Learning First Alliance

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Motivation Matters: A Conversation with Young Filmmaker Isaac Schrem

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Last week, teen filmmaker Jasmine Britton told us about the impact of her filmmaking on her life plans and academic prospects. Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, a Brooklyn-based non-profit organization, has reinforced Britton's academic skills and strengthened her motivation to go to college.

This week, we're sharing our recent conversation with Reelworks filmmaker Isaac Schrem, who expands on themes introduced by Britton. Shrem describes how his school's arts programs, together with filmmaking opportunities through Reel Works, shaped his professional aspirations.

Listen to approximately 5 minutes of highlights from our interview (or read through the transcript below):

Interview Highlights
Tell me about the film you made, The Other Side of the Picture.

ISAAC: I was always interested in filmmaking, but I didn't know exactly what I wanted to with it. I went with the phrase, "Write what you know." The one thing that I knew or wanted to understand, at least, at the time, was the situation with my parents, and my father leaving us and going away to Paris. So I went with that story.

It was a very rough topic for me to tackle because I still was having a lot of questions about it. I wasn't in touch with my father. My family was a little dysfunctional from it. [The experience] affected me in a lot of negative ways, and I didn't know really how to cope with it.

I have to say that when I started making the film, Reel Works gave me a mentor and we started just to discuss the situation with my parents. We started to discuss the divorce and all the things that my father was to me, how close we were, and how he just left my life. It was the first time that I actually put it all down on paper. It started to organize my thoughts in the pre-production stage of the film, and it helped me understand things better.

Then, when I actually took the time to organize the questions that I wanted to ask and then go through interviews for my mother, my grandmother, art dealers who knew my father as an artist, and other family members, I started to get some of the answers that I wanted. And some of the answers that I didn't want, but it helped me understand the situation a little better.

Then in the post-production stage, when I watched through all the interview subjects again and again and again, and I pieced together a story, it helped me understand a lot better. In that sense the film, to me, was the first way I was able to express the feelings that I've had about my father and my family through some kind of art medium that I'd always wanted to try.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You talked about all of these different steps you had to go through, simply to create this movie. Do you think [making] the film has actually helped you learn skills you've been using in other areas of your life?

ISAAC: Definitely academically. I've always loved writing. I started looking at my writing a lot more visually. When I looked at my writing visually and I would read it out on the page, I'd look at sentences and I'd look at them as film clips in the movie. I'd be like, “No, this doesn't have to go there, move this here, change that there.” It improved my writing, I think, a great deal and just helped me understand a lot better what I was writing.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you think that it has given you stronger skills even outside of the academic realm?

ISAAC: I felt like I made a film, and I felt like I found a place. I knew after I made my first film, that I wanted to go into the film industry. [Shortly after] my first film I made a second film about a man who received a heart transplant. I got that idea in my health class.

One of the guys who came [to speak in our class] had…I forgot the name of the disease, but he was close to having heart failure. He was in the hospital for six months. Then he got a heart. Somebody donated one when he was on his deathbed, and he became like a son to the woman who donated her son's heart.

[This film] got into the Tribeca Film Festival, Youth Division, and I've been sending it on to other places. This film actually got people telling me that they wanted to become organ donors afterwards. If you do it right, film can change or just open up the opinions of other people.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You mentioned also that you had a very strong mentor in school. Was that college?

ISAAC: This is high school. I always, when I went to high school, in the art department, would get very close with a lot of the teachers. The film historian of the school, he knew everything there was about film. I had another teacher--he was an experimental animator. He ran the video production classes, and he was great.

Then my music professor…He taught me guitar. Actually all the music in The Other Side of the Picture was played by me, but he supervised it. He gave me an [extra] guitar to play on, and I worked very closely with him on a recorder, different sound effects that I could do, and I wrote and composed my own music for it.

All these teachers; they were there for me. They were always there, because I was always putting myself out there and I was always ready to learn.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: On that point, do you think that this kind of work in film could be valuable for all kinds of students in school?

ISAAC: I think if it's taught the right way, everybody would get something out of it. Through film, if you teach it to kids, they might get interested in art, they might get interested in writing, they might get interested in poetry, and all these other mediums. Photography, for example.

I feel like I've gotten a great experience from Reel Works and all the programs that I've done. I definitely had some great mentors and teachers to push me into those programs.

You should always be willing to try new things, and you never know what you might like, and you could find plenty of other things through filmmaking.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Are there any questions I should have asked you, but didn't? And perhaps even lessons you think that people in the education community could take away from your own experience?

ISAAC: The process of working as a team. So with the Channel 13 film that we made, Over Here, about the lives of New Yorkers growing up in the city during World War II, I worked with six other film makers. That's where talent and weaknesses come out, and it was a tough environment. But when you get older, you have to work in a team. In the real film industry, everything is a team effort. You might have the perfect creative vision, but from a business perspective if your producers want something else, you gotta change to that.