Film School Or Not: A Chat with R.J. Lozada

An interview with filmmaker and current film student RJ Lozada, who was my director of photography, co-producer and key collaborator on my first documentary feature, Among B-Boys.

Chris: So let’s begin… What up RJ! How’s it going?
What are you working on?

RJ: Hi Chris! I’m doing all right, keeping busy with school and keeping calm as this quarter comes to a close. I’m currently working on my MFA in Documentary Filmmaking at Stanford University. We do a short documentary every quarter and this quarter I’m doing a personal documentary on fatherhood.

Chris: So we’ve worked together and known each other for awhile, and even before entering your program you were a storyteller and documentarian in your own right. What spurred the decision to enroll (besides the fact that it’s… Stanford)?

RJ: Thanks for the validation, brother! Yes, long before I enrolled at Stanford I was a storyteller. In high school, I experimented with the storytelling form with really simple projects with a hi-8 video camera. I also cite that period as the time I really fell in love with world cinema. This love affair really flowered in my undergraduate years at UC San Diego, where I majored in Visual Arts (Film and Video). I played with 16mm film, and really expanded my knowledge of all things related to the big screen.

It was also in this period that I had to support myself, pay bills. So work included anything from working at a music store to working as a Media instructor with youth in San Diego. That became the pattern of my life – work and storytelling. Over time, paid work really took up a lot of my life, and while I still managed to do radio pieces, or short videos with organizations — I also started to observe the plateau as a result of a lack of focus.

This plateau soon became toxic and my day job AND my filmmaking/storytelling started to suffer. So, after some soul searching and gathering the gall to take a calculated risk, I threw all in for grad school.

Chris: Wow, I think a lot of people will be able to relate to the work induced art plateau. So now that you are there, in what ways has film school reinspired your creative process?

RJ: Film school has reinvigorated my creative process by GIVING ME BACK MY TIME. Of course that’s mostly true as it’s a two year program, and on a quarter system — but I’ve regained the 80+ hours I would burn every week on both a day job and producing work (radio/video/photo).

Additionally, film school has put me in an environment of like minded, tenacious, and equally talented folks. I feel really blessed to be part of a cohort (8 of us in the crew, whom we affectionately identify as Unit B).

Being around your peers where you’re experiencing each other’s processes and struggles is such an enriching experience as opposed to working in the freelance world, where you’re alone and subject to market forces, you know, making a living.

Finally, the mentorship and the advising is top notch. Getting constant feedback, be it decimating or ego-inflating has me constantly engaged with the process in a way that isn’t readily available or constructive in the outside world.

I love it here. I’m thankful to be here. I do deserve to be here because I worked hard enough.

Chris: How has it matched up to your expectations? What have been the surprises?

RJ: It has exceeded my expectations. The program manages to strike the balance of being an art school and understanding the game, the hustle of becoming a full-time documentary filmmaker. I’ve told folks that I really wanted to treat this MFA experience as an MBA, and all that really means is that I needed to be aware of what can come next after this program–which is trying to strike out on my own, or as part of a collective, doing commercial work and passion projects.

The surprises? It’s a small art program, and it’s a private school with limited financial resources to assist you. These seem to be prime elements to create a toxic and competitive environment. NOT SO. I’ve been taken time and time again at the generosity and grace of my peers. There seems to be an understanding to uplift each other and each other’s work, and that we’re all in this together to tell good stories on the screen.

Another surprise that I take for granted is really grounding my understanding of the non-fiction form as still a fictional form. I don’t have to adhere to conventional documentary methods, I don’t have to stick to the interview format. We’re an art school, not a journalism program. To that, I’ve become more attentive to form and really opening my head up to the possibilities of expressing truth.

Chris: Awesome! And this leads perfectly to my next question… since the blog also focuses on film AND technology, what ways has the program helped prepare you for the technology (current and future) of documentary film? And what other ways is film school helping you think forward in your career after school?

RJ: The program has geared us to be mindful that cameras are actually more like computers. That being said, we’re started on the fundamentals — 16mm film, and have moved up to working with the Sony F5. The fundamental concepts of understanding light, dynamic range, and color are still there, except we have to really think about post-production in ways that aren’t part of the outside world. I know color grading/correction was always something that you had the option to do, but in this program, color grading/correction is a necessity.

The program gives us access to these newer technologies so that we’re mindful, of course, with the caveat that technology shifts and as long as you have the basic concepts solidly in your mental workflow, then understanding camera’s technological progression isn’t as daunting.

The other ways that film school is helping me is prepping my mental game to the long road ahead. Part of that is really coming to terms with the completion of your film being distribution, getting it onto screens. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but it’s quite short-sighted to consider your film done when your color is graded, and your sound is mixed down. The film isn’t done till you’ve figured out a way to get as many butts in the theaters and eyes on the screen. To that, there’s a whole other timeline that’s looked over in post-production, and this program is helping me create a map to understand the terrain.

Chris: Thanks for the great insight! Any last words for anybody on the fence, considering enrollment or application into an MFA in Film Production?

RJ: Thanks for having me, Chris. Last words?

If you’re on the fence take a week ‘vacation’ to really map out your aspirations. Also take that week to asses how far you’ve come. This will help mitigate anxiety and challenges (either self-induced, or from the sensible-minded friends/family around you) that keep you on the fence.
If the program your considering is geographically accessible, attend the student screenings, and other opportunities to meet faculty and other graduate students. Part of the reason why I think I got in was because I showed them I wanted in the program.

Don’t slack on your personal statement, and creating your portfolio, get at least two people (these are the folks who were piviotal to making me into a solid candidate) to help you edit and give yourself hella time. If you have to take it, don’t sweat the GRE too much, I got an abysmal score, and I knew I was going to get a terrible score — so as soon as I got over that bullshit (which it is), I was more productive in getting the rest of the package put together.

Be nice to yourself — whether MFA or BA, grants, fellowships, jobs or otherwise, applications are designed to challenge your ego and constitution. They’re designed to make yourself a champion, but to also be real with yourself. It’s remarkable how psychologically taxing it all is, but not altogether surprising.
Good luck!