Film Reviews

How to Make a Film

So the Academy has once again shut you out of the Best Director category on the technicality that you haven't actually made a movie? Hollywood philistinism, of course, but there's always a chance at next year: This weekend, Arizona Film Society is once again presenting the Hollywood Film Institute's two-day crash course on how to produce and direct an independent film. This is the sixth year that the course has been brought to the Valley as the major fund raiser for the weeklong AFS Film Festival in May.

As in previous years, the instructor is a man named Dov S-S Simens--the hyphenated middle initial (for "Stewart-Scott") is, he confesses, an attempt at an eye-catching Hollywood trademark. Simens asserts that his Institute "has revolutionized film education, condensing four years of film school into two days."

Considering that graduates of this course include Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Clerks Smith, this boast may have some justification.

Simens' Hollywood experience has not been cushy. A veteran line producer--the on-set manager of scheduling and budgeting--Simens has worked in the trenches: features with titles like Blood Spa and Microwave Massacre; syndicated TV series like Auto Test Point and Soap Opera Digest. He knows the less-glamorous side of the film business, where most filmmakers spend their careers.

It's the practical know-how from this side of the biz that Simens thinks is missing in most formal film education. "Go up to most film-school graduates and ask them how much film stock you need to make a movie, how much does it cost, where do you get it wholesale, and they'll say, 'I don't know,'" says Simens. "We teach what everything costs, and how to get it done. The course is for people who want the information without the baby talk.

"At other film schools, they tell people you've gotta have talent, you've gotta have passion, you've gotta persevere, you've gotta communicate, you've gotta hire good people, you've gotta be organized, and it's important to have a good script. It's all absolutely true, but it's baby talk. The most important thing in filmmaking is the screenplay, but we start with the assumption that you've already got a great screenplay. We just cut to the chase--step one, we teach you how to buy film stock, how to get it at sale prices."

The course restricts itself to this sort of applicable info, what Simens likes to refer to as "the 38 bank checks that you have to write to make a movie." Day one of the course focuses on the nuts and bolts of shooting and editing, and day two focuses on marketing the film through festivals and distributors, and on how to fight, in Simens phrase, "Hollywood creative bookkeeping."

"Day one is 'Let's make it'; day two is 'Let's sell it,'" says Simens. "We make it understandable. We don't simplify it; people don't leave saying filmmaking is a piece of cake. They leave saying, 'I understand why so few people actually do it.'"

These sentiments are echoed by Valley auteur Chris Lamont, a graduate of Simens' course who, having cut his teeth on a pair of shot-on-video movies, recently completed shooting his first feature on film, a thriller called Quality Time, starring Corin Nemec, Nancy Allen and Bruce Weitz. In an example of indie-film hustle that would please his former instructor, Lamont leaves this week for India, having made a deal with a U.S. production company to spend its leftover rupees editing his movie there in return for distribution.

"The one thing that Dov really makes you do is want to go out and make a feature film," says Lamont. "He really gets across that if you're serious about being a filmmaker, then you need to just stop talking about it and go out and make a movie. It was really inspirational for me."

But Lamont heard the flip side of Simens' message, too: "The other thing he mentions is that if you don't have the drive or the desire to go out and make a movie, then don't. Don't even think about it, 'cause it's such a tremendous undertaking to get it from point A to point Z. It's not for the faint of heart. And I'll go along with that, after the features I've gone through. It'll consume your life if you walk down that pathway."

Call Arizona Film Society at 970-8711 for more information on the course. The precise location is being disclosed only to those who have paid their tuition, presumably to cut down on baggy-trousered, backward-capped gate crashers.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead