Can’t decide if film school is right for you? Here are 8 great filmmakers who went to film school!

eight filmmakers who went to film school

Written by Sophia Lin


For aspiring filmmakers, arguably one of the most hotly debated decisions is whether or not to attend film school. While some directors have made it big without ever stepping into a classroom, film school can afford certain opportunities to develop your style, hone your craft, and break into the film industry. It offers a structured time and a constructive environment for students to practice the art form, doing away with the pressures that come with being a working filmmaker. Along with that, it affords a creative freedom that filmmakers may take years to find out in the industry. The most undisputed benefit of all, though, is the professional network you build by attending film school. It’s how lifetime collaborators first met, how directors met their muses, and how some household names got the big breaks that forever changed their lives. 


Take it from these 8 iconic filmmakers who went to film school — and haven’t looked back ever since.

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1. George Lucas

USC School of Cinematic Arts


One of the most popular filmmakers who went to film school is George Lucas. Known for creating the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, he’s a director who needs no introduction. But back at the beginning of his career, he had transferred to USC to study film. There, he explored his various interests, studying animation at first, then moving to cinematography and editing.

Lucas had the chance to produce no less than eight student films, one of them being the sci-fi short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which won first prize at the National Student Film Festival. Film school allowed him to freely explore his creativity in science fiction, and the said short, set in a dystopian future and a world unlike our own, would plant the artistic seeds needed for his ‘space opera’ masterwork Star Wars to come.


Electronic Labyrinth: 



2. Martin Scorsese

NYU Tisch School of the Arts


Before making iconic films such as Goodfellas and Raging Bull, Scorsese, like most of the filmmakers of his generation, went to film school. It was here where he made his first few student films, including What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and The Big Shave. While the former contains traces of Scorsese’s distinct editing style, the latter marked the beginnings of his fascination with self-destructive men, a theme prevalent in some of his most defining works.

Scorsese credits his professor Haig P. Manoogian for inspiring him when he was a film student, teaching Scorsese the value of every shot and the importance of the individual voice. NYU was also where he met his longtime collaborator and go-to film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.


What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?


3. Francis Ford Coppola

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television


Francis Ford Coppola was one of those filmmakers who went to film school and got his first job while studying. When he was a graduate student, he got himself hired for an entry-level job as producer Roger Corman’s jack-of-all-trades assistant. Corman was impressed by the young filmmaker’s perseverance and dedication, and on the set of one of Corman’s movies The Young Racer, Coppola proposed a thrifty idea to him. This led to Corman giving Coppola his chance to direct his first feature film, Dementia 13. His next film was his master’s thesis, You’re a Big Boy Now, a well-reviewed film that came out of his time at UCLA. This led Warner Brothers to select Coppola, fresh out of school, to direct Finian’s Rainbow, and from there, his now-illustrious career took off.


You’re a Big Boy Now Clip: 


4. Kathryn Bigelow

Columbia University


The first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, Bigelow is yet another filmmaker who went to film school and got sent on the fast-track to Hollywood success. Here, she studied film theory and criticism, learning the value of the research behind a film. These skills manifested themselves in her internationally acclaimed, visceral films to come, like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, which were both based on true events.

Bigelow’s first short film, The Set-Up, was equally influential. Examining the seductiveness of cinematic violence, it would sow the seeds of her desire to depict violence with no holds barred. Soon after graduating, she began work on her first feature film, The Loveless, and well, the rest is history.


The Loveless Trailer:


5. Terrence Malick

American Film Institute


Idiosyncratic, meditative films have become one of Malick’s most well-known trademarks, making him a director unlike any other. Back in 1969, like many other filmmakers who went to film school, he took auteur-based film classes. This came to heavily influence his directing, particularly the total freedom he deploys when shaping his film projects. It too enabled him to exercise an unusually high level of creative control when he began work on his first film, and that approach continues today, with highly praised films like The Tree of Life and Song to Song.

Beyond that, he was able to explore aspects of cinematic style through the screening and analysis of diverse assortments of films. Since then, Malick has strongly affirmed the school’s role in his career — in fact, he began work on his first feature-length work, the acclaimed Badlands, shortly after graduating.


Badlands Clip:


6. Spike Lee

NYU Tisch School of the Arts


A figure at the forefront of the American Black New Wave, Lee’s prolific career began back when he was a film student. He studied film production and used that time to create as much as he could. There, he had the freedom to dive into other areas too, directing a music video called Grandmaster Melle Mel: White Lines (Don’t Do It).

For his graduate thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Lee won a Student Academy Award. The film centers around a young barbershop manager who ends up coming to terms with the oppression in his neighbourhood. These same core themes would come to define Lee’s filmmaking, most notably appearing in his seminal film, Do the Right Thing. He garnered national attention for this first film, and by the time his feature film debut She’s Gotta Have It came out, his career was well on its way.


Grandmaster Melle Mel: White Lines (Don’t Do It) Link:


7. Rian Johnson

USC School of Cinematic Arts


A writer-director behind recent hits like Knives Out and Looper, Johnson started as a film student at USC. For him, it was a chance to make movies — and make a lot of them. In an environment devoid of the many pressures of the industry, he got the chance to explore his creativity and the art of filmmaking, becoming the audio-visual geek he describes himself as today. By the time he graduated, he had a whopping 90 short films under his belt, including the comedy Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!!. He learned how to make great shorts on a small budget, and after a few years in the industry, Johnson was able to take those skills and make his first feature, a visionary neo-noir titled Brick. These days, he’s been tapped to create an all-new Star Wars trilogy.


Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!! Link:



8. Chloé Zhao

NYU Tisch School of the Arts


Just this year, Zhao made history by taking home the Oscar for her gripping drama Nomadland. Back in 2010, she attended film school, which gave her the chance to produce her first short film Daughters. It was also here, with Spike Lee as one of her professors, where she began developing her signature cinematic style of blending fiction and documentary. This was showcased in her debut feature film, set on a South Dakota reservation, called Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and a style that has continued to dominate her finest works to date. Her student film went on to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, marking the start of a glittering film career.


Songs My Brothers Taught Me Trailer:

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