Courtney Cilman

You’re a film student at Columbia. Did you always grow up exploring the arts?
I did a lot of community theatre as a kid, which meant musical theatre, chorus, and even opera. I’m a classically-trained singer actually. Theatre and film tend to meld together, so the transition was seamless. I honestly can’t remember my first experience with film because it’s been so long.

When did you decide to go from in front of the camera to behind the camera?
I actually still act. I realized that many actors don’t actually know the mechanics of a set, how to make a film, how to work a camera, how a set really works. These are all important skills to have if you are serious about this industry. Plus I like doing a bit of everything.

You completed your undergraduate degree at Penn. Did you also study film there?
I studied political communication. The Annenberg program was great because it does a good job of teaching you media as a business. I learned about the hierarchy of a network, for example. I never thought of film as something that exists in a market and is sellable, but Annenberg taught me about film as an industry and how to approach it from a business standpoint.

So then at Columbia, are you focusing more on honing the technical skills and developing your style?
Columbia is just everything. It’s essentially film boot-camp. You make a lot of films while you are there and wear a lot of different hats. I have to produce, direct, screenwrite, do hair, do wardrobe, do make-up, script supervise, handle locations. It is about getting the muscles. The school does an amazing job of handling the creative and business. They want to make sure that the students can make money off of their films and build careers, so they constantly remind us that it is a job and not just a hobby.

Captain Cyborg (2016) from Zack Morrison on Vimeo.

When it comes to script writing, what’s your approach?
It’s amazing how many stories are out there if you look hard enough. I feel like people think screenwriters get a lightning bolt from the gods and that’s how they write, but most of my stories have been small anecdotes that I pick up by watching the news and paying attention to the real world. That said, I have random stuff that I have written and have no idea how I came up with it.

Can you give an example?
I had one story about a muppet that gets murdered and made into a scarf. It was just word vomit that turned into something. I’m kind of inspired right now by social media. I wrote a pilot that I am going to use as a thesis, called #SQUAD. It’s about a group of super-famous girls on Instagram who can’t get their shit together in real life. I’ve been thinking a lot about social media and how it is all a lie.

Do you find that social media is a strong influence within the film industry when it comes to casting?
Absolutely. I’m working for Amy Talkington right now and it’s amazing because she has a few wonderful features. One is at Universal Studios and the other is being shopped around. While being her intern, I’ve noticed that the studio system is so quick to ask about how many followers people have – from actors to behind-the-scenes. Social media is used to vet people’s abilities and qualities. That’s stupid though because most good artists don’t give a fuck about Instagram; they’re too busy making art. It’s limiting and unfortunate because you have creative creators who don’t get the jobs because they don’t know how to harness the tool of social media. Studios will go with the director who has 400,000 followers versus 3,000.

I knew that this was a trend in the fashion industry, where designers will cast models with larger followings. I didn’t know it was also common in the film industry.
They have a term called influencers. Studios want – especially for actors – a high following because they see it as free promotion and so it will reach way more eyeballs. It’s too easy for people to inflate that. There’s no safeguard about people being dishonest.

As a director or a producer, who do you find yourself drawing inspiration from?
I love David Fincher’s work. Aaron Sorkin’s writing never ceases to floor me. I’m also very inspired by TV, almost more so than features. Some of the best work in the film world is coming out of TV like House of Cards and Game of Thrones. Netflix and HBO are killing it right now. Silicon Valley is hilarious. I’m a mixed bag. I just look for things that are really character-driven.

So then actor-wise, who do you hope to cast one day?
Robin Wright or anyone from the cast of House of Cards and Game of Thrones. I also fan-girl hard over Emma Watson. She’s amazing.

The Unstoppable Billy Greenwood from Evan Robinson on Vimeo.

I know that you’ve gone to several film festivals, like the famous Cannes. Tell us about that experience. As someone who has never been to a film festival, I’m interested in your experiences at these festivals. Do you go as a student or as a independent director?
For Cannes, I went as both. I was there to shop a feature film I’ve worked on but also went through Columbia. It was the best of both worlds. Cannes is interesting because it’s a huge international film market. Every single important player is within a one-mile radius for the month of May. There’s something happening everyday. There’s a screening at 7am and these screenings and events will go until 3am, and then that schedule repeats the next day. It was unbelievable to see how crazy a festival like that is and just the sheer scale of it. You don’t realize how many moving parts there are until you get there.

And have you been to smaller-scale festivals?
I have. Every festival is different. I had a short at the Nantucket Film Festival, but I also made it into the GI Film Festival.

GI, like military? How did that happen?
I had a short called The Unstoppable Billy Greenwood, which is about an officer in the military who inform families that their loved ones were killed in action. Festivals like the GI Film Festival are so niche. They’re not there to do business but rather to tell stories and celebrate a specific kind of experience. That’s so different than Cannes, because Cannes celebrates art but also exists to be a market.

At these festivals, especially one as large-scale as Cannes, have you ever gotten star-struck?
I don’t get star-struck too easily because I just remember that everybody poops. [Laughs] One person I was very impressed by was the creator of IMDB. I wasn’t star-struck but rather his story was inspiring. He had a notebook with the movies he watched and the accompanying directors listed, and when he got a computer, he started typing up the list. Once the internet developed, he put it online and compiled it. Now, IMDB is owned by Amazon and is like a LinkedIn for the film community.  It’s amazing how an idea, like a tiny seed, can become something much bigger.

Do you find that there is still a ratio imbalance of men to women in the film industry?
There’s a large imbalance. It’s harder to find women who want to be behind the camera. It’s a physical life; you’re on your feet all day. It’s not by any means glamorous. It’s certainly not a good look. [Laughs] I’ve been grateful that there are many great female filmmakers at Columbia that are killing it. The women in my program are the most inspiring people I’ve met.

We’ve been talking about small-versus-large film festivals and the ratio of men-versus-women in the industry. What about the film scene in the east-versus-west coast? Is there a notable difference?
There’s a huge difference. New York is great for independent filmmakers. You can shoot anywhere because there’s a law that says that as long as I don’t hang up certain lights or put down a tripod, I can shoot anywhere. You don’t need permits, which is amazing. At the same time, what goes along with it is everyone is making things cheaply and no one is getting paid a lot. It is very much the starving artist story, which makes it difficult to pull in money. In LA film is their industry. It’s more corporate and unionized. There’s a more red tape to get through but if you do, you can buy dinner.

So at the end of the day, how do you de-stress from all of this?
I do a shit ton of yoga. I started seven years ago with bikram. I did this 60-day challenge, and after that I never did bikram again. Now I do ashtanga and vinyasa at studios and am addicted to handstands.

At a bar, what do you order?
A greyhound.

Let Go from Theresa Picciallo on Vimeo.

What books have you recently read?
I just finished Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. Some good ones I’ve read the past few months: Disgrace by JM Coetzee, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishguro and The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm.

Describe your ideal food day.
I really like Dudley’s in Soho for brunch, The Wood in LA for lunch, and Tinto in Philadelphia for dinner.

And lastly, how do you define beauty?
I think beauty is knowing exactly who you are and spending every day being the best version of it.


For more of Courtney’s work, check out her IMDB and her new film, Elle