Camera doesn’t make a film great: ace director

Dan Mackler, director of New York Film Academy, is happy Hollywood has more women heroes now

Dan Mackler with his students. He was in Bengaluru to deliver a master class on Wednesday.

Dan Mackler, a graduate in Russian Studies from Dartmouth College, has been the director of the New York Film Academy College of Visual and Performing Arts (NYFA) for many years now. He worked in Moscow for five years writing and producing music videos and commercial and later for McCann Erickson Advertising. Dan worked as a Russian consultant for Spike Lee in the movie ‘25th Hour’. He also directed the ‘The Karaoke King’.

Dan was a director and cinematographer of dozens of shorts, documentaries and commercials, and his work was selected by several international film festivals. In an exclusive interview with Surupasree Sarmmah, Dan spoke about his favourite Indian movie, ‘Salaam Bombay!’, changes in the filmmaking in the last three decades and more.    

How do you view Indian cinema and its narrative techniques?
I am not a professional connoisseur of Indian cinema. So I can’t really talk about the cinema here. I am sure that, being the largest cinema in the world, India is obviously doing something right. We help educate those who like to make films successful in America by teaching them some great storytelling techniques. 

What Indian movies have you seen and liked?
I really loved ‘Salaam Bombay!’ I loved the storyline, the depth of the culture and the struggles of the characters’ lives in the movie. When I was in film school, I had the privilege to be taught by the cinematographer of the film, Sandi Sissel. She is the first female cinematographer in the union of America.

Do you find song and dance sequences over the top?
It is not necessarily what I enjoy in a film. I understand that they are very entertaining and well-received by the Indian audience. But what I look for in a film is the underlying story and honesty of the characters. Song and dance sequences might sometimes distract the underlying truthfulness of who these characters are. 

Since you have worked on music videos, commercials, and feature films, what changes have you seen in the film making styles of the last three decades?
Being someone who studies films in America, it is interesting that studios in America are inclined to make films that guarantee box office returns. So they are more careful about investing in films such as sequels or remakes and making stories out of comic books and superheroes.

Having said that, independent filmmakers who have purchased studios have been very successful in all types of genres. There were times when horror movies were more marketable; and there were times when others would try to make a film like ‘Fight Club’, which had become popular due to the longevity of a story.

Recently, I have noticed that the hero is now the woman in American cinema. It is interesting that more and more leading characters of a film are women. I think this is important. Those of the family who buy the tickets are usually mothers, this shows that they have an interest in seeing someone they can relate to. 

Do Netflix and other such platforms demand a new film-making idiom?
Netflix, Amazon and other such platforms are creating a library of great films,
those with great storylines which can be told over and over again. They look at the longevity of a story. For these platforms, it is not just about box-office but how a movie can transcend time. The fact that so much material can be offered on these platforms has opened up doors to many new filmmakers and are giving opportunities to film enthusiasts across the world to watch good films. 

What is the methodology you adopt to teach students who may not be too familiar with Hollywood?
About 50 per cent of our students at the NYFA are international students. The stories should come from them personally. They need to bring their culture into their stories.

What we do is help them craft their stories in a way that is palatable and exciting for the audience. This includes how to develop a story structure, creating good character arcs and sending them on a journey the audience can relate to.

We also teach our students the use of technology to service their story. Technology has been used for the sake of it and therefore has masked the real reason why it is important for a film. For instance, a great camera doesn’t make a story better, it only lets you create a beautiful picture, but it has to service the type of story you are telling. 

What can an Indian student expect to learn at the NYFA?
If they are taking filmmaking as their preferred course, they will learn how to write, direct, produce and edit their own projects. From day one, they will be using a camera and will be very experienced on a set. They will be studying with masters of the field and learn to collaborate with other students. They will not just learn to make their own films but also learn to be part of the crew, shoot and work with others to understand every aspect of film making process. They can then go ahead and become editors, assistant cameraman or cinematographer, producers, writers and directors. 

How do you compete with similar schools like Whistling Woods in Mumbai and Madras Film Institute, which might be cheaper and easier for Indian students to access?
We created a curriculum that we believed was most effective for our film schools. We believe in the hands-on approach; that doesn’t mean that we don’t learn theory, we apply theory to sets and we learn by experimenting and making mistakes. It starts from a basic camera package to a much more developed film. 

How much does it cost to study at the NYFA?
Depends on the course. The first semester courses run from Rs 9.17 lakh to Rs 14.1 lakh. A master’s degree will have five to six semesters, a Bachelor’s degree will have eight to nine semesters. We do have scholarships for international students and try to offer talented students financial help if needed.  

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Camera doesn’t make a film great: ace director

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