Sixteen credits and sixteen millimeter. That’s the life of a student filmmaker, a rare breed of academic who leads two lives, split between classes and clips of film.
However, at Cornell these two identities are not wholly unrelated, with film majors both producing films while continuing their education in liberal arts disciplines. The Cornell Department of Film, an institution of high standing since its beginnings in the 1930s, arms future filmmakers with breadth and depth before they hand over a precious Panavision 16-mm camera to the eager hands of photoplay-hungry students.
The College of Arts and Sciences’ film department is about more than just learning how to making movies. It relates cinema to literature, politics, visuality, history, rhetoric, art history, cognition, psychology, and a myriad of other academic and aesthetic topics that exist within the sprawling Cornell curriculum. This could explain the diverse paths that many former Cornell student filmmakers have followed upon graduating from this interdisciplinary program.
Jennifer McCoy ’90 is an experimental filmmaker who is well known for her experimental media art. Scott Ferguson ’82 and Michael Hausman ’57 have worked as big time producers on Hollywood movies such as The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. Sing Choong-Foo ’93 is a technical director at Sony Pictures. Jane Greenberg ’96 won an Emmy in 2000 for her documentary on school prayer. Tim Squyres ’81 is the right hand man to Ang Lee, working as editor for all of his feature length films including the box office hit that won’t stop hitting, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The list goes on (and on).
These film stars of today were once sleep-deprived, caffeine-addicted Cornellians much like Justin Lerner ’02, who finished his narrative film, Dizzy Girl, this past Sunday. Dizzy Girl was not only a labor of love for aspiring writer/director Lerner, but also a paramount project for his career as a student filmmaker within the context of his Intermediate Film and Video Project class.
“There’s something really interesting about making a film while you’re a student. First of all, you have 16 credits of classes, you have a social life sometimes and you have all this other stuff going on outside. I said to myself at the beginning of this semester [that] classes are very important, but this film is going to be my test on whether I can do this …. It’s worth every second of my soon-to-be gray hairs,”Lerner reflected.
Dizzy Girl is the story of two teens who find unsuspected kinship in an anxiety clinic. Luke, played by Robby Marangell ’03, is sent to the clinic as an insomniac where he meets Ellie, played by Jessica Heley ’02, who has lived in the clinic all of her life and who suffers from agoraphobia. The idea came to Lerner when his roommate received a phone call from a friend who was being committed to a clinic because he was afraid to go to sleep. The idea so intrigued Lerner that he ended up talking with the young man about his problem and its implications. Thus, a film was born.
Although, the film was written and directed by Lerner, it is not a one-man show by any means. In addition to a cast of 12 actors, Lerner’s crew was comprised of director of photography Phillip Van ’03, art director Lee Levanovsky ’02, and several other students who helped with production, sound and camera operation. Dizzy Girl is truly a student film, but it is far from being just a school project.
“This film that I’m making right now is costing me, in film stock alone, over a thousand dollars. It’s 16 mm, black and white, negative film … I shot it black and white because that’s the feel I wanted. A lot of my interior shots are very sterile, institutional-type places that are only brought out more in the black and white because everything’s either some off-white or white to echo the institutional feel that I want of this anxiety clinic,” Lerner explained. It’s Lerner’s avid interest and passion for telling a story and creating an alternate reality to which an audience can escape that motivated him to become a film major.
“I’m a film major at Cornell because it’s the only way I can definitely make films. It’s the only way,” Lerner said, recalling the journey that brought him into the world of collegiate cinema. “It’s kind of frustrating for people who really want to make films but who don’t want to study it.”
Fellow classmate Fatima Jibril ’01, who is making a student film entitled Soul Searching (although the title may change), shares Lerner’s interest in filmmaking, but also appreciates the scholarly aspect of her major.
“The film theory courses here are great. The film choices and the readings with the films really expose us to the history of film and most of the greatest experimental, documentary, and even commercial narrative filmmakers. They really exhaust the possibilities of cinema,” Jibril said.
However, in order to explore the technical possibilities of film, students with a love for the motion picture must pass through the many production classes taught by Marilyn Rivchin, the gatekeeper into the world of student filmmaking at Cornell. Rivchin has taught aspiring filmmakers for over 20 years.
“In terms of a historical context, there was a period in which film schools were the big thing. I mean, that is as far as graduate school and a M.F.A. degree. The big name schools, NYU, Columbia, USC, UCLA, really grew in the seventies. Before that, people didn’t really go to film school. The only national film education was at big state schools