Howard Suber, the author of the recently released book, Letters to Young, recently gave an interview to ÉCU – The European Independent Film Festival.
Suber has been a professor of film studies at University of California in Los Angeles for over 40 years and is the founder of the UCLA Film Archives. He has been a consultant or expert witness for all the major American studios, has advised top studio management and A-list writers on specific screenplays, and has consulted or testified on many elements of creative contributions and creative control. His book offers an overview of the film industry, commenting on everything from the practical issues associated with producing films through to the creative process.
In this interview, Suber discusses his insightful book and shares his opinions on the evolution of the film industry. His commentary provides an educated look into the multi-faceted film world: what it was, what it has become and where it is headed.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve taught thousands of young writers, directors, producers, animators and those wanting to be in the industry during my 46 years on the UCLA film school faculty, and I keep in touch with a goodly number of them, some for more than four decades. During the past decade alone, there are 5,000 email exchanges with current or former students, a lot of them containing questions about their careers, specific problems, plans, etc. Letters to Young Filmmakers is a distillation of some of the most common questions and answers.
2. Did you draw on your own initial experiences in the film world when writing this book?
It’s drawn from something that I consider even better – the experiences of a very wide range of people I’ve known and observed over many decades. When you ask people for advice on how to live your own life, they tend to replicate their own life, since that’s what they know best. But each of us has a limited number of experiences, and what was true for us is not necessarily true for others, who are not only different than we are, but living in different times and situations.
4. How do you think the film industry has changed since you first started?
It used to be a “closed shop” when I started teaching in the late Sixties – very few new writers, directors, or producers could find a way to get in because there were already people occupying most of the seats. Today, the industry is much more open to new talent.
The good news is that all the world’s film industries are very welcoming of young directors, writers, producers, etc. The bad news is that you won’t be young very long --- that coming right behind you will be another generation of young people, just as eager and talented as you were.
Another major change is how insanely competitive film and television have become. The proliferation of film programs, workshops, web sites, books, etc. means the competition is much more numerous than it was. At the same time, the number of films has shrunk, and the cost of most films has skyrocketed.
But the door is indeed open.
5. Did you come across any interesting characters or stories while writing this book?
I’ll give you one example. Sacha Gervasi was a screenwriting student who took several classes with me about ten years ago. He’d been a journalist in the U.K. and told me when I first met him that what he really wanted to do was make a film about Hervé Villechaize, the French dwarf who was a star in the very popular American TV series, Love Boat. He had done what he thought would be a routine brief puff piece, but it turned into a several-hour conversation about the meaning of life that lasted into the night. The next day, Sacha learned Villechaise had shot himself shortly after the interview, and it haunted him.
Sacha collaborated on an independent film, The Big Tease, while he was still a student (Warners distributed it), he wrote The Terminal for Steven Spielberg and quickly became an “A List” writer in Hollywood. Then, he directed a film on a heavy metal group he had been a roadie for when he was a teenager, which nobody would touch, so he mortgaged his home and turned out Anvil: The Story of Anvil!, which he self-distributed because nobody else would. It was nominated for an Academy Award and made a ton of money and got a great critical reception.
Now, he’s just finished shooting Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, and Scarlet Johansson. He invited my recent class and me to the set for the last night’s shooting (see Suber’s Facebook page). One of the joys of teaching young filmmakers for so long at UCLA is I’ve met so many truly wonderful human beings – not just smart, talented and passionate but decent as well.
6. Do you find that your book is advice solely for young filmmakers or do you think a filmmaker of any age can take something significant from your work?
I was influenced by the famous book by Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet.” Many suggested that “young” in the book might suggest I was writing for teenagers, whereas I assume my readership is around graduate student age. But, as some reviewers have said, it’s really intended for anybody involved in a career in film/television.
8. What are your thoughts on the independent film scene at the moment? How do you see it developing in the future?
Depressing. I’d like to think it will come back, but the economics are fearsome.
9. Are there any indie films in particular that have caught your eye?
None I’d want to single out. Independent films used to be noteworthy because they explored either content or style in some new and interesting way. Now, all too many are simply smaller and cheaper versions of mainstream films – not very different from at all.
10. Do you have any advice for young independent filmmakers out there with short time and shallow pockets?
Yes: See my recent piece titled, “The GOYA Principle – Get Off Your Ass,” on my blog called “The Power of Film.” I’d urge people who want to direct, write, produce, etc. to just do it, and not wait until they are assured of an audience. There’s a big caution there: expect to never get back the money invested in what you do, but look at it as not just a part of your education, but as “paying your dues” – proving to others (and more importantly, yourself) that you are really committed to becoming a filmmaker.
11. What, would you say, is the primary role of a film festival, especially one for the eclectic and diverse indie film scene?
Entering your films in festivals and even going to them regularly are ways you prove to yourself that you are serious and committed. Like following The GOYA Principle and just going out and making a film, you have to have your eyes open, and know that this is not, for most people, a direct path to success. But it can be an important part of your self-education.