Mark Nickolas: From the Political Trenches to Film School

Last fall, at age 44, after 15 years in Democratic politics — or writing about it as an advocate and observer — I decided to challenge myself one more time and go after the thing that has interested me for quite a while: taking my experience and applying it to one of the most powerful mediums for affecting change: political documentary filmmaking.

I had come to believe that the documentary presents the greatest potential of informing the masses about the happenings in our society, providing itself as an important catalyst for political and social change. Think no further than Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Inconvenient Truth or even Super Size Me to understand how documentaries are able to circumvent the media or political filters and speak directly to the public about the issues of our time. They usually don’t force change quickly, but instead help to generate the critical mass necessary to alter perceptions and raise awareness, allowing us to re-prioritize our concerns as a society, rather than relying on the traditional media or, God-forbid, government officials to lead the way (are they still looking for those WMDs in Iraq that they both promised us?).

This time, I resisted the impulse to simply jump into the deep end of the pool and learn the craft of filmmaking on my own. If I were 10 years younger, who knows? But having recently moved back to New York City, I decided to do the thing that many of us 40-somethings frequently seem to long for – rather than just dream about – and that was going back to school. In my case, film school.

In brighter days...

After taking a close look at some of the excellent film programs in New York City, I decided to go against the wisdom of pretty much everyone whose advice I sought, and applied to only one school. If I didn’t get in, I was fine with those consequences. I’ve done well in politics, and had just left a tumultuous stint working for Governor David Paterson as we tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the job that Eliot Spitzer suddenly handed him a few years earlier. I knew I would be okay if school didn’t pan out. Either way, I would have chased a dream and would no longer torture myself over whether or not to pursue it.

Ultimately, I applied to master’s program in Media Studies and Film at The New School. Being a UC Berkeley graduate, and a strong Democrat, I suspected I’d fit in quite well with the more renegade and avant-garde environment of The New School (after all, the school began a century ago largely from a group of breakaway scholars from Columbia University who refused to sign their government loyalty oaths). Beside, while NYU is renowned for its film school, it is geared toward traditional fiction films. If you want to go the documentary route, The New School makes much more for sense. So, I applied in October, got accepted in November, and began school barely a month later.

During orientation, I learned I was the oldest of my incoming class of about 70 students. That discovery came just as I pulled out a notebook and pen to take notes, rather than typing directly into a shiny MacBook Pro, as did a majority of my new classmates (note: I used a typewriter the last time I was in school in the late 1980s). It was a new world and, at first, awkward. Terrifying, actually. It’s funny how you don’t feel old working on a political campaign when in your forties, but feel ancient when you’re a new grad school student. Like, dinosaur-ancient.

Thankfully, that feeling largely subsides after a few weeks as you realize just how great of an advantage and head start you have on your classmates when it comes breath of experience, perspective and focus, all of which translates into your coursework and relationship with professors, one way or another. While most grad students are, understandably, still figuring out what they want to do after they’re done with school, an older student has a laser-like approach to figuring out the lay of the land, the right classes to take and professors to avoid, how to take advantage of all the networking opportunities during visits from filmmakers and distributors and producers, and, most importantly, a plan. As a result, the lectures and readings are remarkably interesting and you’re enjoying it too much to even contemplate meaningful procrastination. On top of that, it turns out that professors love older students because we have a purpose, are engaged by what they’re teaching, and we’ve been around-the-block long enough to intuitively know what matters and what doesn’t when processing large amounts of new information.

I’m now in the final three weeks of my first semester. In many ways, it feels a lot like being back in a campaign just a few weeks from the election. Everyone is stressed and cranky, and working on progressively less sleep. You can’t figure out how you’re possibly going to get all your research and writing done, your film project completed – especially when you’ve not yet mastered the equipment or the editing software, or finish all the reading for the remaining classes which, unlike undergrad, are tiny (roughly 15 students) and there’s nowhere to hide. It is painfully obvious when someone is not prepared for discussion. To add a little more stress to things is the realization that the largest percentage of your grade comes from the projects completed during these last weeks. Competing for your time is also the weekly film talks and events – an enormous multiplier for any grad student when it comes to understanding the industry, not to mention networking, and a cool perk of being a film student in New York. Like a political campaign, you do your best and hope all the work you did will allow everything to turn out well.

For those who may be harboring a secret desire to returning to school in your 30s and 40s – or even later – my advice is simply do it! It’s worth it. Many of you, like me, will find a thirst and passion for your studies in a way you never expected, and certainly one you might not have had when you were an undergraduate. It’s amazing what a few decades of slogging it through the real world will do for your abilities when you’re a student again. And more than anything else, you’re doing it for yourself.

I don’t mean to ignore the challenges that many of us face, like the insane cost of graduate school (even with the $20,000/year in available federal loans) or whether those supporting families can simply break away, even part time. Those are real issues. But it is remarkable how many people are now returning to grad school after a long break. I’m told by administrators here that the trend is accelerating. In my opinion, that’s a very good thing. After all, we live longer than our parents did, so it makes sense to take a break mid-course and enhance your skill-set, or develop some new ones. Do you really want to work from ages 25 to 65 straight through?

It remains to be seen whether my experience and my aesthetic sensibilities will translate into becoming a talented documentary filmmaker. The first term courses are so basic that they seem akin to trying to discern artistic abilities from crayon time at a pre-school. So far, my professors have given me high marks, but I take that with a grain of salt. Evidence of true filmmaking abilities (i.e., strong enough to make a living at it) will come this fall when I must contend with upper-level production courses in both cinematography and film form, a documentary research methods class, and a much-in-demand seminar class on the art and history of the documentary genre. So, check with me next May for a better sense of my progress.

In the end, life is what you make it. Be sure to step back from the everyday chaos of your life and examine it once in a while. Are you doing what you want? If not, why not? What dreams continue to lurk that you should investigate, even if you can’t change course right away? Don’t get sucked into societal expectations about what you are supposed to do during each distinct phase of your life. It’s your life, not theirs. If genetics are a good indication, I’m halfway through my life, give or take. The first half has been great, but there’s no reason the second half can’t be even better.

Now it’s time for me to get back to studying. I have class in the morning…

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