Next generation collaboration

by Bruce Kasanoff on May 11, 2011

Almost three years ago, our son came home from a summer filmmaking program and wrote a script for a musical video he called “School for Boy.” He was 14.

Jeff had plenty of motivation and energy at first. He wrote the script, about a girl whose father was headmaster of a private boys’ school, in what seemed like a week. He wrote the lyrics for ten songs, and sang each tune into a recorder, with the idea being that he would recruit musicians to help.

In the months that followed, he tried to enlist others’ help in getting the musical produced. He even typed up a formal overview of the project, including the script, and gave a copy to the instructor of his filmmaking class at his high school. He was seeking help in recruiting actors, musicians and other talent.

Nothing happened. Jeff didn’t know how to maintain the creative energy necessary to power such a project, especially when he was competing against established theater and music programs.

It hadn’t occurred to teachers or the administration that film could break down the walls between the arts, and make true collaboration possible.

For his junior year, Jeff transferred to Interlochen Arts Academy, which is 1,000 miles away from our home. We are two weeks away not only from graduation, but also from the first screening of “Hero Club,” a 23-minute musical he wrote and directed along with fellow Interlochen student Keaton Manning. I haven’t seen it yet, but the film sounds like a Glee episode, except with seven original songs and actors who aren’t famous, yet.

The plot revolves around high school students in a town that a) seems to have a lot of crime, and b) where the students solve all the crimes. Or at least that’s what they want you to think, because the students seem to care more about glory than justice.

To get this film made, Jeff had to learn to be a successful student on his own, establish a common vision with new student Keaton, and persuade the Motion Picture Arts faculty to let the pair stick with that ambitious vision.

But Interlochen, for all its rules and regulations, really is “where art lives,” as their tagline says. Jeff just called this morning to say that with the enlistment of a Visual Arts major to work on the film’s opening sequence, every major at the school has contributed talent to the film.

Theatre and Comparative Arts majors are the actors. Five, count ‘em, five musicians wrote music to go with Jeff and Keaton’s lyrics, and another wrote the score. Between the performances of the songs and the score, Jeff believes that every instrument taught at the school is also represented.

Dance majors provided choreography. Creative Writing majors, for reasons I don’t fully understand, even sung part of one song. Over fifteen Motion Picture Arts majors worked on the film’s crew.

Even at Interlochen, it took a while for both faculty and students to realize the degree to which filmmaking can tear down the walls between departments. The exception was Motion Picture Arts director Michael Mittelstaedt, who all along has been preaching about the collaborative power of film.

This morning a client of mine who lives in a small western Pennsylvania town told told me how blown away he was by the quality of a film his eighth grade son made. Art doesn’t just live at Interlochen; there is talent and creativity in every school. But what’s missing at most schools is a faculty commitment to the sort of amazing, highly professional collaboration Jeff found at Interlochen. This isn’t about school funding; it’s about collaboration.

Jeff and Keaton found actors, musicians, dancers and artists of all types were eager to be part of a film. But they didn’t have to go outside of the system to make a movie; they worked smack in the middle of Interlochen’s system, having to meet countless deadlines, and to constantly prove why they shouldn’t scale back their vision. They also benefitted greatly from regular workshop sessions with their peers, working first on the idea, then the script, and finally successful edits of the film itself.

I know one thing for certain: Jeff’s generation will benefit greatly from being able to work effectively in cross-disciplinary teams. This is where the world is headed. This is not only what success demands, but also what makes life worth living. I’m a fan of anything that tears down walls and brings diverse groups together.

In the meantime, I can’t wait to see Hero Club, and I hope someday you’ll see it, too.

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