The New York Film Academy

It was a combination of excitement and exhaustion that came with me on my first day at the New York Film Academy.  For the past week I had been taking the rare opportunity it was to sleep in late and I was taking full advantage of it.  Not on the first day though, the first day I wanted to take my time, get showered and dressed, have a nice breakfast, and head over to the main building nice and early.  Everyone from all the programs were there, acting, film making, and writing.  We all met at the building and filled out our paperwork, and then waited.  Erin had suggested I use the opportunity to make friends, but I was nervous.  Everyone looked nervous, and conversations that were being had were all nervous chit-chat.  They took us for tours around the different buildings that NYFA occupied, and we learned about how intense this program was going to be.  We were going to learn a little bit of everything, and leave with the ability to make better films.  It was exactly what I had signed up for.

I was so tired, but our first class was that night and I was focused.  It was camera class, a subject I clearly needed a lot of help in judging from my previous films.  This was when our classes were broken up into the groups we would be in for the rest of the course, and I wanted to make a good impression and make friends.  It was in that class at that moment that all my previous school experience came out in an instant.  I wanted to be engaged,  I wanted to show that I deserved to be there, and I wanted to endear myself to my class mates.

Instead, I fell asleep in the middle of asking a question.

I was horrified, and embarrassed.  Everyone else laughed, and I shrugged it off as not being acclimated to west coast time yet.  I thought I was over; a joke.  Luckily for me the group of people I had been placed with have proven to be some of the nicest, most compassionate people I have ever met.  I was the lone American in the group, and one of two men; but each of them brought a passion and talent I will not soon forget.

Motaz and I became really close, as we would car pool to class together from Oakwood where we both were living.  He came here from Egypt, and he had one of the kindest hearts I had ever seen.  He was always there for you and he wanted to help everyone.  His films always were about the message, and it was very important to him that his film meant something.  He would be in my smaller crew when we would go off and shoot our projects, and our crew of three also included Noua.

Noua is an incredible friend and an incredible film maker, no matter how much she beats herself up over her finished films.  Of the nine people we had in the class, she was one of five Brazilians.  She has a great taste in music, is funny, nice and always there to help you out in a jam.  Plus I knew we would be close friends when I saw her celebrating her futbol (soccer) teams victory following one of our classes.  As long as she remains a by proxy fan of my Baltimore Orioles, I will hold a place in my heart for Clube Atlético Mineiro.

Barbara, Jessica, Luciana and Ana made up the rest of the Brazilians.  Barbara made some of the most incredible works of the entire course, and I still remember fondly the rest of the class being in awe of her music video project.  She really has a great talent and makes visually stunning works.   Jessica worked in the crew with Barbara and had turned out some exceptional work in her own right.  When I needed an assistant director for my final project, she was who I went with, she had a natural eye that I identified with immediately.   Ana was the third member of that crew, and she had a truly incredible video she showed in editing class inspired by Mia Wallace in Reservoir Dogs that was on point.

Luciana was in the final crew with Lucia of Spain and Nuria of Mexico.  Luciana and Nuria each had their focus in writing, which is where I had devoted much of my film making time to as well.  If there was a picture in the dictionary next to the word sweetheart, Luciana would be right there.  She is one of the nicest people I have ever met and you know when she looks at you that she really cares.  Nuria’s writing in the class was something I always enjoyed getting a chance to read, because she had such a unique and focused vision of what she was trying to get across.  Lucia was my smoking buddy.  During every break in class you would find me and Lucia over by the ash tray talking about class, movies and music.  She is a dear friend, and I really miss what she brought to class.

Now that the cast of characters are out of the way, we are back to my soul crushing embarrassment.  All I could think is that I was going to be the outcast from this point on, and there was no coming back from this.  Let me tell you my first film school lesson though, if you are nice and listen and treat people right, embarrassing moments are nothing more than funny stories you all laugh about.  It was during the third day of classes, when we took a trip out to Griffith Park for camera work with a 16mm arriflex that we all started to gel and become friends.  The conversation on the shuttle was engaging, and the fun we had at the park was educational and enjoyable.

The class schedule, and the filming schedule were both grueling.  It seemed like I spent all day in class, or writing, or calling actors, or getting details ready to shoot, or shooting.  Don’t take that sentiment for one second as complaining, because god knows that schedule is just as grueling when you shoot a movie anywhere.  I don’t know if I would have been able to do it without the awesome teachers, awesome classmates, and my awesome long-lost friend Zach.

