5 directors who dropped out of film school

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Every aspiring filmmaker has, at one point or another, asked themselves the dreaded question: “should I go to film school?”

Being in this position puts you at more of a crossroads than people might think. It’s a huge decision to make, on a number of levels - financially, of course, but also because it sets out how you’re going to actually start your career, and the kinds of people you’ll be doing that with.

As a website called - no joke - No Film School points out, one of the reasons not to go to film school is that it’s never been more expensive to go to college, and it’s never been cheaper to make a movie. It might be a fiscal no-brainer after all.

But in the crushing world of creative endeavour, we all need a bit of encouragement every now and then. So we’ve decided to compile a list of the five directors who’ve changed cinema without the help of a film degree.

Spike Jonze

The director of left-field classics like Being John Malkovich and Her, as well as innumerable classic music videos, never even had the opportunity to drop out of film school. Technically he doesn’t even count on this list.

Jonze was rejected from pretty much every school he applied to. This just goes to show that sometimes rejection is the best feedback. Not that he took it that way.

As a creator, Jonze came from a pretty modest background. During stints working at a community store and then his local BMX store in his hometown of Rockville as a teenager, he honed an interest in photography (and BMX).

Over time, he gathered more professional photography work in the so-called “action sports photography” scene and contributed to various publications. Eventually, he was given the opportunity to shoot promo videos for World Industries, and it went from there.

Kind of a strange, roundabout way of getting into the film world when you think about it. Interestingly though, Jonze probably wouldn’t have honed his uniquely manic visual style as effectively as he did, had he not started his career the way he did.

Ava DuVernay

One of the most recognizable indie filmmakers working today, Ava DuVernay says you can go to film school on the cheap by simply “watching DVD commentaries”. Sounds good to us.

After starting her professional career in journalism as an intern at CBS, DuVernay sparked up an interest in PR, and eventually started up her own firm. “I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” she says.

“I didn’t go into filmmaking thinking it would be sexy - I just had stories I wanted to tell.” - Ava DuVernay

Throughout her PR career, DuVernay had the opportunity to watch high-profile directors like Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg (another film school dropout, by the way) work on set. She also learned volumes about their practices as she accompanied them on press junkets.

The takeaway? Sometimes, finding your own way into the industry will allow you more opportunities than film school ever can.

Quentin Tarantino

Ok, this one’s pretty obvious. Apologies if you’ve heard it all before.

It’s worth repeating though because there are many different accounts as to how Tarantino made it as big as he did. And there are quite a few facets to his story.

Tarantino originally wanted to be an actor, but dropped out of acting school and moved on to a stint working as a video store clerk. There, he presumably absorbed every film ever and developed his talkathon, everything-all-at-once style.

He also made quite an effort to snitch his way into the industry - he claimed he was a UCLA student so he could get interviews with famous filmmakers, and loaded his resume with fake credits.

Inspiring, yes, but maybe don’t try this at home.

The Wachowskis

Of all the films released at the turn of the millennium, The Matrix encapsulated that particular time’s unprecedented mixture of existential doom and technological paranoia like no other. It was like OK Computer meets Blade Runner.

The people behind the wildly successful sci-fi thriller were nicely predisposed to conveying how that all felt. Lana Wachowski dropped out of a film degree at Bard College, moved back to her hometown of Chicago, and picked up work as a carpenter with sibling Lilly. There, they signed on to write for Ectokid, a crummy Marvel imprint comic that partly satiated their deep love for crafting action-focused fantasy storylines.

The sisters’ first foray into film was a screenplay for an action flick called Assassins. Before long, they’d funded and created The Matrix, which changed things for them dramatically. It grossed more than $460 million and gave the world probably just as many memes.

Paul Thomas Anderson

The guy known by film snobs as PTA concurs with Ava DuVernay about just how educated you can get from watching DVD commentaries. He goes even further, in fact, saying, “you can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school.”

Secondly: “there’s a wonderful thing that if you drop out quick enough, you get your tuition back.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Drop out and stay out

Nothing like the failures of some wildly successful people to get your creative juices all fired up! If you’re still tossing up whether or not you should go to film school, we’ll leave you with the most brutally, beautifully honest quote about filmmaking we’ve found:

“The truth about learning to be a film director is that you will have to take responsibility for your own training.”