Carl Haber is a prominent independent filmmaker whose latest project is the launch of the Rome International Film School (RIFS). In this exclusive interview, Mr. Haber details the inspiration for creating the school and his plans on educating the next generation of filmmakers.
Q: What was the inspiration for creating the Rome International Film School, and how long did it take you to create this new school?
Carl Haber: I suppose the answer is that it was a product of many things: I’ve been a filmmaker since I shifted from being a psychology student at Penn in the mid 70’s, where there was no real film program, but there were a couple of film courses. I fell in love with the medium and had a couple of great, quirky teachers who turned me on to various aspects of film.
After I graduated with a BA in psychology I went to film school in London, a two-year program, and that was undoubtedly the seed of what we’re doing now. It was an international film school, with students coming from around the world, and I was thrown into an environment very different from what I’d always known. My fellow students were Venezuelan, Cuban, Mexican, Nigerian, Iranian, Swiss, Greek, Scandinavian, and my teachers were British, American, French, Russian. And I was in a cosmopolitan European capital.
The films I made, the things I learned and the people I associated with all affected me, and stayed with me to this day. When I left London Film School and set off to work by moving to New York City in 1979, I was forever changed, and also ready as a professional to work in the field. I still needed to learn several things about the art, craft and business of film that film school hadn’t really prepared me for. I was lucky however, and found work with the Maysles Brothers, who initially hired me freelance but then put me on staff. With them, I was brought up to speed on the business side of things, as well as being involved with professionals working with the latest gear. But I also realized I hadn’t been genuinely prepared in terms of writing scripts and directing actors. Those two aspects of the training had been weak at the time in London, so I enrolled in acting classes and began writing scripts on my own, as well.
After ten years in New York, I managed to have a few successes. As I teach young filmmakers today, one has to be prepared to stretch in as many directions as necessary to grow, to survive, to make things work, while remaining committed to your craft and career. I directed cabaret-theater in nightclubs, Off-Broadway plays, I wrote and directed short films with young actors, I got some into festivals and traveled a bit with the films. I got work on features, as an assistant director, associate producer, and before long I was directing music videos and commercials as well. I was asked to write scripts for others on commission and tried to get a feature film off the ground. I was involved in a major feature that did get made but then found myself unceremoniously ripped off, the agreement made with me entirely ignored. I bounced back with a new story and managed to get it produced for PBS. Then in 1988 an Italian friend of mine I’d known in New York in 1982 invited me to Rome. I went for two months and ended up staying for ten years.
I fell in love with Rome, where after 10 years in New York, I found a green, bustling, lively ancient city of beauty, with a human scale and great sense of humor. I learned more about Italian film history, and I had a series of kismet moments. On landing in Rome at the airport in September 1988, my friend was there to pick me up – but standing next to him was Fellini, who by coincidence was there waiting for his wife Giulietta, coming in on another flight. I was introduced to Fellini (my friend knew him) and he invited us to the set of his film, which turned out to be his last film, “La Voce della Luna”. So, on my first full day in Rome I was out on the Pontina at the studio on the set of a Fellini film. Watching him work, his attitude, his demeanor, his style, was very important. I had the fortune in 1984 in New York to work for Nicholas Roeg on “Insignificance” and I found some common things about their ways on set. Fellini was gracious with me, as he was with everyone, and I felt very lucky indeed.
The next night, my same friend brought me to a party on the Via Margutta, one of the last terrace parties of the season. It was at the house of someone named Andrea Occhipinti, who years later as it would happen, produced and distributed a film I made in Rome. But that night I knew no one, spoke no Italian really, and was thrust into a scene like something out of a real version of “The Great Beauty,” a party where everyone in the film business in Italy was there: filmmakers, writers, actors, starlets… and Coppola too, who was in town to shoot “The Godfather Part 3.”
So, my entry to Italian life and the Italian world of cinema in particular was very fortunate. And over the years I found myself respected, needed, useful and at home. I learned Italian fluently and I met my wife in 1993 and in 1996 I made a feature film; in 1997, several documentaries, some television and I helped others make their films in whatever capacity I could be useful over the years. In 1992 I launched a workshop for professional actors in Rome, as I saw the need they had for proper training, along the lines of the course I’d taken in New York with Robert Brady. I offered the classes for free, as many of the actors were friends.