I first met Zach at Hofsta where we became fast friends.  Zach, Rob and I would often go for late night trips to sbarros, hang out and get into long-winded conversations.  He transferred about the same time as I was getting out of there and we hadn’t seen each other until I made the trip to LA.  Zach was now working for NYFA in the editing building, and I was so happy to see him again.  When I saw him it was like we picked up right where we had left off.  We spent most of our time at Zach’s apartment, watching all kinds of movies.  Our night with JCVD and our two nights with Cloud Atlas are nights I won’t soon forget, and the fact that I got to go out and celebrate his birthday with him made me very happy.  It’s great to know that I can be apart from someone like Zach and pick right up where we left off.  Having a friend like him made the time I spent 3000 miles away from home that much easier.

While I was in LA, I also got to become close with Jenni, who I acted with in a show back home in Maryland.  Her and her husband had just moved across the country from Maryland and it was nice to have friends from home.  From our night out at the pool hall, to the Angel game; it was great to have friends from home.

As far as the teachers go, it was amazing to learn at the hands of these talented professionals.  The two who lead the way the most were our directing teacher Nils Taylor and our camera teacher Travis Hoffman.  Both were exceedingly professional and great people to learn and spend time with.  I hope that with enough focus on my craft I can live up to the example they set for us in class.  What really amazed me about them both is with even the short amount of time I had classes with them, they instantly reached that small pantheon of teachers I really love, and knew that they cared about their students and helping us succeed.  Anything I do from this point on will be thanks in no small part to the two of them.

The course was broken up into projects, with each week we basically had a different project that was to progress our talents as film makers.  The first project was a mise-en-scène, which is French for placing on stage.  The objective was to shoot a short film, in one shot and tell a story.  The week prior to shooting we had a casting session with the incoming students from NYFA’s acting department, which is where I met Nick Holmes.  Innocently enough, Nick and I first bonded over the fact that we both smoked, and after the audition portion of the casting session, I asked if he wanted to sneak down for a cigarette.  I was very taken by his performance, and when I talked to him downstairs I my intuition proved true that he had previous stage training in London, his home town.  I knew I had a leading man.  There were many great actors I met that day, and many I had the pleasure with working with.  I will point them out as we go along here.

Nick was my man though, I knew him the second I saw him he had what it took to play the part for my mise-en-scène.  I also cast Austyn Orci, who was a fabulous and beautiful young woman who had the ability to paint an emotion on her face.  Between the two of them, I knew I had my short.  Shot on 16mm, it was my first experience with film (having shot exclusively digital for all previous work) and I was very excited with the opportunity.  My scene was about the importance our technology has on society, much to the detriment of real relationships.  It is a silent film, so don’t worry that your speakers aren’t working…

Our next project was a continuity project and it was my first opportunity to work with Lorena Vignau.  She is a tremendous talent, and a very trusting artist.  She always seemed so excited to work, and was always on point with what I was trying to communicate with her.  The purpose of the continuity was to expand the short to multiple shots and multiple angles.  It was the first time I had faced adversity with a project as well, because the matte box had slipped down during the shoot, and every single shot had the matte box creating a makeshift border around every frame.  In addition, my attempts to properly expose a shot from inside a closet onto a harsh flourescent bathroom light created a grainy dark image.  When I first got to the post production building to begin editing, I thought I was going to cry.  The one concern I always had with shooting on film was not knowing what the product would look like until I had gotten it back, and the footage was a disaster.  I was crushed, and it wasn’t because it was a film I wrote and directed; it was because so many other people had been there to help and it was their film way more than mine.  Noua shot something that looked great, Motaz lit the thing like he was in my head looking at my imagination, and poor Lorena in another part with no dialogue put together an awesome performance.  I felt like I let everyone down.  But here was self learned film school lesson number two:  shit happens on every shoot, what you make of it determines how talented you are as a film maker.  So I put the time in at the editing room.  I reframed every shot, I color corrected and fine tuned the image to the best of my abilities, and I worked as hard as I could to make sure the performance carried the film.  Lorena saved me with her craft, and I won’t soon forget how awesome she is.

Sadly I put music to the flick, and I wanted to make sure I had clearance to use it before I put it on YouTube.  Stay tuned though, that is coming soon.

With the way Lorena and her abilities bailed me out during the continuity project, I knew I wanted to secure her for my music video project.  It would be our first shoot where we got to use the Canon 5D Mark III, and I wanted to try something different, something to push my abilities technically.  Motaz was unavailable to assist on this project, but I gathered up a crew of Noua, Luciana and Nuria and we plugged away late into the night on a project that many a student can appreciate, study or party.  Best laid plans: the shots I had intended to match together were not perfectly in sync.  I would happily try to push myself now while learning rather than do it when there is money riding on its success.  Regardless of its overall execution, I still think it is an awesome film, and Lorena and my crew knocked it out of the park…

