The NFTS’s Lynda Myles tells Louise Tutt why she believes film schools give hopeful film-makers the best possible start.

Who wouldn’t want to go to film school? The joyous intensity with which Lynda Myles, head of fiction direction at the UK’s National Film and Television School (NFTS), talks about the experience makes one wonder why aspiring directors ever consider anything else.

“I am passionate about film schools,” says Myles. “[Directors] need to know so much they can’t learn it without going to film school.”

Myles, a former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the producer of films including The Commitments, The Van and When Brendan Met Trudy, oversees the two-year directing course at the school, alongside senior tutor Ian Sellar, renowned cinematographer Brian Tufano and veteran editor Roger Crittenden. Leading UK directors including Stephen Frears, Mike Newell, Brian Gilbert, Udayan Prasad and Roger Michell regularly drop in to work with the student film-makers. “Stephen is in virtually every day when he isn’t shooting,” says Myles.

The NFTS, under director Nik Powell, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It offers courses in every aspect of film-making, including writing, editing, composing and production design.

Each year, Myles receives more than 300 applications from all around the world for just eight places on the directing fiction course. “They tend to be pretty special,” Myles says of the successful applicants. “They may not have a distinctive voice but we see something in them. You see the voice is sort of there and you work with them to help them find it, make it more rigorous, give it more depth.”

Myles believes the NFTS is unique with such a non-prescriptive approach. “With some [other] film school graduates, you can see where they went to school in their films. I like them all to have their own voice.”

Of the 12 directors showcased by Screen as the 2011 Stars of Tomorrow, three of them are recent graduates of Myles’ directing course: Robert McKillop (who graduated in 2010), Michael Pearce (2007) and Stefan Georgiou (2006).

‘You can’t have that intensity of experience without going to film school’

Lynda Myles, NFTS

“With Robbie McKillop, for example, his voice wasn’t clear but I saw an energy and I have seen how it has developed,” says Myles. “[McKillop’s graduation film] Strays is such a confident, high-energy work. It’s all about them growing in confidence. And I’m a great believer in them learning from each other.”

The crucial thing the NFTS course gives its students, says Myles, is the ability to make film after film after film.

“There is constant discussion, analysis and review with Stephen Frears and the senior tutors. You learn what to listen to and what not to,” she explains. “And they can never do enough on mise-en-scene, on performance, on working with actors, on understanding what professional actors need from them.”

As part of the course, each student directs a 15-minute play at London’s Soho Theatre, giving them the chance to work with professional actors.

“Until they come to us they usually haven’t worked with actors, it has been [with] friends,” Myles explains. “And they’re terrified. What we do is break down that fear. When they watch people like Mike Newell or Roger Michell work, they can’t believe how relaxed and confident they are with actors.

“Someone like Stephen Frears has so many flying hours behind him that when he’s filming he has such a sense of all the possibilities. You can’t have that if you haven’t made a lot of movies.”

Of course, not everyone can afford the fees and the cost of student life in London for two years. While Myles admits this, she points out through fundraising activities and corporate partnerships the NFTS does everything it can to provide scholarships, grants and bursaries to help fund places for any UK director offered one of the coveted eight slots.

And Myles, as the first chair of Women in Film and Television in the UK, is also thrilled women directors regularly feature prominently on the course (illustrious NFTS alumni include Lynne Ramsay and Sarah Gavron). However, Myles is keen to do more and promote the course to women directors to persuade them to apply in greater numbers.

Myles tries to fit as much as possible into the precious two years she works with the film-makers. “Theatre, drama, cooking, literature, visual art. I believe the directors should know about all of these. As much as we can fit into the two years. I wish we had an extra year! You can’t have that intensity of experience without going to film school.

“You have to be committed. It’s tough and vigorous. It’s very demanding. But then, film-making is demanding.”