Film School comes in all shapes and sizes, some as institutional titans and others in the form of collegiate electives, collectives, film mentorships, and online film education programs.
We all know that moment — the one when we realized we wanted to be a filmmaker! The next step isn’t so easy. Sure, it should involve picking up a camera and filming something, anything! However, how do you make the kind of films like your favorite famous filmmakers?
Well, that all depends on your interest. Cinematographers and production designers benefit from AFI, whereas NYU is a solid decision for writer-directors, and Columbia serves its aspiring directors and producers well!
Filmmakers Academy, on the other hand, is ideal for cinematographers, gaffers, camera assistants, grips, and filmmakers who want on-the-job knowledge without a lifetime of student debt.
Sure, there are a lot of options for filmmaking education, but you want to know how famous filmmakers learned how to master the craft. And why wouldn’t you? They certainly know something the rest of us don’t, right?
Let’s take a look at where famous filmmakers went to film school.
One of the top questions asked by filmmakers and cinephiles is “Where did Stanley Kubrick go to film school?”
You might be surprised to learn that Kubrick did not go to film school. Then again, many famous filmmakers didn’t go to a traditional film school to learn the trade.
Kubrick’s father gifted him a photography camera on his 13th birthday and by the time he was 17, he was an apprentice photographer at Look Magazine. His photography career prepared him for his transition into filmmaking where he started with short documentaries that he funded by hustling games of chess in Central Park and attracting investors. Kubrick made two feature films (that in itself served as a film school) before Hollywood recognized him.
Growing up with asthma, a young Martin Scorcese was drawn to the cinema and studied filmmakers and movements that would one day influence his work.
Initially going to the seminary to become a priest, Scorsese failed out after his first year and enrolled in NYU’s Washington Square College (now College of Arts and Science). There he earned a BA in English before earning his MA from NYU’s School of Education (now Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development).
Claire Denis grew up in West Africa and moved to a suburb of Paris as a teenager to treat her polio. She first married her photography mentor when she was just 15 but soon after divorced. Then, she briefly studied economics and then Oriental languages before switching her studies to IDHEC (now La Fémis).
If you ask Quentin Tarantino if he went to film school, he will respond, “No, I went to films.” Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of films comes from his time working at the Manhattan Beach video store, Video Archives.
His first gig in the industry was hilariously Dolph Lundgren’s fitness video, Maximum Potential as a production assistant, and he would later play an Elvis impersonator in the hit sitcom The Golden Girls.
Bong Joon-Ho comes from a line of creatives. His father was a professor of art at Yeungnam University and the head of the art department at the National Film Institute, and his maternal grandfather was esteemed author Park Taweon who defected to North Korea. After first majoring in sociology at Yonsei University, he later completed a two-year film program at the Korean Academy of Film Arts.
Lynne Ramsey grew up in Glasgow and attended Napier College, Edinburgh where she studied fine art and photography. She became inspired after watching Meshes of the Afternoon in class, she went on to study film directing and cinematography at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England.
Self-described as “an intense child,” Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento with interests in dancing and fencing. She relocated to New York City to study musical theater but graduated Barnard College, Columbia University with English and philosophy degrees. She wanted to be a playwright but when she was not admitted to MFA programs, she turned to acting where she made a name for herself in indie and mumblecore genres.
Spike Lee made his first student film while studying mass communications at Morehouse College. Meanwhile, Lee took film courses at Clark Atlanta University and went on to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to earn a Master of Fine Arts in film and television.
One might think having a father who is Francis Ford Coppola might serve as a film school in and of itself. After interning at Chanel at the age of 15, she went on to study at Mills College but then decided to focus on painting at the California Institute of the Arts. Coppola would go on to attend the Art Center College of Design and then drop out to pursue other interests, eventually turning to acting for a brief time.
Known as the kind of kid who built things that “either went up into the air or into the deep,” Cameron entered Fullerton College to study physics but soon switched to English before leaving altogether. Fascinated with the special effects of Star Wars, he quit his job as a truck driver to work his way into the film industry. He began as a production assistant and worked his way up through special effects and production design before getting his chance at directing.
Christopher Nolan knew he wanted to be a filmmaker at an early age but when he enrolled at University College London, his father convinced him to pursue a degree in something unrelated to gain perspective outside of film. Nolan became president of the Union’s Film Society with his future wife Emma Thomas.
Kelly Reichardt had a passion for photography from a young age which propelled her to earn her MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Like many of the directors on this list, David Fincher was mesmerized by film at a young age and knew he wanted to be a director after seeing a documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As a teenager, he directed plays, designed sets, and set the lighting. He would then work as a production assistant for a news station while also working as a busboy, dishwasher, and fry cook.
Rather than attend a traditional film school, Fincher found employment in the film industry working visual effects and as an AC and matte photographer on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Asif Kapadia received his film education from Newport Film School, achieved a degree in Film, TV and Photographic Arts from the University of Westminster, and MA in Directing for Film and TV at the Royal College of Art.
With her earliest interest in painting, Kathryn Bigelow registered at the San Francisco Art Institute to receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts. While there, she was accepted into the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in New York City. She later registered into the graduate film program at Columbia University where she earned a master’s in theory and criticism.
Paul Thomas Anderson never had any alternative plan to becoming a film director. Both inspired and encouraged by his father, PTA worked on his filmmaking skills throughout his childhood, producing his first film, a mockumentary called “The Dirk Diggler Story.”
