Doing the Work: Drew McClellan, LACHSA

by Ersi Danou June 12, 2020
Drew McClellan with his students

Drew McClellan with his students

Doing the Work is a series profiling key recipients of HFPA Philanthropy.

Drew McClellan is a teacher and filmmaker leading Gen-Z’s new creators. A youthful mind and amicable personality, he couldn’t have been better suited to lead the departments of Cinematic and Visual Arts at LACHSA (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts), the famed public arts high school in Los Angeles. That he feels comfortable in his role is apparent to anyone who speaks to him, but there’s a good reason for it. As he puts it, “academia and education have been my family’s business”. With his father being on the faculty of Harvard Business School and then Dean of the graduate business school at Boston College, he grew up in academic settings – school libraries and lounges were his playgrounds. Yet, his own impulse was to follow his mother’s steps, a fine artist, and become a filmmaker. Ultimately, he was influenced by both parents – doing yoga and going on nature walks with mom, while reading the Art of War and strategic finance books after dad’s recommendations: “It was this yin and yang for me”.

“But I always loved movies,” he declared. After graduating from Howard University in English and working for an advertising company in Boston as a filmmaker, McClellan was ready to make the leap to Hollywood. His father agreed to pay for one week only but this did not deter him: “That’s all I need, just give me a week!” he laughed. In Los Angeles, the search for a job by cold calling, emailing and interviewing, led to the realization that going to film school and getting more experience was the thing to do. He ended up enrolling in USC’s graduate film school. The “USC chapter” as he called it, was pivotal:  “[It was my] entrée, the networks, the contacts, the relationships, and the training and education that solidified and validated me as a professional, a filmmaker, an artist”. While studying and working as a teaching assistant, his background in education “came creeping back in. Even if academia was less attractive to him than filmmaking, “academic work on the film side” seemed natural and desirable. 

After landing a job with the W Hotel helping create its visual identity, McClellan made another approach to education and service for the Department of Children and Family Services, as a counselor for kids graduating from the foster care system. Unbeknownst to him, the road for a career in film education was now wide open. In 2016, he started teaching at the newly established Cinematic Arts Department at LACHSA, and a year later he became the chair of the department, leading a vivacious bunch of teenagers into the brave new world of film and media arts.

McClellan is the epitome of a well-rounded educator. He’s forward-thinking but stands on the solid ground of film history. In 2012, when the “industry was flattening”, he enrolled in an intensive global media course in Beijing. “To understand the cinematic language of different cultures and what works in different countries was going to be key for the future,” he reasoned. Already possessing a strong base in artistic training, he now wanted to grasp “how the business functions and works from an international perspective”. “I felt like I was on a different planet,” he chuckled. “And that is really a metaphor for filmmaking – you are always trying to figure it all out even if you have done it before.” It was a mind-broadening experience accompanied by the realization that “China doesn’t want to be Hollywood; China wants to understand the Hollywood model so that they can create it within their own country”.

At LACHSA, McClellan has his own world to tend to, the world of the “unapologetic” generation Z: “As filmmakers, they are really fed up with everything that’s come before them to the point that they believe that film started with Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson” he laughed benevolently, talking about his students. He constantly prods them to go back and “understand the language that Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson are borrowing from”. “So, there is a short-sightedness that this generation has,” he went on, “but at the same time that provides the opportunity for them to create in a way that is unique to their own experience.”

“I have watched thousands of student films, I consider myself an expert of student films,” he chuckled. “The thing about this generation is that their voices are unlike anything I’ve seen on streaming or television or films because they’re not adhering to the same language … But I lean into that with them and [I tell them] if that’s true to your soul, I’m not going to tell you it’s wrong”. Then he explained: “I’m a millennial who works with generation Z but my colleagues are baby boomers. I can see both angles. I can see how baby boomers define [things], and why they feel this is the way it works – because it has worked like that for so long. Then I see this generation, which is full of passion but is also tinged with a [sense] they have been done wrong in a lot of ways because their voices are absent”. “There’s a sensitivity within this generation that didn’t exist,” he added. “Both my young male and female filmmakers [create] strong female leads, strong male leads of color, and their characters are defined by what they want – not who they are or what they look like.” “It has been refreshing,” he concluded, “to see that this generation really is looking at things from a lens that is universal. I hope that this stays and is not just a function of them being young”.

