This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
Veteran movie producer Jordan Kerner spent nearly 10 years finding a way to make “The Smurfs,” which earned $35.6 million in its U.S. opening last weekend. But it’s not his long track record in Hollywood, which includes producing everything from “Less Than Zero” to “The Mighty Ducks,” that interests me most. It’s his other job: dean of the school of filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
I went to film school myself at Northwestern University, back in the stone age, when we still shot with 16mm cameras, lugged around Nagra sound recorders and edited footage on ancient Moviolas. We'd occasionally be treated to lectures from visiting filmmakers, who'd regale us with tall tales about their exploits. But if you wanted any real-life experience, you had to move to Los Angeles and find a job. Thanks to Kerner’s innovative ideas, undergrads at UNCSA are getting an education not just in theory and production, but in the often less-than-glamorous aspects of life in the trenches of Hollywood.
Kerner has recruited a host of faculty members who still have their day jobs, which helps give students a grounding in the kind of pragmatic problem-solving necessary to survive on a film set. Through a shadowing program, students get to spend weeks at a time on movie sets, seeing their professor (or in the case of Kerner, their dean) in action. Nearly 80 students spent time on “Smurfs.”
“We set it up as part of our internship program, but not just to get coffee, but to see how movies are really made,” he told me the other day, sitting in his office on the Sony lot. Every two weeks, a new group of students would establish residency on the film, listening to budget discussions he would have with the studio or sitting in on script revision meetings among Kerner, the screenwriters and director Raja Gosnell.
“During the shoot, if Raja went up to talk to an actor, our kids would be right there with him. They also got to spend time with our editors, visual effects supervisor, sound designers and other crew members. Sometimes the discussions were difficult, but that was the whole point--it's a way to learn the whys and why nots of filmmaking.” (It being 2011, students had to sign release forms promising not to blog about what they saw.)
From the point of view of Andrew Porter, a 2010 graduate of the school's screenwriting program, the shadowing experience on “Smurfs” was an eye-opener. “It was pretty amazing to watch the drafts of all the scripts come through, and see what stayed and what was replaced,” he recalls. “The script really evolved a lot. In one draft you'd see some part of the story that you thought for sure would stay, and then it would be gone. But after you got to hear all the discussions, you'd realize why they'd made the changes.”
Tom Ackerman, a veteran director of photography on such films as “Anchorman” and “Balls of Fury,” has been teaching cinematography at UNCSA for three years. He's also a big believer in the shadowing process, having brought a flock of students to spend time with him on “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked,” which will hit theaters this Christmas. He also has his students listen in on his conversations with his agent so they can develop an understanding of the demands of the marketplace.
When he was back in Los Angeles, doing a quick music video shoot, Ackerman had students sit in on his production meetings, via Skype, so they could follow the flow of the production. “It makes their teacher more relevant, because you're teaching something that you're still practicing,” he says. “It's great to teach theory, but the students need to see that theories often evaporate under the pressure of trying to get a movie made. Everyone knows that cinematographers try to create great images, but you also have to exercise leadership and be able to manage the resources that you're given.”
Kerner never imagined himself being a film school dean – in fact, he never went to film school himself. But after surviving a freak staph infection and enduring the disappointing showing of a pet project, 2006’s “Charlotte’s Web,” Kerner was looking for a new challenge. He became dean in 2007, agreeing to split his time between Los Angeles and Winston-Salem, where his wife and three daughters now live.
UNCSA, a state school with 270 film students and tuition far below institutions like USC or AFI, has its share of prominent young alums, notably director David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”), writer-director Jody Hill (“Observe and Report”) and screenwriter Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”), who often return to share their experiences. But Kerner felt the school needed more outside professionals on the faculty, so he recruited a host of industry pros, including producer Bob Gosse, who co-founded The Shooting Gallery and Peter Bogdanovich, who teaches a freshman film class.
Eager to broaden the students' horizons, Kerner has everyone taking art history, which he believes will help students “see the world composed in a way that stimulates individual expression.” Students in the producing program will soon start studying Mandarin since Kerner is convinced that China is “where much of the funding for film is going to come from.”
My biggest concern with today's film schools is that they tend to offer students far more instruction in technique than in actual ideas, which is perhaps one reason why we see a generation of filmmakers who seem to value box office success far more than artistic accomplishment. The star directors in today's studio system, from Todd Phillips to Michael Bay, operate more as careerists than auteurs.
But the student films I watched from UNCSA were loaded with strong ideas, wit and imagination – which may come as a bit of a surprise, given that the dean is the guy producing commercial fare like “The Smurfs.” Kerner, though, sees his work as dean as contributing to enhancing the business more than any one movie he might make.
“When I arrived, we had way too many student films that were full of close-ups of smoking guns, employing the imagery of video games,” Kerner says. “Filmmaking isn't just about coolness and pose--you need bigger subjects to tell.” So Kerner started an American Immersion project, where students gain a deeper understanding of character and story by spending several weeks at places like the Veterans Artificial Limb Hospital in Philadelphia and Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.
“They can't take cameras or recording devices--just a pad and pen,” says Kerner. “The whole idea is to go out and get to know people, hear their stories and get under their skin. The whole idea is to find ways to take what they've learned and adapt it to their work.”
As much as Kerner would enjoy seeing his students make lofty art, he is enough of a realist to realize that they also need what it takes to actually land a job. Since much of the job market today is geared toward the web, animation and TV commercials, Kerner is a proponent of short-form storytelling.
“Our kids are going to have to think clearly in short bursts, because that's where the action is,” he says. “But we want them to have their own voice, because having a unique voice is what sets you apart from everyone else.”
[For the record, 12:55 p.m. Aug. 5: An earlier version of this post used a photo of "Smurfs" director Raja Gosnell but identified him as Jordan Kerner.]
-- Patrick Goldstein
Top photo: "The Smurfs" director Raja Gosnell, left, and producer Jordan Kerner. Credit: Mark Renders / Getty Images
Lower photo: Jordan Kerner in New York City in July. Credit: Cindy Ord / Getty Images