COVID-19 began to gain momentum in the last semester of Lampson’s senior year of high school. But that didn’t deter him from going straight to college. Lampson applied to half a dozen screenwriting programs with New York University and University of Southern California as his top two choices. He decided on the Film and Television Writing program at USC School of Cinematic Arts.
“Living in Los Angeles gives you more opportunities in film,” Lampson says, “and I think we’re entering—knock on wood—the better days of the pandemic. Things are improving here, in terms of vaccinations. Things are opening back up.”
He also attributes enrolling at USC for the convenience of being close to relatives—and plenty of sun. “I think it’s a coastal thing, too. East coast kids are usually drawn to NYU, while kids from Arizona, Colorado, California, and Washington, they’re drawn to USC and surrounding schools, like Chapman. For me, there wasn’t a clear winner between NYU and USC—I just love Los Angeles more and knew I’d like to live here.”
“The pandemic put a lot of different film schools on equal playing fields,” Lampson continues. “The half-million dollar facilities, sound stages, and equipment some schools have don’t matter right now. It’s about what they’re doing for students in terms of online education, internships, and mental health.”
Growing up in West Linn, Oregon, a small town outside of Portland, Lampson says he was a typical “film kid” who aspired to move to Hollywood. He devoured everything he could about film from a young age, including DIY horror movie books inspired by his first film idol, Alfred Hitchcock.
“When I was seven or eight years old, all I wanted to do was watch movies. I saw Psycho, and that was just it for me. I didn't like that I was being manipulated. Even when you’re a kid, you can see that the Hitchcock really knew how to control somebody. I kind of just sat there, and I was like, ‘I need to figure out how this works.’ By the time I was 14 years old, I started writing scripts; in high school, I was preparing to become a screenwriter.”
Enrolling at USC School of Cinematic Arts shifted Lampson’s perspective about the industry in a big way. His golden rule: no ego. “Before you go to film school, you might think that you’re the best filmmaker for this type of genre or subject,” he explains. “Then you realize that there’s someone else out there that knows about that or has better skills.”
Even before the pandemic, the on-campus experience for USC Film and Television Writing majors didn’t prioritize organizing sets or camerawork. That was why Lampson wasn’t concerned that he would see any gaps in quality or consistency of instruction. Being a freshman has made it easier for him to embrace a non-traditional film school experience, which includes social distancing and mask protocols.
Lampson reflects on the pros and cons of starting film school in the pandemic: “Unlike the juniors and seniors at USC, I don’t know what I would have been missing. But being holed up is challenging, not only as a film school student but also as a college student. Meeting people, trying to foster relationships while you’re trying to be responsible and not be around more than five people at a time—it’s not easy. I think the writer’s life is a solitary one, though. The real challenge beneath the surface inconveniences is an internal one. It’s finding the motivation to do the work, to sit down and actually write the thing.”
Many students who aspire to work in film struggle with the undergraduate vs. graduate major debate. For Lampson, a lifelong love of screenwriting motivated him to start his film career as soon as possible. “Undergrad film students have to work hard to catch up on life experience vs. grad students, which is tough in the pandemic. But broadening your horizons can also look like watching foreign movies or reading something you normally wouldn’t read. It’s about expanding your mind.”
He compares the practice to David Lynch’s Transcendental Meditation technique, a form of introspective meditation the director started in 1973 to enhance performance and creativity. “I think [meditation] is worth exploring since, to be a writer, you have to be very internal. It’s not as easy to do with a roommate, but trying to develop your mind is a great thing during this time.”
USC offers six other divisions of study: Animation and Digital Arts, Cinema and Media Studies, Interactive Media and Games, Producing Program, Writing for Film and Television. There is also the Summer @ SCA program, an intensive, six-week program open to film enthusiasts ages 16 and over; the program moved online for 2021.
In addition, through webinars that bring together thousands of USC students, Lampson has formed connections within and outside his department. He enjoys interacting with film majors in the Media Arts + Practice division, which explores virtual reality, 3D, and different forms of sound design. “Their work reflects what’s going on in the world right now. The kids in that division are wildly inventive, smart, and creative; it’s interesting to connect with them.”
The pandemic has had an overall positive effect on Lampson’s creative process. Experts attest that creativity is an antidote to pandemic anxiety; it explains why so many artists like Lampson have found their greatest success in these difficult times. “When this was first going on in April or May last year, I was able to bust out a feature I had been trying to make for a while. Having a surplus of time to create was helpful," Lampson says, "although I’ve done more thinking about where the industry is going. That for a while, we’ll have to plan with a lower number of characters and sets in mind.”
USC School of Cinematic Arts professors work closely with students to help them carve out their voices before they pick up equipment. First year writing classes shift students’ attention on to their interior worlds, underscoring that movies can be pitched, written, and produced in any circumstance—even a pandemic.
“I’m taking a class called Breaking The Story, which is about pitching,” Lampson explains. “Every week, you look at what you’re feeling—something makes you angry, an experience that elicited a certain response—and you pitch a movie, a show, or a limited series based on that. It’s a very practical class for pandemic times because it gives you an arsenal of ideas you can use after this is over.”
For film school students—and writers—who struggle to find their muse in COVID-19, Lampson attests that it’s not about holding perfect, fully formed ideas. “You have seeds of ideas every day, and only you can turn them into something. There's not really a magic touch that you or I or anyone has to do that. It's just about being able to sit down and write. That's the hardest part: being able to follow through on your potential.”
When he considers what life might look like as a sophomore at USC and beyond, Lampson is cautiously optimistic. “In some ways, there has never been a more unequal time in the film industry. But I think that there’s also an effort being made to democratize [film], along with making the admissions process to film school more equitable. There are free seminars through universities and public forums. People from different film backgrounds are coming together and helping each other with what resources they do have. I encourage all students and aspiring filmmakers to seek these things out.”
To learn more about Nolan, visit his website or follow him on Instagram. You can also contact him at his FilmSchool.org profile @kukichiyo3.
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