In 1998, because of family reasons my wife and moved to the US, and spent time in LA, then six years later other family problems took us to Romania, where my wife’s father was ill. After helping her family out we were eager for another situation and I was invited to teach at the Prague Film School. After being hired the owners quickly made me the faculty chair as well, and I was responsible for trying to fix a number of problems their school had run into the year before. So we moved to Prague, which I loved, and I ran the Prague Film School for three years. In that time, I designed and elevated the curriculum, and with it the level of films the students made and the prestige of the school soared.
But it was a private school, owned by others, and I soon saw a number of what I considered flaws and errors on their part, which I could do nothing about. It was their school. Meanwhile, I managed to make another feature film, in Prague, and in 2008 I completed and sold it and left the Prague Film School to market it internationally, do the festival circuit etc.
It was then that RIFS was actually born as an idea. In 2009 I decided that I wanted to launch an international film school, in Rome. I traveled to Rome, where I’d visited frequently over the years since leaving, and met with friends and colleagues, as well as new contacts – I spoke to people at Cinecitta – and I began to map out a program, and a plan.
In 2010 however I was hired to teach back in the U.S., in Philadelphia, where I had grown up, first at Penn and then at Drexel, with a brief special course at University of the Arts. I continued to map out a strategy to create RIFS. But meanwhile I was getting valuable experience teaching in American university system. I was fortunate at Drexel to work alongside some excellent teachers and film professionals, including Andrew Susskind, Ian Abrams and others. I learned a great deal from that experience, knowledge that would also be very helpful to me in preparing RIFS’ program and approach.
I continued to design the school’s curriculum, and update the budget and business plans. An Italian producer friend based in LA connected me with a banker out of Milan he thought might be interested to invest. I spoke with him on the phone and flew to Italy to meet him. We met in Milan and he expressed some interest without a commitment, but suggested no matter what that I would be well served, among other things, finding an administrator for the school: someone who could manage the structural and financial aspects of the institution, who understood the various and baroque qualities of doing business in Italy. There were questions as to the legal structure of the school – nonprofit or profit, taxation issues and the like, which an experienced administrator would be able to handle, and which would give confidence to any investor.
So I began the search for an administrator and spread the word that I was seeking just that. Within a couple of months, back in Philly, I however found the perfect guy in Rome and in 2012 Stefano Misiani joined me on the RIFS team. In late 2012 Drexel hinted that they would like me to stay full time and encouraged me to apply for a position opening up. But one day it dawned on me that I needed to go do what I wanted to do, and not get stuck where I didn’t want to be.
Rome was calling. So in 2013 I moved back to Rome with my wife and my things with no solid assurance of anything. I took a job at the American University of Rome (AUR), and soon became a key film professor there, teaching what I teach: directing, screenwriting, and a number of other film courses they needed me to lead. I helped create five new courses at AUR, while continuing to develop RIFS and seek investors and financing, shaping the business plans and more, with Stefano.
At one point, we considered linking RIFS to AUR, but it wasn’t long before we realized that in doing so we would lose our authority over the nascent film school, and we were not confident that the arrangement would go well. Last summer I was invited and then hired to teach six months in Savannah Georgia, at SCAD, and as RIFS was still not ready to roll out, I accepted, and went there to supervise a handful of quality student senior films.
When I returned, now in June this year, Stefano and I decided to reconfigure our plans a bit, in order to open RIFS and make it a reality, rather than waiting for September 2017. We decided that RIFS needed to be a reality rather than a project.
In doing so, we understood there would not be a lot of time for marketing, getting the word out, and attracting the size of student body we hope to have for the one-year program, so we opted to create a special first year of operations for the launch of the school, beginning with six special intensive courses we are offering in mid-October. We will repeat these 30-hour courses (over five weeks) again in January, and in February we will be offering a crash course in filmmaking that takes place over twelve weeks, into early May. In June we will offer a four-week filmmaking course, and then in September 2017 we will begin our regular one-year program.
