Students in an Introduction to Filmmaking class had the extraordinary opportunity to hear from an Emmy award-winning actor as well as the former President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) who also happens to have her own Hollywood Star.
Actor, Director and Producer Timothy Busfield, who won an Emmy Award for his work on the television series Thirtysomething, was joined by Actor, Director and Writer Melissa Gilbert, best known for her work on TV’s Little House on the Prairie, to speak to the beginning filmmakers in College of Arts and Letters' Professor of Practice Carleen Ling-an Hsu’s class. They discussed their careers and offered advice on acting, directing and filmmaking.
“The first thought most people have when they want to make a film is money and script. How am I going to write a script, and how am I going to get the money, and you don’t need either,” Busfield told the class. “You need a story. You need to want to tell a story and have a story to tell.”
Busfield and Gilbert each have had long careers in the entertainment industry – Busfield more than 30 years and Gilbert 50 years. And Hsu, who also has had an impressive career as an award-winning documentary filmmaker, including two George Foster Peabody Awards, added to the discussion as well. Together the three experienced filmmakers offered students valuable advice on all aspects of filmmaking:
- On Writing – “Look to your own life and your own experiences when you write your script because no one’s going to have the same experience as you do. The uniqueness is you. Write what you know.”
- On Directing – “Go, go, go, shoot, shoot, shoot. Nobody has ever complained about too much footage. Go get as much as you can to tell your story.”
- On Acting – “As an actor, your job is to bring the story to life and make it real. The best way for you to make it real is to improvise so it sounds real in your head. You are here to be a storyteller. Get to the core of it by making it your own.”
Above all, they stressed that filmmaking is a collaborative process.
“There’s the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and the movie you edit,” Busfield said. “The worst thing we have in the art is attachment. If you’re attached to what you wrote and you think that’s what your final version is going to be, you’re making a huge mistake. You got to let things evolve when you’re in fiction storytelling because so many people are going to be involved in the process. That detachment will allow great art. The clunker scenes that you are attached to are the ones that are the problem. Hanging on to something will never work.”
Intro to Filmmaking
With a dual appointment in the Department of Media and Information and the Film Studies Program in the Department of English, Hsu’s class consists of students from both departments with the overall goal of introducing them to filmmaking.
“There’s little emphasis on the technical aspects of making a film. I focus more on the content and what makes a good film and what doesn’t make a good film,” said Hsu, who has traveled the world for more than 15 years producing non-fiction films for HBO, PBS, the Learning Channel, BBC and Channel 4 UK. “Because this is an intro class, we don’t yet know where the students are going to diverge – some may be interested in producing, others in writing, and some in acting. Because of this, it’s a very broad class. I want to give them a well-rounded experience so they can figure out the path they want to take when they move forward.”
One way Hsu is inspiring her students is by having speakers like Busfield and Gilbert.
“It’s experiences like this with successful people that shows the students what’s possible and helps get them excited,” Hsu said.
Media Arts Collaborative
Busfield also is teaching a class at MSU this semester, called “Filmmaking on the Cheap and Fast.” The class consists of a mixture of students from both the College of Arts & Letters and the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.
Both Hsu and Busfield’s classes are part of the MSU Media Arts Collaborative (MAC), a dedicated creative endeavor in the integrated media arts between MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, College of Arts & Letters, and College of Music. The MAC coordinates creative effort to promote collaborative projects that cut across disciplines to enrich the student learning experience among the three colleges.
“We are all on one team and are so much better together,” Hsu said. “To get these students the best education, the colleges have to collaborate to help make them more well rounded. The people in Media and Information who are learning the technical aspects absolutely have to learn the things like history and storytelling and vice versa. Without the technical and the story married together, you can’t get anything that’s worth watching.”
Classes like these are enriching the Media Arts Collaborative initiative and the undergraduate film studies experience at Michigan State University.
“One of the great things the school is doing is bringing people in like Ling and Tim who have been in the business,” Gilbert said. “There is an opportunity for Michigan State to become as competitive in film, television and theatre as NYU, USC or any other school. There’s a possibility to really create a creative hub.”