helpful."

The students are involved in the process of connecting with a mentor. Boyle has scholars in her second-level producing class create a list of three people they'd like to learn from, with detailed justifications for their choices. "Picking the right mentor becomes a lesson in and of itself," she says.

Midge Costin

Associate professor, Kay Rose Professor in the Art of Dialogue & Sound Editing, USC

If things had turned out differently more than 20 years ago, Costin might be a film editor today. But not long after her graduation from USC film school, a job cutting dialogue for a 16mm film changed her career path. "I ended up working on blockbusters," says Costin, who went on to become a supervising sound editor. "What made it interesting is there weren't many women, maybe three to five in all of Hollywood doing sound, and most of those were doing dialogue, not sound effects."

In 1995, after working on such films as 1990's "Days of Thunder" and 1995's "Crimson Tide," she was asked to return to USC as an instructor. "I loved being able to pass on my experience," she says. "I liked being able to tell students that sound is about story, about character. It's one of the tools you can use to make your film really powerful."

But, Costin says, few students come in with an interest in sound. They want to direct, write or do something else they see "as more glamorous." Nevertheless, even if they don't want to go into sound, Costin likes to show them that to be a complete filmmaker they need to understand it. "The most important things I teach are not necessarily the skills and concepts of sound but rather more general 'life' lessons," she says. "Our students are on the verge of going out into the industry and can use some reminders about what really matters."

John Douglass

Associate professor and director, film and media arts, American University

Douglass estimates that he's mentored thousands of students during the past 30 years at AU -- and insists that time hasn't diminished the kick he gets out of seeing students learn the art of visual storytelling.

"I enjoy the dissemination of information, actually figuring out how to take something apart and make it understandable," he says, "and then watch them have the 'Ah-ha experience' ... and (subsequently) turn out really top-rated product."

And though the tools have changed from film to tape to electronic capture, "storytelling skills have remained pretty much the same (but) there's been an evolution. Kids who grew up on movies are now making movies, taking more chances, trying more things."

Douglass, a D.C. native, got his master's degree at AU in theater, and began his career as a director, cameraman and editor, churning out commercial films for government agencies and others before taking a screenwriting instructor position at AU. His students have included Adam Goodman, head of production at Paramount; producer James Middleton ("Terminator Salvation") and "Saturday Night Live" writer Max Brooks.

James Hosney

Senior lecturer, AFI

Darren Aronofsky credits him with being an important influence. Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman goes a step further and calls him "the single biggest influence of my life." Since 1980, Hosney has been impressing upon his AFI students the importance of narrative American film through his genre seminars (everything from horror films to musicals) and educating would-be filmmakers through his Harold Lloyd Masters Seminars. The seminars, which screen current films and are followed by Hosney's interview with a key member of the film's production team, are designed for first-year students, who are encouraged to participate in the subsequent Q&A session. Hosney finds the students at the AFI highly motivated and open to advice. "A mentor helps students find what is already in themselves," he says.

Jordan Kerner

Dean, School of Filmmaking, University of North Carolina

Producer Kerner says that while juggling his duties as dean of UNC's School of Filmmaking isn't that different from making movies and TV shows, there's a point where the two worlds diverge. "When making a movie, you say something and expect it to get done. I've learned being a dean there's less fulfillment of expectations. We discuss things. Then maybe it gets done and maybe it doesn't."

Now in his third year, Kerner has still managed to shake things up. "The instructions I was given was to come in and reimagine the school for the world of digital entertainment, commercials and music videos," he says. Those plans have been slowed along with the economy, but building on a strong base, Kerner has made refinements. Every junior and senior student makes a movie. Under Kerner, the school instituted "the studio system," which requires each student to work on a screenplay for months in advance, follow a schedule and report their progress regularly to an academic adviser. Mentoring and internship programs have been ramped up; a program for video games is being developed; the addition of an animation major is in the works; and the school's first graduate degree program to train executives in the film business has been instituted. Kerner also oversees an annual spring trip to L.A. for screenings of the student films. "We're trying to create a brand for the school," he says.

Jim Lane

Executive director, Emerson College

Each year, about 250 students from Boston's Emerson College arrive in L.A. to take classes and participate in an internship with such companies as DreamWorks and Sony. When they first arrive the college's center in Burbank, they're greeted by Lane, who has headed the school's 22-year-old film studies program since 2000. Lane, whose documentaries (such as 1995's "I Am Not An Anthropologist") were personal and experimental when he joined the Emerson faculty, has shifted his focus more toward mainstream Hollywood. Now, along with directing the center, he also teaches classes in film theory, genre films and contemporary documentaries. Lane knows he's doing his job properly "when the students figure out somewhere along the line how they're going to relate to Los Angeles and the entertainment industry. We're a small school, but we have an above-average visibility in the industry because of the focus of the college on performing arts and communications.""

Charlie Rose

Professor, Columbia College

Two kinds of students are drawn to Columbia's nuts-and-bolts approach to learning the craft of movie making, says Rose, who has more than 25 years worldwide experience as a DP on features, documentaries, commercials and TV shows. The first are those right out of high school who aren't sure what they want to do but "think film school is cool." The second are much more serious about filmmaking and want hands-on experience.

"I get most connected with the students who really want to take advantage of the possibilities presented by a film school which is a unique environment where they have cameras, crews, gear and the whole production structure," says Rose. "I facilitate the visualization of their dreams.

"Students come in not really knowing what cinematography is and are a little intimidated by all the technical things," he adds. "Demystifying those things completely and showing them how to use the camera to tell stories is my joy."

Paul Stekler

George Christian Centennial professor of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

Experience hasn't jaded Stekler. Even though he has a background in politics, has made award-winning documentaries for PBS and has more than 12 years of teaching under his belt, he still marvels at the unexpected. "Sometimes I'll see a student film and go, 'I would never have thought of that,' or 'I didn't know the editing machine could do that!' It's one of the pleasures of doing this sort of thing."

Teaching documentary production to undergraduate and graduate students, Stekler says his job is "like being a good coach. You must have the sensitivity to be able to understand the person in front of you and give them feedback in a way they most can hear it."

Nowadays, "My philosophy is you learn by doing," he says. "I bring in lots of examples of how you tell stories, how to convey a feeling."