He first attended Santa Monica College before trying two semesters at Emerson College as an English major where he was instructed by David Foster Wallace. He spent two days at NYU, too, if that counts for anything.
During his childhood, Wes Anderson would make silent films with his brothers on his father’s Super 8 camera. Just like the school in Rushmore, Anderson himself attended St. John’s School in Houston.
Anderson’s dream was to be a writer and as he attended the University of Texas at Austin, he remained attached to film working as a part-time cinema projectionist at Hogg Memorial Auditorium. It was there he met his future collaborator Owen Wilson.
Jane Campion grew up immersed in the world of New Zealand theater as her parents founded the New Zealand Players. Rejecting the idea of a career in the dramatic arts, she pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Victoria University of Wellington. She soon enrolled in the Chelsea Art School in London and traveled through Europe. Later she would earn a graduate diploma in visual arts from the Sydney College of Arts at the University of Sydney and continue her studies at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
Ridley Scott was born just two years before World War II began and therefore his early childhood was gripped by the war. Scott discovered an interest in science fiction and obtained a diploma in design at West Hartlepool College of Art. He would then study at the Royal College of Art in London. Once he graduated, he landed a position as a trainee set designer with the BBC.
Just like Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle almost pursued the priesthood at the seminary but was persuaded by a priest to reconsider his “higher calling.” Boyle, as he says, turned to a similar job, that is a filmmaker, and went on to study English and Drama at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University).
Born as Arlette Varda, the famed director changed her name to “Agnes Varda” when she turned 18. She and her family relocated from Belgium to Sète during World War II where they together lived on a boat. She studied photography at the École des Beaux-Arts and art history at the École du Louvre. Soon after she received work as a photographer at the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris.
To her later dissatisfaction with the gray and sad city of Paris, she attended the Lycée et collége Victor-Duruy for a bachelor’s degree in literature and psychology from the Sorbonne. She would eventually study photography at the Vaugirard School of Photography and start her career as a photographer before becoming one of the most famous filmmakers we know today.
Liliana Cavani’s childhood was spent going to the movie theater every Sunday with her mother. Her foremost fascination was in archaeology, graduating from Bologna University with degrees in literature and philology. However, she discovered her true passion for filmmaking and attended Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (Experimental Cinematography Center) in Rome.
Jordan Peele decided that he wanted to be a film director when he was just 12 years old. After attending private school on a scholarship in Manhattan, he went on to major in puppetry at Sarah Lawrence College. While at Sarah Lawrence he met future Key & Peele writer Rebecca Drysdale and the duo decided to drop out two years later to start a comedy troupe. It may have seemed like a scary move at the time but he went on to become one of the most famous filmmakers as a result of his command of comedy.
With films typically under the “body horror” genre, it’s no surprise that Julia Ducournau was born to a dermatologist father and a gynecologist mother. Ducournau studied screenwriting at La Fémis but transitioned to a writer/director with her first film, Junior. This would set her on the path to becoming one of the most notable and famous filmmakers in Europe and then worldwide.
Peter Jackson was determined from a very young age to learn the art of filmmaking. In the days of analog, he was able to teach himself through much trial and error how to work with not only the camera but also makeup and special effects.
The Lord of the Rings director left school when he was 16 to work full-time as a photo-engraver for a newspaper. Over the seven years he worked there, Jackson lived with his parents and saved his money to buy a 16mm camera. Once he had the camera he began shooting his first film, Bad Taste. And as they say, the rest is history.
Denis Villeneuve was inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick in his youth which influenced his decision to become a filmmaker. After studying science at the Cégep de Trois-Riviéres, Villeneuve studied filmmaking at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He would go on to make short films to earn acclaim to set him on the path of becoming one of the most famous filmmakers of his time.
Brian de Palma grew up in Protestant and Quaker schools and was known for building computers. This all changed while he was attending Columbia University as a physics student. He was captivated by the films Vertigo and Citizen Kane and decided to attend Sarah Lawrence College for its theater program as a grad student. There he would make contacts and learn about the performing arts that would make him one of the most famous filmmakers of his generation.
Andrei Tarkovsky is regarded as one of the most influential directors and famous filmmakers in all of cinema history. Regarded as a poor student and troublemaker in the classroom, he went on to study Arabic at the Oriental Institute of Moscow but eventually dropped out.
He took up work as a prospector for the Academy of Science Institute for Non-Ferrous Metals and Gold. During a year-long expedition, he decided to become a filmmaker. Tarkovsky made true to his word and attended the State Institute of Cinematography after he returned.
Describing her childhood as a time of adventure, Lina Wertmüller was more drawn to comic books and the performing arts than the 15 Catholic high schools she was expelled from. After attending the Accademia Nazionale di Arte Drammatica Silvio D’Amico, Wertmüller went on to work as a puppeteer, stage manager, set designer, publicist, and radio/TV scriptwriter.
Guillermo Del Toro is yet another one of those famous filmmakers who picked up his first Super 8 camera at that magic age of 8. He would make short films throughout his childhood and go on to attend the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Cinematográficos at the University of Guadalajara. While still in school, he published a biography of Alfred Hitchcock.
After reviewing our list of famous filmmakers, one thing is clear. There’s no single way to become a filmmaker. Some filmmakers may go through the normal university system, while others pave their own way. That all said, as the film industry changes in technology, so does film education. The university system may not upgrade its curriculum as quickly as technology, which makes Filmmakers Academy a must for filmmakers who want to bridge the gap between film school and on set experience.