Q& A With Danni (aka IndecisiveElle), Chapman Directing MFA Student

“Film School is still Graduate School... you're still getting a master's and there's still traditional work that has to be done. And a lot of people just thought like, oh well I’ll just come here and make a bunch of movies.”


Danni sitting with camera in kitchen - for her very first assignment where she had to show a single character, with no dialogue, making a live changing decision.
Recently I spoke with Danni (aka @IndecisiveElle ) about her experience so far during her first year at Chapman’s Directing program. Long story short she loves it… but it’s A LOT of work.

The day to day life at Chapman

One thing became pretty clear while talking to her... You’re going to work very hard at Chapman… 6 days a week… 12 hours a day.

“What's interesting about the way the classes are scheduled with the Grad program at Chapman is a lot of them are our evening classes. And if I'm not in a class, I'm usually this semester getting lunch with somebody that's on my crew, like my DP and I spend a ton of time together doing meetings for the other projects that I'm involved in. A lot of that work is having meetings with people, even if it's just a concept meeting to talk your way through a project.”

You would think not having classes during the day means you have a lot of free time right? No. When you’re not in class… you’re studying or preparing or working on your short films.

“It's completely different and it's not even like freelancing when you're in Grad school because when I was freelancing and I would work 12 hours a day, five days a week at least there is an end to that, like a couple of weeks of it and then I'd be done and I could catch up on things. But there is, there is no catch up time in Grad school. I'll be working all the way over spring break. I work overall a Thanksgiving break and the option to work overall of winter break because Chapman has interim classes..

But it is constant, constant. And then somewhere in there I try and make time to actually like, you know, bathe and shower and take care of my dog.”

In addition to working on your films there are also traditional lectures and filmmaking courses… with a lot of textbooks, homework, and even midterms. Lectures are held in a movie theater. “...which is kinda neat. Last semester we had a course in pre-production and production...this semester we have a course in post-production. And those are much more traditional lectures that have readings that are being pulled from textbook that will have a midterm and a final and a paper that's something that I accounted for but I noticed most of my fellow classmates did not think of... Film School is still Graduate School... you're still getting a master's and there's still traditional work that has to be done. And a lot of people just thought like, oh well I’ll just come here and make a bunch of movies.”

2 Exercises, 2 “Cycle” Films, and a Thesis


Two actors on a bench - my second 3-2-1 behind the scenes. We were setting up for a wide shot. The guy in the Hawiian shirt was my 1st AD Ryan Murtha. Actors are Allie Davis and Ryan Q. Tran.

Chapman’s Directing program is a three year program and each year has students working on various different projects to prepare for the third year - which is just your thesis film. Each project get progressively more complicated to help you build up your skill set to prepare you for your thesis.

Year 1 consists of shooting two exercises during the fall semester. Exercises are 3 pages scripts with 2 characters and one location. No child actors, no stunts, Non-SAG and the exercise films are shot of A7S Cameras.


Green wall paper room - set design for my first 3-2-1 assignment. I did all the design myself. it was a plain white living room before hand.

In the Spring semester you shoot the first of two of what Chapman calls “Cycle” films. Cycle films are basically short films that progressively get more complicated as you hone your skills. The first cycle film is shot on a Sony F5 or F55 cameras and you get $1,500 in funding from school and you can use SAG actors.

“First [cycle films] is limited to eight pages. It must be shot within a 30 mile zone of Chapman. You're not allowed to do stunts on the first one.” You’re allowed to use child actors if you want to but “everybody was like, no, we don't want to do with that extra thing.“

“They’re very strict about the hours that we work each other, turnaround, like all the stuff that you would expect in the real world... Like you, you must have your permits… We have a campus Grad level production manager that has to approve every single script, every call sheet, every shooting location to make sure things are being done properly.”


Me with Ryan and Allie talking between takes.

Chapman really strives to create a good relationship between the different disciplines to tell better stories. The exercises and cycle films are all written by students in the Screenwriting track and edited by students in the editing track.

“So for this first cycle we have a large pool, which is all 18 screenwriters can submit up to three scripts into a pool for all 18 directors to pick and choose what they want from but we are contractually obligated to work hand in hand with that screenwriter.”

Year 2 is where you make your second “Cycle” film which is a 15 page script. You shoot in the Fall and edit in the Spring while you prepare for your thesis film.

“Each of these different films and projects to sort of build the skill set you want, hone your voice or try out new techniques or whatever it is. So that's kind of how I'm using each of them. They're not necessarily all premise short films, but they all tie into bigger concepts and stories and characters and techniques that I want to explore when I have hopefully the opportunity to do pictures and TV after Chapman.”


Editing lab with my DP on the 3-2-1 JD Arterberry

Year 3 is where you shoot and edit your thesis film which can be shot on any camera and you get priority access to stages and equipment. Most of the thesis films are 15 to 20 minutes long but there are no requirements.

“Most of the students try to be really strategic because this is their showcase piece that they want to get into festivals and the whole strategy that people have had for years is 15 minutes is a good length for that. I think that's changing. I have a friend who graduated last spring who's got like a 30 minute thesis film. It's an LGBTQ horror film and it's done really well at 30 minutes... I've also seen some thesis films that are like seven or 10 minutes... You get all the leeway that you want.”

On Chapman preparing her to get a job…

“I think it's totally like the cliche answer to say it is what you make of it. Yeah. But I think it's really accurate”


Chapman does a lot of work to prepare you for the “real world” of filmmaking and has their students do all of the exercises and shorts “by the book”.

“I think it's totally like the cliche answer to say it is what you make of it. Yeah. But I think it's really accurate. So the faculty, particularly in the people I've had instructed my directing and producing workshops are really pragmatic and great about saying ‘this is how you do at tech scout in the real world’. ‘This is how you communicate between department heads in the real world’ and kind of setting people up to understand that the way things run in film school is not how things run in the real world... So I think as long as people are really open and listening and absorbing all of that information is getting the content that you need to be prepared.

I think the flip side of that is you have, you have to also be realistic in some about what life after film school is going to be if you don't have professional experience... unless you're some sort of a wonder kid you're not going to walk out of the any Grad school in to directing the next Marvel movie. It just doesn't, it doesn't happen. You're not ready for it.

You can't experience being on a real, a $20 million set without doing it yourself. And for a lot of people, that means spending time as a PA, as an assistant, whether it's like a director's assistant or an executive assistant, you know, or being a loader in camera… And at the end of the day, a lot of the film industry really values people who work their way up because there's a necessary building blocks of skills.”


Selfie with a fellow FilmSchool.org user Shirley Zhang! She was my 2nd AD last weekend for Ryan's cycle film. She was recently admitted for the producing MFA for this fall.

On what she wishes she knew beforehand...

“One of the biggest things that I wish I had spent more time getting a good handle on is financing... Cause cause when you're applying, you know, you're just thinking, oh I'll figure it out when I get there. There's no point in looking into it until I get there. And then once I get in then I'll figure it all out. But I think that's a huge mistake. And I feel like the last couple of years on the forums I've seen people get in and then they figure out they can't afford to go where they want to go for. They can't afford to go at all. And it's heartbreaking…

I wish I kind of spent more time really sitting down either with my parents or some sort of financial advisers or somebody I trust that I know it was good with money and really putting everything on a piece of paper.”

You can reach out to Danni with your own questions by messaging her at @IndecisiveElle.
About author
Chris W
Owner of FilmSchool.org and working as a Film & TV editor and producer in Los Angeles since 2001. Boston University College of Communication Class of 1999 for film (BS).


This is so cool! I love seeing an explanation of how things function at different programs.

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