Ghost in the Machine: Becoming a Professional Filmmaker?

Is it possible to achieve a professional level in any craft without acquiring the classical education in its traditional understanding? It’s not about the extraordinarily gifted and talented individuals. It’s about the system. Let’s take the technical professions out of consideration and turn our attention instead to artists. What does it take for an actor to become a professional? Natural talent? An acting school? A wise mentor? How to become a top notch filmmaker? By attending a film school? With the help of family or community?

We are going to discuss these issues with two film directors, whose names, if you haven’t heard of them yet, could become recognizable in the near future. It should be noted beforehand that both directors studied their craft in well-known film schools. However, they don’t have the same point of view on the role of the traditional educational institutions.

Thirty-seven-year-old Yann Demange is considered to be one of the most promising British directors. His debut feature film 71 has been released this year. It is dedicated to the fate of the private soldier Gary Hook, who was sent to Belfast in the midst of the struggle for independence of Northern Ireland. This film received critical acclaim at film festivals in Berlin and Karlovy Vary.

Yann Demange, director from the UK:

It’s an interesting question how to become a professional. You know, no one in my family does cinema. No one in my family went to university. We’re not educated. No one’s in art. They’re all waiters and cleaners. But my mother and my family always put me in front of films from the time I was very young. We’re immigrants. We came from Paris to London when I was a few years old. My mother never really learnt to speak English so she’d watch French movies. It was VHS. And I was like, ‘Fuck! I’ll have to watch these old, black and white, French movies with her.’ I must have watched that VHS fifty times or something. So it was in my culture. No one even really taught me to read. We weren’t a very literary family and I didn’t learn to read till very late. It was kind of a neglected thing. So everything, you know, the big questions, I was watching through films. I was watching films that were very adult for my age. And they really affected me. I’m quite sensitive, and the movies just really moved me! So I’ve always felt passionately about it and I wanted to do that to people. There’s a great Sam Fuller quote that movies at the end of the day – it’s emotion. It’s about moving people and that’s what gets me going. But it was a long journey. It’s difficult. It’s like a closed shop. It’s a fucking pain in the arse to break in, to be honest with you!

So how did your breakthrough happen?

You know, I was an assistant. I made tea and coffee. I was walking dogs. It was a nightmare! But I was very lucky. I started work in music videos and then commercials. And then I made a short film. And then I was like, “Okay, you know what? I need to get an education,” because I knew… – I was conscious enough to know that I wasn’t educated enough. So I decided that I wanted to do a degree.

In a film school?

Yes. I applied three years in a row. I wasn’t getting in. I did an art foundation then I did a film BA and that was great. It opened my eyes to even more cinema and that was amazing! And what I loved were the philosophy lectures and things. Anyway, I did that degree and then I made a fiction short film as part of that degree. I did very well. But I still couldn’t get more money to make a fiction. I couldn’t get a break so I started doing documentaries for an anthropology company and I learnt a lot that’s in my work now. Then I applied to the National Film School. Got accepted. Disney gave me a scholarship. And then in two years at the National I shot eight short films. I was like bap, bap, bap, shooting all the time like a machine. I learnt a lot of the craft. And then I’m lucky; since I’ve come out I haven’t stopped. One of my graduation short films from The National got me signed with a big agent in London and LA.

Do you think that professional education for a director or actor is important?

No. No and once again no. Film school is absolutely not necessary. If I were from a family that had sent me to a good degree, like if I had had a literature degree or a history degree, I would not have gone to film school because you can learn that practically. I needed an education because I didn’t have a good education when I was young. I needed to expose myself to… – I went actually for the more academic stuff. If I could do it again, I would have probably done a degree in history or English, not film. But the MA I did at The National, which was very practical – that was fantastic for me, I thought. Because you know, if you don’t have money how do you practise directing? You know what I mean? It costs stuff! Now it’s more accessible. So fuck film school in a way! You don’t need film school. You know, you see films being made – I saw one in Berlin; this guy, who made his first film or whatever on a video, just rough, there was a donkey in it… I was so moved! You know, this guy, had no professional education, just felt his way through it. So you don’t need it.

The most important thing about a good movie is to have passion? Knowledge isn’t so important?

I think so. It’s a key. Sure, you need a lot more other things. You need a lot of fucking luck also!

Yann Demange’s five must see movies:

The French Connection (1971) by William Friedkin

The Conversation (1974) by Francis Ford Coppola

Escape from New York (1981) by John Carpenter

The Warriors (1979) by Walter Hill

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) by Steven Spielberg

and like a bonus, all of Francois Truffaut’s movies


Twenty-six-year-old Tomas Pavlicek is the youngest and the most promising film director in the Czech Republic. His comedies are being called the “new breath” of Czech cinematography.

– Well my relationship with cinema looks like this. The first point was I spent a lot of time in the cinema during high school watching everything. Then at one point a friend of mine said to me, “Shouldn’t we shoot something?” So we shot five movies. Then my father one day came home from work and said, “Do you know that the deadline for FAMU [Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague – ed.] submissions is in 2 weeks?” So I sent my movies and got accepted. And then my final movie at FAMU is now at Karlovy Vary so I don’t know what’s happening but I think a person has to be very open and whenever there is this touch of destiny he has to just grab the chance and go for it. About the importance of a university education, currently I’m a student at the film school in Prague. So it’s a very important part of my career right now. But actually I’m always saying that rather than a creator, I’m somebody who loves movies and loves to watch movies.

And how tough was it to work on your first feature film while you were a student because it seems like a lot of things have to be figured out, like finance, people, resources…?

It wasn’t actually that tough because it was my final movie from school so we got the basic funding from FAMU. So, FAMU, Czech Television, the Czech Film Fund and some basic funding from Master Film – we were able to shoot it. So it’s still a FAMU film so the production was very friendly. It was a small crew among students, nice shooting. It was physically difficult because we shot for a month during a very hot summer. It was physically difficult, but again, we’re students; we loved shooting it this way. We love to experience more and push the boundaries of what we are able to survive.

Is film school the key to a successful career?

It depends on the person of course but for me the main thing is movies by themselves. To shoot something good you need not to get stuck, but just do it. Just do it. And if you don’t know how to do it, just watch movies because you’ll learn the most by watching. Film school will help you to find people with the same interests as you have.

Tomas Pavlicek’s five must see movies:

Playtime (1967) by Jacques Tati

Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen

All that Jazz (1979) by Bob Fosse

Samurai (1967) by Jean-Pierre Melville

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) by Wes Anderson

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