Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Motivation Matters: A Conversation with Young Filmmaker Isaac Schrem

vonzastrowc's picture

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.

Greetings from

Greetings from Montana!!!

After reading this inspiring story, I thought you might be interested in a pretty cool media program here in the Bitterroot Valley in rural Western, Montana.

In 2004, we created MAPS: Media Arts in the Public Schools. (The website is www.mediarts.org or http://www.youtube.com/user/peterrosten). The initial goal was to educate under-served, rural students in the media arts and since ‘movies’ are cool, there was a healthy and eager response.

In 2005, The MAPS mission added the word “train” to “educate” because the Ravalli County DUI Task Force hired our students (for a modest fee) to produce a couple of TV spots. Several months later, the completed spots aired statewide on the CBS television affiliates and a big thank you to DUI honcho, Glenda Wiles.

In 2006, the MAPS mission statement expanded again: “To Inspire, Educate, Train and Create Quality Jobs for Montana Youth”. After the “DUI” public services announcements, MAPS kids produced professional assignments for local, state and national clients. Last year, they had commercials running in 38 states and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) acquired the rights to their “Tobacco Prevention” documentary for distribution to schools nationwide. Pretty cool for any kids, let alone one’s that live in a state that most folks just ‘fly over”.

Some background: From 1969 – 2002, Peter Rosten (that would be me) worked in Hollywood. The majority of my career was a TV and Film writer/producer and sometimes director.

In 1985, my friend and colleague, Jim Kouf , bought a ranch in Montana and he invited me to cowboy up. Well, I fell in love with this ‘last best place’, bought a home in 1992 and was fortunate to retire here in 2002.

A year later, I met a fourth generation Montana woman, Susan Latimer, got married and now have four beautiful, smart, grown children. Note: They are my step kids but I love them as my own…thankfully Susan shares. (And we’ve recently become Grandparents. Yeehah!)

For the record…I’m not nor was I ever a ‘big shot’ in the business. But I did work hard for many years and was employed more often than not. When I started in the late 60’s, my first job was as truck driver for a film company – at the time I was a recycled hippie who just wanted to find his way.

Thankfully, the company I worked for believed in promoting from within, and after six months, they got me out of the truck and into the editing room as an apprentice editor. A couple of years later I got my first job as an editor and then in 1974 produced my first half-hour documentary, “The Greatest Story Never Told”.

Once I realized my forte was producing that’s what I did: dramatic TV series, Feature Films, Commercials, and Reality Shows etc. For details: (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0744578/)

Cut to: 30 years later. I’m retired in Montana and in my early 50’s – way too young not to do something but unsure what to do.

Some facts about our community: Between 2000 and 2007, Ravalli County had one of the fastest growing populations in the state, jumping 12 percent between 2000 and 2007. Census projections indicate that the population will continue to grow, jumping 89.5 percent between 2000 and 2030. In 2005, the most recent year available, 22.4 percent of Ravalli County youth under 18 were living in poverty . This may be partially attributable to the fact that 44 percent of adults in Ravalli County have a high school education or less (www.CEIC.mt.gov) .

Starting in 2000, our former Governor (who appropriately shall remain nameless), decimated education through a series of budget cuts. So much so that five major Montana education organizations filed suit, alleging that the decline in state funding had caused schools across the state to cut programs and staff; were failing to attract and retain teachers, and having difficulty complying with the state's minimum accreditation, performance, and content standards.

In a word, this sucked.

So here I am a semi-vibrant, recent AARP member and looking for something that would re-invigorate my spirits and simultaneously give something to my new community and state.

After a few fits and starts - ranch hand, prospective sushi bar owner, and log home salesman (they didn’t hire me) - the ‘eureka’ moment was the realization that I could teach kids how to make films…producing is what I did and do best. And since I had been an entrepreneur most of my career, I decided to “just do it”.

Two big issues almost sunk MAPS from the start: 1) I wasn’t a teacher and in fact had dropped out of college in 1967. Remember, it was the 60’s and there was a lot going on and college was (at least for me) not relevant. 2) There was no money in the school’s budget to underwrite the program.

Not knowing any better and being somewhat naïve, I managed to convince the Superintendent of Corvallis High School, Daniel Sybrant, that these obstacles were surmountable.