McClellan envisions a new “honest and raw” generation of creative professionals using “a visceral language that may not adhere to the tropes and storytelling structures of Hollywood, but [makes us] feel something”. “I think a lot of films have lost that,” he continued. “We’ve gotten comfortable with just a formulaic type of filmmaking, and this generation is bringing back and putting emphasis on viscerally evoking emotion from the audiences.”

“Helping [students] understand the structure of a story is what I start with,” he said referring to his teaching method. “From there, they are free to create and play in that sandbox. The trick is to not let them know they are playing in a … box. So long as I’m guiding them, keeping them on track, then I know at the end of it, there will be something really unique and pure but also that adheres to the story structure we as human beings are hard-wired to understand.”

An “unstructured structure” may be the key to LACHSA students’ success in expressing themselves cinematically, and to the school’s effectiveness overall. “The first year is about building confidence and dissolving the impostor syndrome. [Students] get [to LACHSA], they look at the seniors and they feel that they’ll never be as good as them. What we tell them is – you are seeing them four years after incubation, when they first started they were as wide-eyed and terrified as you are. So, all you gotta do is put one foot after the other and don’t try to run. You will see with every film and every project how much you evolve”. The second year emphasizes exposure to film history classes, while in the third and fourth the students begin to apply their knowledge and education to practice. This is when they are encouraged to make films and showcase them in the eight film festivals that the program offers. In the end, the students are “incredibly sharp, and they can go off and make a film in two weeks from conception to completion”.

In the Covid-19 time, LACHSA, like every other school in Los Angeles, had to go on remote-learning mode. I asked McClellan if there is anything positive in his view about these new ways of thinking and creating. He jumped on the question with familiar enthusiasm, “I do,” he said and proceeded to refer to Isaac Newton coming up with the theory of gravity during the quarantine for the bubonic plague. “There is something about isolation that as artists we need … it’s a time to reset. There are a lot of individuals that find this [situation] scary but that will fade and we’ll get back to work,” he said reassuringly. “I do think we’re going to see a lot of incredible work coming out of this period,” he added. “[The pandemic] has shaped our society and civilization, how we look at things, and the value we place on things. I do think it’s going to get us back to the simple things that are enjoyable in our life – our relationships, our family, our friends, our health – the important things!”

Though there will always be a need for “Marvel and escapism”, McClellan believes that most people want “something that reflects their own experience”. He predicts that filmmakers will return to more fundamental stories about human nature. How this trend, though, is going to affect actual moviemaking, no one can be sure. Isolating crews and taking longer to complete production could be one foreseeable effect. McClellan pictures “little pockets of artists moving in a bubble until there is a vaccine”. “Who knows how this is going to shape and affect the process,” he added. “But I know that you’re going to see a stark difference [in] the style of film … It’s ironic we’re starting a new decade with such a watershed moment that is going to define filmmakers from now to the next one.”

In the meantime, while students are obliged to learn from a distance, the program’s direction has turned to the design aspect of things, McClellan mentioned, such as how to build websites and how to work on sound design or animation, “things you can do at home in front of your computer”.

If he didn’t know how old he was, McClellan would be 16. “It’s 16!” he repeated laughingly. Ultimately, he knows, it is to that adopted age that he owes the profound trust fostered between himself and his students. “I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to be 16. Even in terms of the stupid things that [teenagers] do, the crazy things that they say, their constant procrastination – they know that when they come to me, I understand them on a fundamental level.” And it has to do with these particular teenagers that he feels so at ease with, the Gen-Z teenagers. Deep down, he respects them for their inherent determination, their ambition, and even sarcasm, for who they are, for their “vibe”. “I just think that they are awesome and that they are going to do incredible things, and I’m happy that I get to be a part of that.”

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Drew with Dusan, Sora, Ruby, and Aijah

Drew with Dusan, Sora, Ruby, and Aijah

It does not come as a surprise that even now, in a time of crisis for America and the world, Drew McClellan was named a Distinguished Teacher by the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program. True to his own generation, he stands at the threshold of a new century and a new millennium of artistic expression. But he stands there gazing back and forth, incorporating the past into envisioning the future. An inspired educator, McClellan knows better than most of us, the value of giving a voice to the agents of change, the film and media makers of Generation Z.