Q: What makes this film school different from other film schools?
Carl Haber: Several things. First of all we will be the only full-time English language film school in Europe south of Paris. Next, because of the experience I’ve had in both European and US contexts, the approach of RIFS is quite special, combining US university educational techniques with European and specifically Italian sensibilities, when it comes to style, taste and film culture. Students from around the world can come to Rome, one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities on earth, and receive a training that is comparable to the best film programs anywhere, and do it in a place that brought us Fellini, Bertolucci, Pasolini, De Sica, Monicelli, and so many other great filmmakers and films.
Additionally, RIFS has a very hands-on approach. The courses are very tied into the development of the students’ work, and the films they will make while with us.
The world has changed, the technologies changing rapidly, the outlets for film and visual media change constantly, and RIFS is prepared for those changes. Our teachers all work in the business in their various capacities and professions. We are all aware of those changes, and we aim to ensure that students leaving RIFS are ready to join the workforce.
This is not a four-year program, where you end up with a degree, and have to take other foundation courses and spend those many years and huge sums of money, as you would in most U.S. colleges and universities. Yet it has the advantages of those schools, the academic approach, the direct one-on-one contact with professors, and personal attention that U.S. university systems offer. On the other hand rather than being insulated in a cultural cocoon, students will have the advantage of being in an international context, working with students from around the globe, as I did when I went to London Film School. I expect RIFS will be on that level in a very short period of time, and provide students with that kind of wonderful combination of U.S. educational styles and methods with the European cultural context.
Also, as I mentioned, when I went to film school I found that they were very good at teaching us the “toys”, how to use the lights, cameras, editing and sound… but they were a bit lacking when it came to storytelling, directing, screenwriting, working with actors. And I’ve seen this repeatedly in many film schools and film programs in universities. The students, mostly young, tend to want the glamour of playing with the fancy equipment, learning how to shoot and cut, but often aren’t strong in storytelling or directing. As a result, we’ve made it one of our prime missions to ensure that RIFS students not only become professionally proficient with the latest gear and software but also learn how to tell a story, to write a script, to develop an idea and characters, to do the preparation needed to be a serious director, to understand the best ways to work with actors and draw out great performances, and to produce films with substance that can emotionally affect an audience.
But there is one more thing I hinted at before that also distinguishes RIFS. Our second year program is entirely unique as far as I am aware. While the one year program will first be offered to 30 students (in 2017) and grow to reach 60 students yearly (by 2020) starting in 2018 our second year program will be offered to 10 qualified students, who will come, study and develop, write and produce a feature film. So each year RIFS will produce hundreds of short films and a feature film.
Finally, RIFS will also be a center of production, where our students can work on professional projects the school will be producing, and co-producing, including TV programming, web series, independent narrative film and documentary work. Our approach is hands-on and professional. When we teach directing, students will come out of those courses knowing how to direct, what’s expected in the real world, how to work with actors, how to stage scenes, how to use the craft. In all dimensions, be it screenwriting, cinematography, editing, visual effects, animation, sound, or production design, the approach is the same. We teach the real material one needs to know in order to go out and work in this business. We will also strive to connect our students to internships and jobs, and get them work on productions we are involved in or know about. All of these things will contribute to making RIFS one of a kind.
Q: Being that you are based in Rome, are you aiming for an Italian student body? Or are you making efforts to bring in students from other countries?
Carl Haber: Initially, for this first year we expect a great majority of our student body will be local, in fact. The short, five-week intensive courses are designed mainly for people already here in Rome, be they Italian or ex-pat, however the crash course in February, and the summer course in June are aiming at a mix of Italian and international students.
The one year and two year programs we expect will attract an international student body, much the way the Prague, Paris and London schools do.
Being an international film school, our intent is to attract students from around the world. I think Rome as a city is attractive as well in that regard, both for its beauty and its film history. I expect we will make efforts to attract students from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Latin America, all around Europe, as well as Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Israel, India, China, Japan, Thailand, Iran and other Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand, and some nations in Africa – in other words everywhere. And we will hope to have a wide range of ages as well: college grads, younger people out of high school, and adults making life-course changes at various ages.
