About twenty years ago, I decided to make an independent film. I’d made a number of videos by that point and I felt ready to take my efforts to the next level. (I wasn’t, but that’s a different story.)
At the time, I was working in a regional theater in West Seattle. There wasn’t much of a film scene in the Emerald City at the time, although pretty much everyone you met would tell you they’d sat a table over from Tom Skerritt in a restaurant. (He was Seattle’s actor at the time. They may have gotten a second one since.) Musing over how to proceed without moving back home to NYC, I stumbled upon a poster advertising an upcoming workshop on film production. Little did I know I was about to spend two unforgettable days with the World’s Greatest Teacher: Dov Simens.
How do I know Dov Simens was the world’s greatest teacher? Simple: he told us. Repeatedly. But that’s proof right there. Dov kept his lessons simple and memorable and he said them over and over again. And here I am, remembering. Over the course of his “2-Day Film School,” which, according to the website, is still going strong all these years later, Dov succinctly explained how to put a movie together, step by step.
Among other things, Dov spent several years as a line producer for Roger Corman, the famously prolific director and producer behind hundreds of films, from the original Fast and the Furious (1955) to the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The line producer is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of a film. That means you have to know how to wrangle all the nitty-gritty logistics, from buying reels of film to feeding actors to securing locations, the basic elements of which are the same in essence whether you’re taking the audience to Punxsutawney or Pandora. Working in this capacity for someone like Corman, of course, went a level beyond. There was no romance about artistry in Corman-world. You assembled a million dollars and then quickly and efficiently used each of those dollars to assemble 4,000 feet or so of film that could be projected for an audience. Then you moved on to the next. And the next.
Where do you get the million dollars? “Simple!” Dov shouted. (A good teacher is easy to hear!) “Nurses!” Nurses? Yes, he explained, nurses tend to have discretionary income. Romance them with the glamour of being involved in Motion Pictures and they often become willing to invest a tidy five-figure sum in an independent production. Dentists, too, he added. Dentists are bored! Forget pitching your screenplay to big-time Hollywood execs. Get out there, get yourself a list of nurses and/or a list of dentists, and start making cold calls. Pitch them on the mystique of Hollywood and “get them to sign on the Line Which Is Dotted.” There’s your budget right there! (That link is Mamet, so NSFW.)
And so on. Dov subjected the dozen or so of us to a delightfully unrelenting barrage of no-nonsense instruction in the coarse reality of making fine art. Be as precious, ephemeral, or oblique as you like in front of the camera. Behind the camera, show up on time. Know how your equipment works. Mind the details. Stay under budget. To make a film, do this, this, and then this. Dov’s emphasis on linear practicality was incredibly bracing for a person who had recently majored in theater at a liberal arts school. My professors had gone out of their way to withhold professional guidance and practical advice. Telling a student how to actually, you know, direct actors in a scene was unseemly at a prestigious institution of higher learning. Anything either linear or practical was suspect in that environment. Not so with Dov Simens. He was there to show us how to make a movie. What went in the movie was our business—as long as we could afford it and get it done on time.
I never made my movie, but I took Dov’s real lessons to heart. In fact, insights from his two-day class come to mind far more often than anything I picked up as a theater major. Maybe, in homage to Dov, I’ll teach a “Two-Day Book School” one day. Frankly, though, you’ll learn what you really need from his course whether you’re writing a book, designing a video game, or starting a business. The medium is secondary. Envisioning, planning, and executing a creative project is the Craft of Crafts, and it only takes two days to learn—from the World’s Greatest Teacher.