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New York City
June 2003

Behind the Silver Screen With Reeves Lehmann
by Jacob M. Appel

The film program at the School of Visual Arts has changed dramatically since Reeves Lehmann attended college in the 1970s. “Back then there was a much, much smaller student population,” he recalled. “We were also a very mature group of students—many of us, like myself, were coming out of the service, coming back from Vietnam. And the war was still going on, which created a whole different climate.” At that time, “most of the student-made films were about relationships, some were documentaries.” Maybe because of their personal experiences, the students tended to stay away from political subject matter. “If I can recall,” observed Lehmann, “I don’t think any of the films had any relation to the war. We just didn’t go there with our films.” At that time, access to faculty and equipment was also much more limited. According to Lehmann, “Back then you had a choice of five advisers. Now you have the entire faculty of the film department available to be film advisors. Back then there were twenty-five to thirty instructors at the school, now there are one hundred thirty just in this department.” All of these faculty are working professionals and experts in their fields. Students in the Department of Film, Video and Animation can now specialize in directing, cinematography, editing, and screenwriting. The driving force behind these changes has been Lehmann himself, whose fourteen years as chairman of the department have seen a revolutionary transformation of the program.

One of Lehmann’s first innovations as chairman was the establishment of a film festival, the Dusty Awards, to show the thesis projects of the school’s undergraduates. “During the festival,” explained Lehmann, “we have people from the industry come here for a private screening of all the work, and they judge the films and make the selections for the most outstanding screenplay, cinematography, film, what have you. We keep that under wraps and then the finale of the film festival, which is actually an awards evening, is where we announce those winners and that’s where they get their Dusty.” The festival, open to the public, is attended by in excess of three thousand people. “For an undergraduate film festival,” noted Lehmann, “that is absolutely amazing.” The school invites prominent figures from the film industry to present the awards. This year Arthur Penn (Little Big Man, Bonnie and Clyde) handed out the directing award. Other recent presenters included screenwriter David Kepp (Spider Man, Panic Room), actor/director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond) and horror directors George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream). “It’s quite an evening,” declared Lehmann. “And they don’t just give out the awards, they impact inspiration and hope to the students.” The event is underwritten by such industry mainstays as Kodak, Sony and Technicolor. Proceeds from the screenings are used to fund the thesis projects of up-and-coming students, which can often cost between $8,000 and $25,000.

Another of Lehmann’s innovations was the hiring of a film festival coordinator to encourage students to compete for external awards in a highly competitive industry. “There are now hundreds of film festivals across the country,” explained Lehmann. “It’s important to have a film festival coordinator students can go to for advice, not only on determining which festivals their film would be suited for, but also how to prep their film and all the other support materials that go to these festivals.” In recent years, School of Visual Arts students have twice won the Motion Picture Academy Award for Students and have also garnered the Eastman-Kodak Cinematography Award and the prestigious Director’s Guild of America—East Award for Outstanding Filmmaking.

One of the distinguishing features of the School of Visual Arts program is its emphasis on acting. “There is no other film school in the country that I am aware of that requires all students, regardless of whether they plan to be directors, cinematographers, editors, or screenwriters, to take acting classes,” explained Lehmann. “That’s very important to us. Aside from a good script, performance can either make or break your film. An understanding of what an actor goes through, and having the language and the respect and being able to collaborate with the actors, is vital.”

Another defining characteristic of the program is the students’ unfettered access to equipment. “We are probably the most well-equipped film school per capita on the East Coast, maybe in the country,” noted Lehmann, “and we do not put any restrictions on access to equipment. Once they learn how to use the equipment, the students can access it as often as they need it for their productions, which doesn’t happen at a lot of other schools.

The most significant transformation in the film department during Lehmann’s tenure has not been only curricular, but technological. The advent of digital technology has substantially reduced costs for many students; approximately sixty percent shoot their final project, a ten to twenty minute film, on digital video. But even those who choose to shoot on film, for which there remains a preference, have benefited from the digital revolution. “There are students who still shoot on film and there are students who go to the digital side,” explained Lehmann, “but both, regardless of how they shoot, end up editing in the digital realm. There is no more hands-on film editing anymore.” Lehmann admits his own preference for film, noting that the “immediacy” of digital video can’t compete with the “warmth” and “clarity” of the traditional medium. “The problem with digital, still,” added Lehmann, “is that on the large screen it only looks good if you have the most expensive projectors. But who’s going to pay for that at all these theaters across the county?” You need someone knowledgeable to show a digital video; film, in contrast, can be “supervised by the popcorn kid.”

Lehmann is himself an avid cinema aficionado. He worked for several commercial houses, making documentaries, before he arrived at the School of the Visual Arts. His favorite director is France’s Claude LeLouch whom he praises as “a true romantic” who “loves cinema” and “whose passion for film making you can see in his movies.” LeLouch began his career as a cameraman and gained fame for such films as “A Man and a Woman,” “And Now My Love,” “Happy New Year,” and “Bandits”; many of his films have been remade by American directors. Lehmann readily urges students and any lovers of cinema to watch LeLouch’s work. Lehmann’s favorite film, “The Holy Mountain,” which he describes as “genius in its storytelling,” may be a more difficult challenge for movie buffs. It was directed by the Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky and first shown in New York City in 1973. Lehmann obtained his personal copy of laser disk from a friend, filmmaker Roy Frumkes (who is also a fan of A.J.), while visiting Japan; the work has never been released in the United States. And maybe this magical film is symptomatic of the dilemma that Lehmann has spent his career trying to remedy—the plethora of remarkable films that never make it to mainstream theaters and are never exposed to widespread audiences. Needless to say, one of the principal goals of the film program at the School of the Visual Arts is to give its students who have worked so hard, as much opportunity as possible to display their work to the industry and general public.#

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