Q: Your website mentions a new production called “Gray Areas.” What is this production about?
Carl Haber: “Gray Areas” is the first of what we expect will be many in-house productions. It is a series that will be a web/TV series in the footsteps of the old “Twilight Zone” or “Hitchcock Presents” series, an anthology of macabre, at times funny and dark stories, each one a unique little tale with a twist.
We have begun the production with a brief week of shooting recently, as we filmed our host, actor Nick Mancuso, and recorded his voice for the narrations for the first six episodes and the opening sequence that starts each episode. We also did some filming for the visuals for the opening sequence and a short promo we are preparing, which will go on line on our RIFS website (www.rifs.it) before long, once its editing is completed.
The first six episodes will be shot over the fall and released sometime in the winter or early spring. We will then prep the next 6 episodes and continue producing them as long as there is an audience. We have 18 episodes ready to produce at the moment, each a unique, twisted wonderful and macabre little piece of storytelling.
Q: You have worked in the U.S. and European film industries. What are the positives and negatives of being on either side of the Atlantic?
Carl Haber: This is a complex question to answer with any brevity, but let me try. Ultimately, filmmaking is filmmaking, and storytelling is storytelling. But there are cultural differences of course from country to country, not just comparing the U.S. to Europe as a whole. French films differ from British films, from German films, from Irish films from Italian films, and so on. The work itself is not all that different. Crews work very much the same way, though people’s characters tend to be different, again depending on the cultural setting and context.
One trivial but telling difference is that Italian crews have wine with their lunches. But a more important distinction is the fact that in the U.S. there is an industrial element: the size and scope of productions tend to be greater, much greater, whereas European productions are more like U.S. independent films. TV is produced very much the same way, similar schedules and budgets, with the exception of the more recent high-level HBO-style TV series in the U.S., which are produced more like features.
For me, however, the difference that matters to me is not so much about the filmmaking but the quality of life. People in Italy work to live. In the U.S. many live to work. Overall there is more communication between people in Italy, people are open, free to express themselves more, less fearful in general. In Rome you don’t have the problem of guns and gun crime there is in the U.S. You can walk safely at night without looking over your shoulder. In Italy there is a national free health care and cheap medicine, so if you get sick you’re covered. Even foreigners coming, if involved in an accident, will find their treatment free. Residents of course are enrolled in the national health plan and there are no issues of insurance or red tape of that nature. Costs are far lower to stay healthy. Food is better, fruit tastes like fruit, vegetables are not sprayed with poisons as they are in the U.S. Markets are abundant, and there is more likelihood to have a slow meal than fast food. People as a result live longer, and enjoy life more. This quality of life then infiltrates the art, and of course the filmmaking. Stories tend to be more personal, more authentic, less gimmicky, less reliant on spectacle and visual effects.
That is not to say that no European films go in that direction, as of course some do. But mainly the films are reflective of the lives people lead and the cultures in which they operate.
The other day, I was watching a toddler playing in a park. He was making lots of noise, yelling, screaming “BAM, POW, WHAM!” and that kind of thing. It dawned on me that he sounded very much like a U.S. action movie. In fact, in many ways the U.S. blockbuster tent-pole film is very much like the soundtrack of that toddler. European films tend to be a bit more adult perhaps.
Q: What are your goals for the RIFS?
Carl Haber: As I said, we want RIFS to become one of the prestige film schools in the world, where students from around the globe come, study, work together, make films and create lifelong relationships. We aim to be a center of production, where our students’ films and those we produce independently as well, are seen in festivals, win awards, get distribution and make some positive effect on the world. We want our students to be able to go out into the field and find success wherever they choose to live and work. And we hope to be a meeting point for major cultural events and activities, bringing people together from disparate parts of the world.
Ultimately, art and culture can and should be a tool for peace and understanding. Given the conflicts we’re experiencing nowadays, this can only be a positive influence. Ultimately we want RIFS to be all those things, a renowned school, a center of great filmmaking, a breeding ground for art, culture and understanding, and a source of pride for Rome itself.