Olivia Wilde, David O. Russell, Lee Daniels Impressed by Ghetto Film School Students

Ghetto Film School Benefit in New York - H 2014
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Joe Hall, David O. Russell, Olivia Wilde, and Lee Daniels attend the Ghetto Film School 10th Annual Spring benefit at The Standard Biergarten on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 in New York.

At the educational institution’s 10th annual benefit, former New York City film commissioner Katherine Oliver was honored, $400,000 was raised and Russell teased two upcoming projects.

What does it take to impress Olivia Wilde, David O. Russell and Lee Daniels?

How about a group of high school students who are being trained to be professional filmmakers?

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The trio of stars seemed pretty blown away by the students from New York City’s Ghetto Film School at the 10th annual benefit for the nonprofit educational program Wednesday night in Manhattan.

At the event, six students were awarded scholarships, $400,000 was raised via a silent auction and on-site donations, and former New York City film commissioner Katherine Oliver was honored for her work with the school, particularly her leadership role in helping establish the nation’s first film high school, The Cinema School, in 2009.

Ahead of the ceremony, longtime supporter and board member Russell talked about what impressed him the most about the program and its participants.

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“I’m impressed with how rigorous the structure of the program is. It’s not just a formless model,” Russell told THR. “They must [first] learn how to tell stories with animation. Then they must learn how to tell stories without dialogue, just with images and music. Then they can introduce dialogue. That’s by year. Then they also have to choose who’s going to be which person on the crew. So everybody’s not just going to be a director, some are going to be designers, some are going to be cinematographers, some are going to be electricians, some are going to be writers and producers. So I love how rigorous it is…I’m impressed by how serious the kids are and how rigorous they are."

Wilde, who said that she hoped to be able to someday work for Wednesday night’s scholarship winners, said of the students, "These are real professionals, and I think they're really being trained to be at the top of the industry. This isn't about allowing them to make beginners work or mediocre work. This is about creating really high-level competitors, and I think the concept of combining art, business and education allows them to become professionals…The idea of a liberal arts education, college-preparatory course that allows you to graduate as an expert in your field, I wish that I went to The Cinema School."

The scholarship winners included two students who would be working on a thesis film project in Stockholm, Sweden, including the director, Eurys Francisco, who’s currently casting the movie.

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Daniels added that teaching the Ghetto Film School students is a moving experience.

"Nothing has given me a bigger high than watching these kids grow — it’s incredible — several of which are my interns," Daniels said.

The director, who said he's most inspired by the students' "hunger to learn about cinema," explained that he continues the teaching process on set.

"I teach them how to interact with people because when you are a specific demographic, you don't know how to interact with people. Give them encouragement to answer the phone, to pick up the phone, to speak intelligently, to articulate. Just the basics. It's great because I didn't have this or anybody to teach me," Daniels said.

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Many of the students have also learned on the set of Russell’s films, with the writer-director allowing them to visit, intern, observe and even act in a few scenes, noting that one of the Ghetto Film School students was in a scene with Jeremy Renner’s family in American Hustle.

Russell said he’d "keep that door open" on future projects, like his upcoming film about the inventor of the Miracle Mop, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Although the film was just given a Dec. 25, 2015, release date, Russell told THR that he’s still rewriting the script, which was originally written by BridesmaidsAnnie Mumolo and will discuss more of the particulars with Lawrence, including "the how and the when and who else," "when she has a moment to breathe," alluding to Lawrence's hectic work schedule.

"It’s an inspiring story about a woman who made some things happen, you know, who didn’t have much going on for herself," Russell said of the film.

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He also teased another project that he’s working on, saying, "There's also another story that I'm writing that I'll talk to you more about as the season unfolds."

Inside the benefit, Oliver was honored with the 2014 champion award for her work with the Ghetto Film School during her time as film commissioner.

Introducing her, GFS president Joe Hall said that the former film commissioner connected the school with industry partners, provided internships and financial support and took a leadership role in planning for The Cinema School.

“All along she’s been a terrific sounding board for our ideas and plans,” Hall said. “At the end of the day, the Ghetto Film School is indisputably a Bloomberg-era success story.”

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Ahead of the event, Oliver told THR that partnering with the Ghetto Film School was a natural collaboration.

“Our mission at the film commission was to create jobs and to make it easy for people to make films in New York and for the industry and people all over the world to see that creativity was happening in New York, so to partner with an organization like this that was helping young filmmakers early on was a dream come true,” Oliver said.

Oliver, who’s since moved on to a private sector job at Bloomberg Associates, where she’ll work on the Ghetto Film School’s brand new L.A. outpost, hoped that her New York City film czar successor Cynthia Lopez would continue the thriving production back east.

“I think she’s got a great team that she’s working with. It’s a great city. We created a great base. The film industry is booming in New York. So just keep it going,” Oliver said. “Made in New York: To have that spirit of local pride and to work with a very vibrant community who’s so keen to work with you, I think it’s really a recipe for success.”

Lopez has indicated that she wants to diversify the filmmakers making movies in New York.

Ghetto Film School board chairman and Pivot president Evan Shapiro, echoed that sentiment Wednesday night, saying that he hopes that the Ghetto Film School can help diversify the film industry.

“Why the name Ghetto? There’s a Ghetto. It’s in Los Angeles. It’s in Hollywood and it’s full of mostly people who look like me,” Shapiro said. “America’s last great export is its content, is its intellectual property. Anyone who runs any business will tell you, if you do not diversify the voices and ideas in your industry, you will run out of gas and you will be overtaken by your competitors. We are here tonight to diversify our industry to save our industry from one point of view.”