Wondering if film school is right for you? Hear from 6 screenwriters who went to film school to learn what’s in it for you!
By: Sophia Lin
Filmmakers tend to debate the decision to go to film school, speaking of hands-on skills, experience on-set, and more. However, this topic often goes largely untouched for another foundational population of people in the industry: screenwriters. While learning how to hold a camera or create a lighting setup seem like tangible, practical skills, honing the craft of writing can feel more abstract.
But take it from these 6 screenwriters who went to film school and have made a name for themselves writing innovative, outstanding screenplays. Time after time, their work has received critical acclaim. They have had some of the greatest directors vying to bring their creations to life. For many, film school opened their mind to the nuances and possibilities of the art of screenwriting. It was also an invaluable chance to get their foot in the door for others.
Regardless, for these 6 screenwriters who went to film school, things certainly turned out quite well for them. They all started in the same place: as bright-eyed film students.
1. Charlie Kaufman
New York University
One of the greatest American screenwriters of his generation, Kaufman is the mind behind staples such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the breakthrough Synecdoche, New York. For him, film school gave him his first break in the industry and kickstarted his professional network.
While at NYU, he met fellow screenwriter Paul Proch, and the two wrote countless scripts and plays together. Soon, they found themselves writing comedic work for National Lampoon while working to get their scripts produced. Finally, in 1991, one of Kaufman’s spec scripts gained attention. From there, Kaufman found an agent, moved to LA, and has risen to the top of the screenwriting world.
2. Paul Schrader
University of California, Los Angeles
Schrader is an iconic name in film, best known as the scribe behind Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. His film school journey started unconventionally, when one summer he decided to take as many film classes as he could at Columbia. There, he met Pauline Kael, a prominent film critic, and began to consider a career in film. Kael helped Schrader get into UCLA and then set him up with a job as a newspaper critic.
While at UCLA, Schrader remembers seeing the film Pickpocket and notes that it formed his career path, educating him on the differing artistic views between filmmaking and film criticism. Fresh out of school, he leveraged his writing skills to secure positions at the Los Angeles Free Press and Cinema magazine. He subsequently fully turned to screenwriting, and in the 1970s, his Taxi Driver script was picked up by none other than Martin Scorsese.
3. Jane Campion
Australian Film, Television and Radio School
One of the buzziest films this awards season is The Power of the Dog, written and directed by Campion. While many may recall her previous standout feature The Piano, few know that Campion attended the Australian Film, Television and Radio School back in the 1980s to find her footing in the industry.
She credits film school with setting her free, giving her the chance to find herself through film. Learning how to express her energy, as she puts it, she began writing and shooting a series of short films. One of these was titled Peel, and upon submitting it to festivals, she won the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes — and the rest is history. Today, she has plans to open up a “pop-up film school.” In this creative structure, she wishes to impart the film education she received to the next generation of screenwriters who went to film school.
4. M. Night Shyamalan
New York University
Most famous for writing The Sixth Sense and more recently, the Unbreakable Trilogy, Shyamalan got his start studying film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Shyamalan has been enthralled with the medium of film since a young age. Film school provided him with the space to create without limits.
While in school, he wrote his first of two early feature-length films, Praying With Anger. This led him to win the American Film Institute’s top prize for a debut film. Along with this huge accomplishment, he secured his first agent. The genre reinvention he explored in his first film, which put a twist in the classic coming-of-age tale, would sow the seeds of his radical screenplays down the line.
5. Steven Zaillian
San Francisco State University
One of the few people to truly master both screenwriting and directing is Steve Zaillian. He began pursuing his interest in the arts by enrolling in film at SFSU. Zaillian used his time in film school to explore, taking art department classes that crossed over with history of film and venturing into foreign cinema studies.
For him, film school hugely influenced him, creatively and personally. He recalls discovering neo-realist and French New Wave films, with films like The 400 Blows opening his eyes to the power of realism. These explorative forms of film education went on to shape his career, like many other screenwriters who went to film school, serving as inspiration for the gritty screenplay Gangs of New York and his standout Academy Award-winning screenplay Schindler’s List.
6. Diablo Cody
University of Iowa
As a female screenwriter in a male-dominated industry, Cody began her career by breaking boundaries. She enrolled in a media degree at the University of Iowa. While taking classes, began her writing career — though from the unorthodox realm of blogging. With this, she honed crucial storytelling skills, as well as developed her signature style of quick wit and biting sarcasm.
Noting that her degree provided her with a safety net, she freely moved between jobs in radio and advertising. But soon, she dove into screenwriting — and a few months later, came out with her first feature-length screenplay titled Juno. This would go on to win Cody nearly every major screenwriting award, her offbeat, no-holds-barred style having won over critics and audiences alike.
Overall, these six screenwriters who went to film school have had exceptional careers that started their first day in the classroom. By going to film school, you have a chance to hone your storytelling skills. After getting a film education, you can make the stories you envision come to life. Storytelling is a sort of magic and film school can help you develop it.