One of the truly incredible experiences of going to NYFA in Los Angeles was the opportunity to shoot on the backlot of Universal Studios for our production workshops.  The first production workshop was on the Wisteria Lane set, where they had shot Desperate Housewives.  Noua and Motaz each shot a production on that day, I was left to DP and AC for the two of them.  The second production workshop was all me and Motaz though, and that took place on the famous Western Set.  The goal was simple, come up with a short silent movie, shoot it in 16 mm, and try to push yourself, learn something as a film maker.  The first was about a boyfriend and girlfriend checking out a scenic old building when the femme fatale comes by and starts breaking necks.  It stars Magda Howard, a pure delight and ball of sunshine as the girlfriend, Franciely Gonzaga as the femme fatale who is talented and funny actress and celebrity back in her native Brazil.  The boyfriend was played by Anany Anand who I had acted with in Motaz’s mise-en-scène and Luciana’s music video project.  He has a great look and is very funny, and it was a real pleasure to work with him again.

After lunch, I shot a film with Sofia Flores and El McKnight that was more a technical exercise than a compelling narrative.  With the help of our teacher’s aide Derek, he helped Motaz and myself put together shots through the reflections in the glass, and I thought it looks awesome.  Don’t look for too much meaning in this one, it was purely for practice.

It was this point in the school year that we had a little more time to ourselves, as there was no projects to shoot for a week.  I took the opportunity to see Scriptnotes 100, a live taping of the best screenwriting podcast out there hosted by John August and Craig Mazin (check out the podcast at John’s website http://www.johnaugust.com ).  It was an awesome show at the Academy Theatre in Hollywood, and I got a chance to meet fellow screenwriters Alina Brosh McKenna and Rawson Marshall Thurber.  When I told Rawson that my brother and me loved to quote the line “I believe you’ve met my fitness consigliere Me’Shell” I could see it really touched him, and I hoped that someday something that I write and direct will have the same impact on someone else.

I also got the opportunity to introduce Motaz and Noua to baseball and the Baltimore Orioles with a game at Petco Park in San Diego.  It was so nice to make the drive down, and awesome to see my birds live for the first time in forever.  My favorite part was teaching Motaz and Noua baseball, and trying to get them hooked on the sport I love.  They aren’t Buster Olney, but they seemed to have a great time.

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Motaz and Noua sure do like to make the funny faces

The next project was our Checkovian projects, where they provided dialogue, and told us to make a project using the lines.  The idea is that each individual project would be different (which it was) and that it would give us a chance to really work with actors on crafting a performance to match the project.  Casting for this project was a nightmare; as I had tried to use exclusively acting students but most of my favorites had already left (with the exception of Nick who was unavailable).  Luckily I was able to secure Sofia again, and when I went to pick up Sofia I met Roberto, who filled in for me having to act in the thing myself.  Roberto and I became very close, he is a tremendous talent and is a load of fun  to have around.  We ended up acting together on Noua’s Checkovian film and had a hard time from keeping a straight face most of the time.  My project was a fun set as well, and we all worked well to make an awesome little project.  I specifically went into this project with the desire to make a visually stimulating piece, ala directors David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky (two of my favorites).  It took a lot of planning, but in the end I think I have a clear break from the aesthetic look of my previous works.

All that was left was the final project…anything we wanted to do, write, direct, edit something that is all yours.  I had a script that I had started back home I wanted to use, all I had to do was finish writing it, cast it, and secure permits.  I had saved money throughout the program by shooting in my apartment, and was ready to splurge (relatively) speaking.  It started with an awesome service called Cazt which Nils had turned us on to, where I had met some truly fantastic actors.

I had already picked Nick as my lead, but needed to find two movie star level looking females to complete the love triangle.  The first actress to walk in the room for an audition was Fernanda Rohd, and I knew there was something special right there in the room.  For anyone who has never auditioned, it is tough, way tougher than you can imagine.  What I got from Fernanda was someone who knew how to read the script, and hit it close to perfect the first time she read.  The funny thing is when I was making my notes in the audition, the only question I had (though slight) was her timing and cadence.  When she was on set though, she was nothing short of perfect.  Timing is not something you can teach and when the camera was rolling she knew how to bring it.  I told Fernanda when I dropped off her copy of the film and whole heartedly mean it; the only actress I have seen that combined ability with a natural sense of timing like that was Sarah Paulson in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  Casting session lesson learned:  Audition is preposterously tough and don’t sweat the small stuff.

The other amazing talent Cazt introduced me to was Emilly Thomas.  She was the last person to enter the room and blew me away with her ability.  I honestly thought I was watching a young Jennifer Connelly when she was auditioning, she was so natural, one of her enviroment so much.  I felt like I struck gold twice in one morning, and was so excited to be in the position I was in.  Name any two actresses, pick your two favorites, a dream cast…I felt that walking out of Cazt that morning.  Combined with Nick and his natural ability to be hilarious, I thought what could go wrong.  Don’t count your chickens as they like to say.

