With June now safely behind us, the 2013-2014 school year is officially over.  It’s summertime! When I was younger that meant 75 days of uninterrupted fun.  That’s just how we roll in the United States: you are either in-school learnin’ or you are out-of-school playin’.

We carry those impressions into adulthood. If you want to learn something, you need to take a class. And contrariwise, if you aren’t in a class, you mustn’t be learning.

Today there are classes for everything. There are even classes to learn WordPress which just so happens to be the interface I’m using to type this column. But here’s a secret: I’ve been been writing columns for quite a while now, and I never once took a class on WordPress. Oh, sure, the first couple of weeks were a bit rough but eventually everything came out write.

You don’t need a formal class to learn. Once upon a time, film schools didn’t exist. The USC School of Cinematic Arts, the first film school in the United States, wasn’t founded until 1929.  Which was 2 years after The Jazz Singer.  Which means that not a single American school existed to teach people how to make silent films.

How on Earth did they get made?

The best way I know to learn about art is immersion. To experience it: totally and completely, personally and intimately. See what other people do. Pretend you are a critic. What worked?  What didn’t? And why? You’d be amazed how objective you can be when your own ass isn’t on the line.

Remember, you are looking at a work of art. Don’t deconstruct with a checklist. Experience as a whole.

When I was taking acting classes, there was a rule:  you could miss any class as long you were watching a film. That’s the importance the instructor placed on observing actors when learning acting.

I see about 52 plays a year and at least as many films. Throw in some streaming series and that’s a classroom on storytelling and memorable characters right there.

Watch actively. Watch aggressively. But watch! Film and theater are passive entertainment?  Gimme a break!

Don’t take my word for it. Martin Scorsese can wax philosophically about all types of films that I bet the typical film school professor would find obscure. Do you think it’s coincidental that one of the greatest storytellers of our time is also one of the most knowledgeable people about film?

Okay, don’t take Marty’s word for it.  How about Quentin Tarantino:

When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them “No, I went to films.”

Dude’s got two Oscars for Best Original Screenplay. I think he just might be onto something.

It wasn’t that long ago that most people’s viewing was limited to what was currently playing in theaters or on television. Today, you can act like a Studio Head of yore. Blu-ray discs and digital streaming put entire film libraries into your home.

So here’s a summertime challenge:  Watch at least 5 films in the Criterion Collection catalog before September 1. Why Criterion?  Because their films tend to be timeless classics, cross a variety of genres, and are presented in exquisite quality. And you can rent them for about $3 a pop on Amazon or watch them on Hulu – talk about a cheap textbook! (Disclaimer: I wish these plugs just earned me money, but they didn’t.)

Watch enough films and you’ll develop a more intuitive feel for storytelling.  And when that organic sense moves into your own work, you’ll find yourself writing at a deeper level. You’ll feel when the pace of the story is correct without needing to peek at the page number. Shocking. I know.

So it’s summertime. Take a vacation from the classroom. But don’t take a vacation from your passion. What five films will you choose?

Oh, yes: Try not to have fun watching these films. You are in the process of learning after all.


Originally published June 26, 2014 in Script Magazine.