Opinion: Nirvana for high school filmmakers
Published 1:05 am, Friday, February 12, 2010
What do you do when you have moved to a Connecticut town specifically for its superb schools, and your 15-year-old son announces he wants to go to school five hours north of Detroit?
In my case, I literally did one of those cartoonish head shakes, sort of like a dog does. "Are you kidding?" I replied, about 10 times.
He wasn't. My son had discovered Interlochen Center for the Arts, which not only runs a summer program that attracts 2,500 youths but also a boarding school that educates more than 500. Impressive as its Web site is, my wife and I were skeptical, to say the least.
Jeff, now 16, is a filmmaker. He's been writing, shooting and editing videos since he was 7. We are fortunate to live in Westport, where the public Staples High School not only offers a filmmaking course but also lets motivated students take the course repeatedly. Westport is even home of the Westport Youth Film Festival, the only festival in the country founded and operated entirely by students.
But, for Jeff, there was still a missing element: creative collaboration. He wanted to live and learn in a community of artists.
Whether you are 14 or 40, the toughest thing about making great films is attracting and keeping talent, from actors to tech crew to musicians to funders. Interlochen -- which attracts some of the most gifted young musicians, actors, writers, filmmakers, dancers and visual artists in the world -- is a bubble in the woods where creative collaboration thrives.
Interlochen also has an open campus policy for parents, and my wife and I have already been there three times, the first to decide why any sane parent would send their student so far away. We visited during the summer session, which Jeff attended to try it out.
Utterly resistant to the idea, I knew within a few minutes we'd say yes. My wife later told me much the same. If there's another place on Earth like Interlochen, I haven't found it yet.
When my son looks out his dorm window, he sees not one but two outdoor performance spaces that each back up to the lake and seat upwards of 4,000 people. During the summer, student performances are interspersed with those by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Josh Groban, Norah Jones and Bob Dylan. The fall Collage performance by students -- it's one performance after another for 90 minutes, with no applause until the very end -- literally made our jaws drop. (I'm sounded like a real cartoon caricature, aren't I?)
Jeff lives in the Deroy Center for Film Studies, the only facility like it in the country. This high school dorm contains a soundstage, sophisticated editing suites, and a private screening area that seats over 200 people. There are other performance and practice spaces all across the 1,200 acre campus, and Interlochen Public Radio is located on the other side of campus.
So far as I can tell, about 70 percent of the student population gets some form of financial aid, and the place seems like an utter meritocracy. You are judged by your performance, both in your academic classes -- which are rigorous -- and in your artistic major. Interlochen has high standards, to say the least.
Jeff is in the Motion Picture Arts program, where students alternate between being a film's creator or crew. They learn audio, editing, lighting, directing, screenwriting and even performing (they sometimes act in each other's films.) But -- and this is the critical part -- for student thesis productions, the films that really count, creators can and do recruit performers from other art forms. The result is a level of professionalism that you rarely see from high school kids.
As parents, we faced some tough questions. Was our "child" ready to be so far away from home? Was he organized enough? Was it too soon to immerse him in filmmaking? Would the academic courses measure up to Staples' high standards?
Yes, yes, no and yes.
We have been reminded that when you allow a human being to pursue their passion, amazing things happen. When we see occasional pictures of Jeff at Interlochen, he is glowing. It's a magical place, and it has a magical effect on talented students.
On Feb. 27, at 11 a.m., Interlochen's Michael Mittelstaedt will be speaking at the Westport Arts Center about making films in high school. Mittelstaedt is director of the Motion Picture Arts Division, and this will be his only opportunity this semester to leave campus and visit the East Coast.
Mittelstaedt will talk about ways in which high school filmmakers can best achieve their creative and professional goals. He will also answer questions from students and parents.
Standards are rising and competition among young filmmakers is growing more intense. Mittelstaedt will share his insights around not only producing creatively accomplished films, but also navigating the numerous challenges that surround young filmmakers, from developing ideas, to recruiting and motivating cast and crews, and producing the film itself.
This presentation is made possible by the Westport Youth Film Festival (WYFF), which is a program of the Westport Arts Center, a not-for-profit arts organization. Interlochen and WYFF maintain a strong relationship, and each year one WYFF entrant is eligible for a scholarship to Interlochen's Summer Arts program.
The Westport Arts Center is located at 51 Riverside Ave. Admission to Mittelstaedt's presentation is free, but to reserve a seat, please call (203) 222-7070.
The Westport Arts Center is online at www.westportartscenter.org, and Interlochen's Motion Picture Arts division is online at http://academy.interlochen.org/motion-picture-arts
By the way, four times as many students attend the summer program versus the boarding school, so you can always give your student a chance to experience Interlochen in the time it takes to go to camp.
Bruce Kasanoff is a Westport resident. Check out his online artwork at http://drawthedog.com.