10 Questions with Film Chair Rob Epstein

CCA has launched a new MFA in Film program co-chaired by Rob Epstein and Brook Hinton.

Watch the new MFA in Film video »

The filmmaking landscape today is undergoing constant changes in its modes of production, distribution, and exhibition, and these changes offer an amazing opportunity for creative and agile filmmakers to discover powerful new modes of cinematic expression and supportive infrastructures.

Here we ask Epstein 10 questions about the program and his career:

With HOWL (2010) and Lovelace (2013), you’ve gone from being strictly a documentary filmmaker to also being a feature filmmaker. What is it like to make that transition?

It’s exciting, and something we at Telling Pictures have always wanted to do. It’s possible to get to another kind of truth about the world and the human condition when you’re not tied to representing actual reality. HOWL and Lovelace do talk about historical people and events, though, so the projects still involve “looking back.” They’re just told in the present tense.

For many years you called yourself an independent filmmaker. After Lovelace, do you -- or can you -- still apply that label?

San Francisco -- rather than Hollywood -- has been my creative home base since I was 19. So when I started my career, I pretty much had to identify as independent! Three decades later, given the changes in the industry, I can identify as “industry” if I choose to.

What do you tell CCA Film students about their job prospects immediately after graduation?

In this business, in terms of employment, you have to be willing to start at the bottom to get experience and for people to get a sense of your work ethic. Although there are, of course, exceptions, for instance Oakland’s Ryan Coogler, who made his first film, Fruitvale Station (2013), at age 26. Tons of awards and acclaim, right out of the gate.

Also I tell them they should be working on their own projects while they’re working for other people. Keep a lot of irons in the fire. Filmmaking -- any kind of narrative filmmaking, at least -- is so collaborative. Make yourself vastly useful on whatever project you’re involved in, and it will lead to another gig.

With digital technologies, it’s increasingly possible for young filmmakers starting out to get work made and seen, but, still, you have to possess the right degree of drive, perseverance, and talent to be successful. And if you want to make your own work, you have to be entrepreneurial.

Do you tell them they have to go to L.A. to make it in the film business?

If you want to be in the movie industry, you have to go to L.A. You can go to New York and be an independent filmmaker or a freelancer. Or you can do what I did, and dig in your heels in San Francisco and make it work, come hell or high water.

I do go down to L.A. at least once a month. There are lots of things about being there that are just easier in this business. For instance, we shot all of Lovelace in L.A. The story takes place there, so finding locations and exteriors was more straightforward.

CCA just launched an MFA in Film program, of which you are co-chair. How is studying film as a graduate student different from studying it as an undergrad?

Whatever your major, as an undergraduate you are still figuring out who you are. Whereas graduate school is about taking two years to entirely devote yourself to honing your craft. And finding your peers, and discovering mentors.

Here at CCA we’re lucky to have such a wide range of expertise and specializations among the faculty, so the students are exposed to numerous different ways of working and creating -- not just traditional narrative -- as they find their individual paths.

Kota Ezawa, for example, has a totally different view of the construct of “narrative.” Plus he’s a brilliant, world-renowned artist. Lynn Marie Kirby and Jeanne Finley are also highly respected artists in the fine arts world, making work for the gallery and museum context. Jeanne sometimes works in collaboration, which is good for the students to see.

We try to instill a solid knowledge of historical context, too. Brook Hinton’s Film Language course is about the grammar of filmmaking and the making of moving images. Students come out of there much more literate in the medium.

You’re a busy guy. We’re lucky to have you teaching at CCA. What keeps you here?

The students keep me fresh. They challenge me, in the best sense. I feel fortunate to have found a match in CCA. It feels like home, and I think we all hope for that, in all aspects of our lives.

I hear you study acting?

To be a director, you have to understand the acting process. You have to learn to speak the language of actors and appeal to their psychology if you’re going to help them with their characters and give them useful direction. I’ve taken classes for about 15 years now, including with Judith Weston, who is a well-known coach.

You just optioned the novel You Deserve Nothing as a new project for a film. What’s the book about?

It’s about an American teacher at an (American) school in Paris and his relationships with his students. Sort of a Dead Poets Society with sex.

You say you often take a particular past film as an inspirational starting point for a new project. What was that touchstone, for Lovelace and for HOWL?

Sometimes the relationship to the precursor is obvious; sometimes it’s more elusive or obscure. For HOWL, it was Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason. For Lovelace it was Klute. In Klute, Jane Fonda plays a prostitute who’s being stalked.

There is something about the economy of the directing in that film that puts all of the focus on the performances. That really struck a nerve with me in terms of how to direct Lovelace.

What are you reading for fun at the moment?

David Byrne’s recent book How Music Works. He’s really brilliant. Humble, yet brilliant.