Although I should be working on getting prints out, I spent a few hours this morning trying to put together important dates from my film career and stumbled across my transcript from NYU Grad. School of Film. So I had a pretty good start. I entered, Fall of ’79 and was there for 3 semesters. I think it was a two year program at the time, so I didn’t finish, which was standard operating procedure for me at that time.
It also means that I was 28 years old, and going to turn 29 during the first semester. As I began to search for alumni, I discovered that the name of the school had changed from Tisch School of the Arts to The Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film, Television, & New Media. I also discovered that Spike Lee had become the Artistic Director of the school. I don’t know if he still is. And that Lee’s thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Directors New Films Festival.
I was sitting next to him at that showing. I had worked with him on the first film exercise. The class was divided into groups of three or four students, and we were given 16mm cameras and went out to do short films. The first setup was of a guy running through a parking lot near Astor Place (the lot is no longer there) and he and I spent some time trying to extend the legs of the heavy wooden tripod.
I can’t say that we were ever friends, but we were both known as decent writers. He also worked in the equipment room, so you would always run into him when you needed to check out or return equipment. And of course, there were always film showings. Lee had a reputation for always wanting to do films about the black experience. There weren’t many black students in the class, and I don’t remember any black teachers. And he would get flack for this concentration. I remember during one showing someone, whether a student or a teacher I don’t remember, complained about his films all being about blacks – and Spike replied that no one had any trouble with Woody Allens’ films all being about the same class of whites (I’m paraphrasing) but you get the idea.
The school was, and still is, almost impossible to get into. According to NYU, less than 5% of applicants are accepted. I was also told at the time that the head of the school, Lazlo Benedek (The Wild One director) never interviewed students, and yet he wanted to meet me after seeing my application. Long story short, my application consisted of a huge sci-fi screenplay that I had written with Lester while we both had full-time jobs (called Adon) that had hundreds of characters and was way too long for a screenplay.
I also submitted films I had made as a teenager with the Young Filmmakers group; and a bunch of black and white photographs. After going over it all, I must have said something right because he shook my hand and said that although I obviously didn’t know what I was doing as far as screenwriting format goes, anyone that could put that much effort into it was worth taking a chance on.
But I’m not here to write stories right now – though I have a lot of them about film school – I was just trying to get my chronology down so that when I do begin to write my memoirs I have some idea of the dates.
When I left school, I have two other film credits that help pinpoint that time for me: Alone in the Dark (released ’82) and The Outdoorsters (released ’85) directed / written by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman (I believe there were two brothers) had created a small low-budget company that did films like The Toxic Avenger. Usually, the humor was crude, the camera work was shoddy, and the direction was awful. Nevertheless, as I was coming back from Great Neck (visiting my father) I saw that The Toxic Avenger was now a broadway show. Who would have thunk it.
I was eventually interviewed to be the cinematographer on a Kaufman film – in ’84, and it was at this time that I pulled another Beckerman and quit again. Although I loved working on films – it always felt like a circus atmosphere. You’d work incredible hours for a few weeks or months; get to know people really well; and then find yourself at the wrap party. A few weeks later, if you were lucky you’d get a call from a former crew member about another film that was looking for tech guys and off you’d go.
That sort of jumping from project to project completely fit my temperament. But what annoyed me was that whether you were working on a great film, or a piece of crap (and I did both) it wasn’t your own vision that was plastered on the screen. Only people in the industry are aware of cinematographers. And the odds of moving from cinematographer to director (although it has been done) – it just seemed too difficult a jump. So around that time, I turned down the chance to be cinematographer on a low-budget Kaufman feature film, and went off to try and write a screenplay. And that is how I ended up writing training films for a while for Con Edison.
[I’m now trying to figure out the time period when I made a living as a writer]. Lester may be able to give me a clue as to the time period for the writing of Uncle Lou.
From there I worked for a while on an early hip-hop film shot mostly in the Bronx (released in ’83)
John Foster, during the filmming of Wild Style.