With entrepreneur fires burning, I contacted Montana’s Office of Public Instruction and laid out the proposal for MAPS: Media Arts in the Public Schools. Two people had enormous courage to say ‘yes’ – Superintendent, Linda McCulloch and Certification Head, Al McMilan. Note: in Montana we had an existing “School to Work” program and this was our “in”. But there were two conditions: OPI required that I have a background check – I passed. Two: a certified teacher/mentor and would have to ‘observe’ to insure my classroom behavior was appropriate and effective. I was, after all, from Hollywood.

The money part was easier. I had raised money to make movies and making the ‘ask’ was part of my resume. So, after forming a non-profit foundation (named after my deceased mother, The Florence Prever Rosten Foundation) we started calling everyone and hit them up for dough. Then I added (with Susan’s blessings) about $10,000 of our own.

Daniel Sybrant, bless his heart, was very surprised that OPI approved us. And as I would learn later, he was very apprehensive about having a civilian instructing rural kids.

The irony was that - since I wasn’t a teacher - I wasn’t trained in the tradition of education but rather the etiquette of the workplace. So I interacted with students as co-workers, collaborators and equals. And this choice proved to be one reason for our program’s eventual success. Note: in 2006 I was certified by OPI as a ‘real’ teacher.

Our first year was ‘interesting’ to say the least. We had a middle school and a high school section and it darn near killed me. Next to being a Mom, teaching is (in my opinion) the hardest job there is.

It is said that “making movies is like moving a small army through a war zone” and the MAPS troops were 10 – 18 years old. So when I pointed at the hill we wanted to take, the hardest job was to wrangle them to all go in the same direction. Note: we dropped the middle school program after the first year…those dear kids were just not ready and neither was I.

But we did get some things done: MAPS got off the ground, students produced their first short film, “French Love” and I received the “Corvallis Volunteer of the Year” award.

In 2005, a few more pieces fell into place. The MAPS mission to create jobs
became a reality when the Ravalli County DUI Task Force hired the program to produce public service announcements that aired statewide on Montana’s CBS affiliate television stations. FYI - The success of this client-driven, fee-based project led to more assignments and higher revenues; as a result, quality jobs were created for MAPS students. Note: Last year, the MAPS 14 -18 year old filmmakers crafted television commercials that aired in 38 states and revenues grew to six figures. (Students also produced their second short film, “Soul Sight”, the music video, “Wonderboy”, and I was nominated for the Disney “Teacher of the Year Award” – who’d a thunk?)

One of the cool things about paying clients was (and is) the ability for me to pay our students for the projects. Having financial incentives works and thus combined an educational experience with the workplace environment. E.G., a pathway for learning and achievement after high school.
THE FUTURE: In 2008, the Florence Prever Rosten Foundation approved a growth plan, commencing September 2009, to expand to all five high schools in Ravalli County and open in our own “brick and mortar” facility. Enrollment will commence with students, and for the first time, adult participants.
Renamed the MAPS MEDIA INSTITUTE (MMI), the mission to will continue as a community-based initiative designed to bring hands-on media arts and workforce development experience to Ravalli County, Montana.

MMI’s centralized location will enable expansion to a more diverse pool of participants, including youth who are considered to be at-risk through their exposure to such risk factors as poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunity. Pro-social opportunities will be carefully tailored traditional and non-
traditional modules with an additional emphasis in business skills. This project will foster skills transferable to a wide variety of professional endeavors and conducive to personal growth.

Realistically speaking, only a small percentage of our graduates will earn a living in the media business. But since 99% of employers list a lack of ability to communicate as a problem in the work place, MMI’s ancillary benefits, i.e. a curriculum that fosters behavioral and educational skills, are relevant and transferable to many occupations because they boost communication abilities.

Was MAPS/MMI a ‘thoughtful and ‘brilliantly executed business plan’ – no way.
Our success has been driven by an enormously talented group of students, serendipity, good friends and people in high places who believe in what we do. And because we ‘just did it’ our naïve enthusiasm became a transformational experience for us all.

Finally, there are many, many, people who should be acknowledged for their unflagging support and belief in our program. One that comes to mind is Trevor Laboski, Principal of Corvallis High School. Trevor gave us enormous freedom to push the educational envelope and perform way outside the box. Thankfully, his trust has paid dividends for the school district, and most importantly, our students.

Peter Rosten

P.S. A personal note: our experience in Montana proves that education could be well served by inviting professionals into the schools to share their experience with students. Of course, if they don’t pass the background check…