When you ask Nanette Burstein whether her new IFC series, Film School, is a reality show or a documentary, she offers her own genre: “I like to call it a docu-soap,” Burstein said with a laugh. “I think it’s somewhere between a reality show and a documentary.”
The 10-part series premiered on the Independent Film Channel on September 10th, and follows the trials and tribulations of four New York University film students as they fight and struggle to make their thesis films.
“I’ve wanted to do a docu-series that had a built-in narrative structure,” explained Burstein, creator and executive producer of Film School. “And obviously film school was something I was very familiar with.”
And while reality television has become the norm on TV today, she argues that her series doesn’t really fit in that category. “The reality series as we have experienced it so far in America [consists of] contrived situations with real people in them,” she said. “They’re somewhere between a documentary and a game show. And this is a reality that would exist whether I was there or not. It’s a lot closer to reality than what we would consider reality television.”
The series follows four students: 35-year-old Vincenzo Tripodo, an international student from Italy; 28-year-old Alrick Brown, a Jamaican-born student who moved to New Jersey after the death of his father; Leah Meyerhoff, 24, from Oakland, California; and Barbara Klauke, 28, from Spring, Texas.
Each student struggles through personal and professional turmoil to put their ideas on screen, and not all of them succeed. “We knew we would be making the story of ‘the underdog’,” Burstein explained. “We chose students who were talented with stand-out personalities, interesting back stories and serious obstacles to overcome.”
Tripodo spent the first few episodes of the series fighting to raise money just to stay in school. International students do not have the same access to financial aid as American-born students, so his experience is particularly unique. His accent also caused the producers to add subtitles to make him easier to understand.
“I didn’t find him hard to understand, but when the people at IFC were getting the tapes, they found it difficult,” Burstein explained. “Everyone’s different in their ability to get someone’s accent, so just to make it clear we subtitled everything.”
But the most tragic storyline in the series is Klauke, who dropped out of film school in the show’s third episode after the death of her grandmother.
“It didn’t surprise me,” Burstein said when asked about Klauke’s decision to leave film school. “But I was really hoping that she wouldn’t. I wanted her to succeed. But that’s a major family tragedy, so it was understandable.”
In fact, her departure so early in the series almost prompted the producers to remove her from the story all together. “At one point we weren’t going to include her in the series, but I actually thought that it was such a strong storyline, what happened with her grandmother, that we felt it was worth including,” Burstein said.
The casting process for the show started with a simple e-mail. “We sent an e-mail to all the grad students outlining what we wanted to do and anyone that was interested could respond, and quite a few of them did,” Burstein explained. “I interviewed each of them on tape for a couple of hours, and really looked for people that were talented, and people who had really strong storylines, beyond just the filmmaking.”
Although New York University’s Tisch Film School is featured prominently in the series, the school was not really involved in producing it. However they did provide free access to Burstein and her team, and helped connect her with several well-known graduates to make brief appearances at the opening of each episode.
“We wrote a letter, and they took a look at it, and then sent it out to the list of people that we were interested in interviewing who were [NYU] alum,” Burstein said. As a result, “we talked with Oliver Stone for 15-minutes, Martin Scorsese for 20-minutes, and actually went out to [Los Angeles] to do some of the interviews, and others we did in New York when they had the time.” There are also anecdotes from the likes of Spike Lee and Amy Heckerling.
An NYU graduate herself, Burstein produced her multi-award winning documentary, On the Ropes, while a student. A movie-lover her whole life, she developed an interest in documentaries while in high school. “I just always really loved film, and then got into that age in high school where I dyed my hair pink, and got really political and wanted to make documentaries,” she said. She was also inspired by such works as “Unzipped” and “Hoop Dreams”.
Working as an editor and writer, she found that while she enjoys making both fictional and non-fictional films, editing documentaries proved more interesting because it allowed her more choices regarding story. With a film, the story is dictated by the script and must follow a strict structure. But with documentaries, she explained, you discover the story as you go and are free to explore different options.
“When I was making On the Ropes, it was not during the digital era, so to make a feature was quite expensive,” Burstein said. “You couldn’t make movies with little digital cameras at that time, but you could shoot a documentary on Beta and blow it up to film, so it seemed a lot more accessible to me.”
Regardless of the format used, On the Ropes went on to receive the Director’s Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, The International Documentary Association’s Achievement Award for Best Feature Documentary, and the Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Oh, it was also nominated for an Oscar.
“It was awesome,” Burstein said about her Academy Award experience, with a good-hearted laugh. “It was me and my partner [Brett Morgen], and our significant partners, and it was in his loft at about six in the morning.” Since they don’t announce the documentary nominees during the live broadcast, they had to go online to find out if they’d made the cut.
“We’re scrolling down and we’re like, ‘Oh my God!’, and we’re drinking champagne at six in the morning,” Burstein said. “We all walked down the red carpet, along with all the people who were in the film. It was just a really exciting time. I was honored to be nominated.”
Burstein also co-directed The Kid Stays in the Picture, a visually stunning, award-winning documentary with Brett Morgen. The film told the story of Robert Evans, the legendary producer of such classics as The Godfather, Love Story and Jaws.
The original concept for the film was going to be more traditional, showing Evans’ life now and through that explore his Hollywood experience. However, two things led them to change plans. “Graydon Carter, around that same time, had wanted to make his own film about Bob Evans and basically adapt [Evans’] book. So rather than try to compete with one another… we decided to join forces,” Burstein said. Plus, “Bob was self-conscience about the way he appears now.”
Told solely through old pictures and narration by Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Documentary. “The very first thing we did was spend about four months in [Los Angeles] getting to know Bob, hanging out with him every day, and going through his wealth of stuff,” Burstein said. “He had saved everything, all of his photos and videos and films. We got to know him really well before we headed back to New York and started to make the movie.”
“It really worked stylistically because Bob is larger than life,” Burstein said. The visuals, created largely with Adobe’s After Effects, lead to a 3D style that was unique. “It made it feel surreal… and that was very much like his life. We really felt that if Bob Evans had directed a film, this was how he would have done it.”
When it comes to IFC’s Film School docu-series, it is Burstein’s hope that it will serve to give viewers, and wanna-be filmmakers, a better sense for what it takes to make a film. “I hope that they’ll be entertained, and they’ll understand and be inspired by the dreams and passions of the students,” she said. “To see everything that [the students] go through, and decide in the end if it is worth it or not.”
But is film school a necessary step to making it in Hollywood? “I do not think it’s necessary, but I think for some people, it’s great,” Burstein said. “Especially if you can get some sort of financial aid or scholarship, because [the school] gives you equipment. Plus you get to meet a collection of colleagues, who you may end up working with for the rest of your life.”
“It also carves out this time in your life where you’re like, okay, I’m going to make these films, because often life can get in the way,” she said. “Jobs come up, this comes up, that comes up, so it allows you to carve out this time where you can say, okay, I’m going to take these two or three years and make these films.”
“I have a lot of respect for the students who
“I think a lot of us just repress this idea and hope for the best,” she added. “Failure is not an option.”
IFC’s Film School airs Friday nights at 10:30 p.m.