New American Filmmakers Go into the Classroom

Director Shonali Bose visits the Iolani School to speak about her film Margarita, with a Straw.

Delegates from the New American Filmmakers program visited classrooms in Oahu, Hawaii, to talk with young aspiring filmmakers last week. Shonali Bose, the Indian-born director of Margarita, with a Straw, spoke to Iolani School’s film club, and Benson Lee, the Canadian-born director of Seoul Searching, met with students from the Academy for Creative Media at his alma mater, the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Gabrielle Demeestere, originally from France and the director of Yosemite, visited Mililani Middle School, where she led a class in a storytelling exercise.

The speakers covered a wide range of topics. Shonali spoke about her experience receiving an MFA at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television: “I wouldn’t actually recommend it, as it can be very expensive and time-consuming—[for me it was] four years,” she said. “The most important aspects of directing are learning to write a strong screenplay—because as an independent filmmaker you are unlikely to be handed a crackling script—and knowing how to direct actors. But instead of honing these skills, most of one's time and energy in film school goes into making a short film and learning technical things.”

Benson Lee, director of Seoul Searching speaking to students in the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Benson discussed the difference between making independent films and films for studios. “When you work with studios, you lose some of the creative control. You’re going to receive lots of notes,” he said. “That’s how it works traditionally.” Both gave insider advice based on past experience: “Show your work before it’s ready. If 10 to 15 people don’t get it, then you didn’t do it right.” Benson said. “Don’t be afraid of feedback; feedback is amazing, especially from your family. Family has no filter.”

On working with extras for a scene set during a protest in New York City, Shonali explained that she had to bring out the passion in them. “As a director, you need to pay attention to every single detail to make a scene work—including directing the extras. They were not actors, they were extras. So I had to read them facts about police brutality and police killings in the United States over the past few months to get them worked up. It was a small scene, but the acting feels authentic.” 

And above all, Shonali and Benson stressed the importance of taking their work seriously: “Filmmaking seems like a glamorous thing, but it’s the opposite of glamorous. It takes intense hard work and drive,” Shonali said. “You need to have passion and know that you have a story you must tell.”

Seoul Searching took me 16 years to make. This was a labor of love,” Benson said. “There were lots of projects I gave up, but this was the one I didn’t give up.”

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