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Rod Stoneman Talks The Huston Film School
11 Sep 2008 : By Roisin Cronin
Rod Stoneman
With the recommencing of the academic year, IFTN talks to Rod Stoneman, director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media in Galway to discuss upcoming guests and courses and the new directions that returning to study offers potential students and industry professionals.

Rod Stoneman was the CEO of the Irish Film Board from 1993 – 2003 for which he executive produced many of Ireland’s most successful features including ‘Intermission’ (2003), ‘The Actors’ (2003), ‘Chavez: Inside the Coup’ (2003) and ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ 2002. He is also an author and filmmaker.

Since becoming the Huston director in 2003, the school has been running new and innovative courses including MA’s in Digital Media, Film Studies, Production and Direction and Screenwriting. Stoneman has invited many academic and industry guests to share their experiences with students including ‘Superbad’ writer Evan Goldberg and actor Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects). Upcoming guests to the school is screenwriter Allegra Huston, daughter of John Huston, who will be Writer in Residence in November; the Scottish film critic Jonny Murray; writer Christian O’Reilly (Inside I’m Dancing) and TV Director Harley Cokeliss.

Rod, when does the semester begin at the film school?

The semester starts back generally at the beginning of September through to the end of November and then again a week or two into January through to the end of March. So there are two 12 week semesters and then in the Spring, depending on what MA they are doing, people are either making films, writing scripts or writing dissertations which are long 12,000 word essays.

What attracts people to the one year courses that the school offers?

My notion is that there might be people – I have in my mind some kind of woman who is an editor but then thought she should begin to write or direct. Stepping outside of an industrial role for a year might enable people to step back in at a different role or at a higher level. Therefore at that point in life and in terms of the money as well, a one year course is more viable for someone. I mean of course one could do more things in time if there were two or three year courses but that would take it away from a view to people working in the industry but wanting to change or up their game or change their role.

Are there any new aspects of the courses that stand out this year?

Recent changes are in some of the new MA’s, like for example the Production and Direction course and the MA in Public Advocacy and Activism. It was possible to connect the courses in what I think is a quite unusual and interesting way. People doing Public Advocacy and Activism which is a degree going in lots of different directions for example; changing public opinion whether it is something like better school lunches or different attitudes towards travellers or people seeking refugees in Ireland etc. People doing that course actually write a brief about an issue which the students from the Production and Direction course work in teams to realise a short film.

There are several of last year’s films which have come through that processes of the two courses feeding into each other. One was ‘Without Words’ which won the Babelgum Online prize in Cannes and the winner was announced by director Spike Lee. The film was on young male suicide. It’s a little mini drama film and powerful as a film but it also had something to say because it came from a brief.

This is a new and unusual in a way, as in lots of films schools, young film makers start with a sheet of paper and think ‘what films should we make?’ but though they have got complete freedom to shape and realise a film in whichever way their imagination develops, the starting point is actually given, in that they have a brief about an issue. This is actually more like the real world – they leave school and they start working for companies.

Tell us about screenwriter Allegra Huston and what role she will play as part of the MA in Screenwriting? There is a special workshop called the ‘Writing Salon’ which is held in Roundstone. It will be held in the first few days of December this year by Allegra Huston and a guy called James Navé who runs this creative writing workshop. It is an add-on extra at the end of term which is an unexpected and generally a delightful thing to do.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of returning back study?

Well I wouldn’t be suggesting that someone who has experience in the industry as a writer comes back and does a screenwriting course. It is more for someone who has another role who wants to strengthen their hand and start writing, or someone who has worked shall we say as a writer who wants to direct. It is more about changing the role and I think mature students get an awful lot out of the courses because their commitment as such, they have taken a year of their time and costing a few thousand, so generally it is always good to have a central gravity of mature and experienced students on a course as they really put a focus and commitment on it.

Someone might want to stand back and reflect on their work but mostly it is busy enough to keep going with it. If someone in the industry is interested in changing or being more ambitious in what they do, take for example last year when we had experienced actors who did the Production and Direction course, so that is the kind of cross over that is interesting. A course is a space which - we would like to think of ourselves as some kind of a lab. It is good to have a space where people can have a go at things and if they don’t work they are not suddenly beaten over the head in the tabloids or something you know.

Can you tell us more about your upcoming guests and speakers at the school?

Across all the courses is probably the mixture of practitioners and academic critical thinking so there is a regular stream of workshops - and guests and in fact we had some interesting residencies last year with Evan Goldberg who wrote ‘Superbad’ and ‘Knocked Up’. Guests included Gabriel Byrne, James Cromwell and Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul), so there is always a commitment to combining active practitioners and critics / academics.

Looking at our next few Thursday afternoons you can exactly see the mixture of critical, analytical and practitioner persons. Tomorrow in fact Johnny Murray is talking about The Biopic and the film ‘Control’ which was an interesting recent music film. On Friday morning he is also doing a workshop for producers and directors on sound design. Even though he is actually an academic he is doing something direct and practical like how to design the sound for your film.

Christan O’Reilly is probably known to most of us. He works as a writer in a range of different areas so that I hope sends a signal to students – if you are going to stay in Ireland and be a writer, unless you are immediately and fantastically successful, you probably got to turn your hand to bit of theatre, radio and television - that’s the economy of writing really in Ireland.

Harley Cokeliss - he is an American living in London and really managed to just be successful working director. No one is publishing books on the television of Harley Cokeliss but he keeps on making good and commercial films.

So you can see the mixture, and also Pietro Lusvardi an Italian trio who composed music to be played with silent films and their workshop is quite fun because they basically say to the students what kind of music should be put with this next scene and they do it and they get another and say what you think works.

Has there been any other of last year’s graduate films entered in any festivals?

Well several films were shown in the Galway Fleadh last year and in fact the new batch are just coming out now so we will see where they get to. I think with the one year courses being so fast and intense that we have very short 3mins and 6mins films, but actually since the course was designed we find ourselves in the epoch of the YouTube era so actually it fits a major mode of distribution which is short films on the internet.

What are the job prospects for graduates?

If you take one of our courses, the MA/H-Dip in Arts, Policy and Practice which is aimed at people working to organise and work in the arts. They are hardly finished the course before they get jobs. A very high proportion of people are immediately working in arts offices, running theatre groups or working with the Darklight Festival or the Arts Council because the arts sector is well established and that happens immediately.

If you take the course in Screen writing and the course in Production and Direction it is much slower on their piecemeal. I know one of our last year students is working with Magma in Galway, another is making promos and another has got a part-time job with RTÉ so gradually that comes through, but it is not nearly as straight forward or as immediate as the Arts Policy and Practice students. It is obviously a bigger sector with more opportunities with regular employment.

Any other upcoming events for the school?

We have got a reception in Los Angeles on 16 October. There is a Druid play which NUIG are putting on for the Huston school and we are having a reception afterwards. We have had galas in recent years and this is a kind of a take on that.



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