An actor writes: Why film schools are failing their students

A while ago I wrote a blog post pompously entitled ‘How to make better films.’ I wrote it because I thought if I came across one more casting brief asking for “Curvy Thin Sexy Brunette, 20-25, and Clever Funny Guy (no age limit) for 3 weeks’ filming, full nudity required, no pay but we’ll drive you to a Pret” I might just shrivel myself inside-out. Strangely though, this blog post didn’t make the problem immediately go away. Which was odd.

Then I realised something. Not all filmmakers who compose badly-paid, sexist, ageist, racist casting briefs that seem designed solely to test what you can get away with making another human being do without being arrested, actually are sexist, ageist, racist cartoon baddies – but somehow they’ve been allowed to leave film school still thinking it’s ok to write casting briefs like these.

We all know that the film industry is just one more huge-ass problem for women at the moment. And Equity is trying valiantly to combat the inexplicable new accepted wisdom that actors don’t need to be paid for doing acting work. So when film students emerge from film school, perhaps they should be forgiven to some extent for believing, for example, that films are just better when they’re about men, and that actors eat the love of their craft for every meal and pay their rent with a purse full of dewy-eyed ambition. They didn’t learn anything otherwise at film school.

I have begun to feel a pang of pity for young directors who innocently post up their casting brief one evening, then wake up the next day to find the entire Twittersphere pulsating with murderous actor rage, and their brief being touted around like a neo-Nazi manifesto. Now that social media run the world, people make all their mistakes in public.

According to recent Twitter lynchings I’ve seen, film students are not being taught that you can’t pay one actor on a shoot and not the other. That you need to pay more than fifty quid for a shoot involving nudity in an advert for a wealthy corporation. That actors don’t want to “shave off all their body hair and stand naked for twelve hours”. Especially for no pay.

Film students clearly are not being taught the proper way to deal with actors. And I mean ‘deal with’ in a literal, business sense, rather than in a ‘wear your flame-retardant, gloves and grasp it firmly behind the ears’ way. In the same way that some argue drama school training teaches actors to act, but not how to be an actor (how to find work, how to network, etc), film schools are equipping students with filmmaking skills but sending them into the bear pit without teaching them to speak bear.

Film schools should be teaching students that they must pay professional actors, or else use student actors. That paying expenses and providing footage is considered the absolute bare minimum in the industry. Students should know how to phrase casting briefs in a professional way, and be encouraged to throw off lazy cultural stereotypes when writing them. They should know the difference between ‘pushing’ an actor on set, and exploiting them; how to develop good, creative working relationships with actors, rather than treating them like the organ-grinder’s monkey, or some weird species of exhibitionist alien. They should know the impact that the film industry has on cultural attitudes, and understand consequently their social responsibility as a filmmaker.

There is a difference between a naïve young filmmaker who just doesn’t quite think his or her casting brief through properly before posting it, and one who shamelessly and knowingly exploits actors without giving half a tiny turd. But film schools have a duty to the first kind of filmmaker that, as the current state of casting websites testifies, it is failing to perform. It’s not enough to teach them where to point the camera and how to make the boom work. You have to teach them to speak bear.