Problem one came with Film LA, the permitting agency for Los Angeles.  I’m sure I will write a blog in the future about the issue they like to call runaway productions, where LA based productions leave town with there cast and crew to shoot somewhere that is cheaper or less stressful.  After one project dealing with Film LA, I never wanted to have to shoot here again.  The degree of difficulty, and driving around town I had to do to lock down locations was maddening.  Granted I was trying to get permits in a week, but the fact that I had so much trouble does not make me, the young aspiring filmmaker, want to ever be LA based.

The next problem came the day of shooting at Grand Park.  I had helped Barbara on her final for most of the night, and got about two hours of sleep going into production.  While I have had very few problems shooting on a skeleton crew up until this point, I learned the untold benefit of having spare people.  In my exhaustion, I had left the food I had purchased for the set in my apartment, as well as the backup battery for the camera.  Motaz was very ill the day of the shoot so everything had to be run by just Noua and myself.  Everyone was understanding, and really helped out the best they could, and I was so thankful for their outstanding professionalism, but the battery came back to haunt me, and kept me from getting the shots of Emilly that I had planned for that day.  After briefly considering shooting it with my phone, before ruling that out as a terrible idea, I closed down shooting for that day and worked with Emilly on shooting the remainder of her shots on another day.  More problems plagued that day however as the camera was having trouble recording in the full HD resolution that I wanted.  Overall despite the problems I was very happy with the final film, but always wonder how much better it would have been without the slew of problems we kept encountering while shooting at Grand Park.

Like the continuity project, I have some musical issues I am trying to work through before I can post the video, but stay tuned for a future blog post.

After all the writing, the shooting and the editing; the day had come for our final showing.  I loved the projects that everyone showed, and It was a very sad day because I knew my time with these remarkable artists was coming to an end.  We got our certificates, we hugged and planned for a night out together to celebrate our success.

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From L-R Nuria, Luciana, Lucia, Barbara, myself, Motaz, Ana, Noua, Jessica and Nils

There were two separate nights of celebration.  First I went out to the soul/funk club with Noua, Jessica, and Barbara.  It was an awesome night, and the first moment I knew I was going to really miss all these people who had meant so much to me over the last couple of months.  The last time as a group, was out at Bubba Gump’s on the Universal City work, the night before I left, where I would say my proper good byes.

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From L-R Luciana, Noua, Nuria, Motaz, Myself, Lucia, Jessica and Barbara

We looked back on all that we had done and experienced.  We remembered fondly all the moments we shared.  We shared gifts and laughed.  The thing that made the experience so sad was that for many of us, this would be the last opportunity we may ever see each other.  It hurts when you grow so close, and you know that you may never spend time like you did.  Though the parable of Zach holds true in this moment more than any other.  I become friends with Zach in New York, and years pass between seeing each other.  When we finally get together, we pick up right where we left off, and the value of friends who are there for you no matter how much time passes between visits is monumental.  Everyone from my time in LA is in my heart forever, and I will always be there for you.  I am here for you all, no matter what you need.

CHECK OUT THE PEOPLE I TALKED ABOUT IN THIS BLOG

Nils Taylor                facebook

Lorena Vignau         facebook

Lucia Luben              website

Fernanda Rohd       website  facebook  twitter

3 Responses to “The New York Film Academy”


  1. 1 Luciana Capela November 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Cory!! I wish I had the power of synthesis as you have. I would never be able to sum up the 2 intense months in such entertaining way! lol
    Loved every word and every second of that crazy time. I’m missing it all already and loved working with you and Noua with your projects. I know I’m far from you, but you know what? Let me know when you need an extra unpaid hand and there I’ll be to practice and help a talented friend.

    I’m trying hard to go back to school to learn more about a craft that conquered my heart for life, but even if I can’t go back as a student, I would definitely go back to learn doing it, specially with a friend. I really appreciated the opportunity of being part of your crew for both projects (yours and Noua’s) and I wanted you to know that I felt very bad for not being there for you for your final. It was a miscommunication thing and I am sorry for that.

    But I wanted to share that I did learn a lot in those days. So far all my light problems were not as close as a problem as shooting at Oakwood. The balance thing from moving the camera and the overexposed lights on the white walls made me realize how hard it is and for sure that a lot of that helped on my final. So thank you again for letting me learn with you.

    You are so right. Being at NYFA not only tought me a lot, but allowed me to make new special friends.

    BTW…your sleeping episode was funny and I thought you were totally crazy, but never a joke. I think we brazilian girls are used to crazy people…LOL…I wished I had filmed it… 😉

    Like

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