'Never The Same Film,' Says 16-Year Veteran Of High School Cinema Program

Mar 10, 2017

Over 16 years at San Antonio's Northeast School of the Arts (NESA), Konise Millender has seen and shepherded hundreds of films to production. She's the head of the Department of Cinema at the magnet school based on the Lee High School campus. This year, one of the seniors in the program, Pierson Hawkins, has a short film in the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin. I took the opportunity to finally visit the cinema lab at NESA to learn more about the program, where I spoke to Millender.

Nathan Cone: What has changed over the course of those 16 years in terms of what you’ve been able to do with the students that come through this program?

Konise Millender: I would say it’s gotten more intense. We spent a lot of time in the early years just teaching kids basics, but technology is everywhere now. So a lot of them are coming in at far different levels than they did before. Before, none of them have probably ever touched a camera. But now you have kids growing up with technology, knowing they want to get into [film], and so they start early. We have a lot more master classes now, and some of those students are now leaving here, going to college, or going to work other places with a lot of knowledge, ready to be employed, or go to college and compete with the upperclassmen.

Do you have a mix of grade levels all working together?

We do. That’s one of the greatest things about this school. When I first started here I wondered how that would be handled, and some of the other departments will group students by ages, but there is something in teaching called scaffolding, where you have people at different levels who are helping and teaching each other. So in one class there can be 10th and 11th and 12th graders all mixed together. Everyone who’s never been in our school before, they’re all in the beginner class. So they can be 9th through 12th grade.

What are some of the most surprising things the students have shown you over the years? You talk about them having lots of different skill levels, but perhaps idea-wise…

It’s amazing to me when they get the abstract concepts, because as a teacher I understand where they are on the growth chart, and their maturity, and things like that. They love the movie “Coraline” for example. And yes, that’s a three-act narrative structure, but it’s also very abstract in thinking. And so when I’m teaching that, I often think “are they getting it?” But then you have someone like Pierson Hawkins who did “Limbo,” who got this idea of going through something over and over again, finding a visual way to tell that. Them getting more into the abstract that has to do with emotions and thoughts that aren’t necessarily concrete has been surprising me. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years, the students have been more philosophical.

When students come in with an idea, do they pitch it, and then y’all woodshed it, or is it a case of a student bringing in a fully completed script/project with tech support?

It’s a little bit of both. They’re constantly pitching to me! [laughs] As I’m walking in with my breakfast, drinking coffee, on my break! They do get a lot of creative freedom. One of the reasons my title is Producer is to actually produce the films and make sure they’re being supported with technology and costs and things like that, but also creative production. Looking at them and making sure they’re not going to go crazy, because sometimes they just want to blow things up… so you have to tell them they can’t do that. You have to look at the scripts and figure that out. It’s a little bit of both, where you’ll have a student who has all these great ideas but they don’t know how to get there with the technology, so having them group with other kids that have different abilities is perfect, because I can teach lots of things, but they’ll learn a lot of other things from their friends that are in the classes, too.

And they’re learning—like you said—not only techniques of filmmaking, but the business side as well.

Absolutely. They’ll do everything from coming up with the idea, to writing, filming, casting, figuring out business models. We use “cinema dollars,” which are representative of real-world dollars. Sometimes they look and say “$7,000! $10,000! I don’t have that!” And I say “Yeah, that’s why we’re here.” They’ll do all of that, and then they still have to learn how to market. So, they’ll come up with poster designs and poster ideas for their films, too. Pulling in friends on Facebook or Instagram pages. And then we keep a Vimeo page with their films on it, too.

What is the best thing about being here at NESA that has kept you here these 16 years?

There’s never a dull moment! [laughs] There’s always something going on, being in a creative atmosphere. We are on a general high school campus, but we have a lot of creative people on this campus, and within our school, there are a lot of creative people, too. Being able to be here and create with these students and help them understand something, and do something that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, that’s a joy. It’s never the same movie, and it’s never the same student, and it’s never the same idea, and it’s not even the same technology! From the time I got here to now, things have changed tremendously. I often tell them stories about the old days, when we had one-chip cameras, or VHS camcorders. I still keep one in the back because they’re so amazed by it! They say they want to use it…

Like, “I’m gonna do it old school!”

Exactly! I have a student—a graduate from last year—he made his last film to look like VHS. He actually made me pull out all this old technology, and people looked at his film and said “Wow, that’s so eighties!” That’s great, because that’s what he was going for! It’s always something different, and just being here to see them grow and move on, and come up with all kinds of stuff, that’s the great thing about it. I can produce hundreds of films every year, and none of them are the same.

You referenced the many creative people here as well. Do the different departments within NESA interface with each other? Music, dance, theater, film…?

Yes, I encourage them to collaborate. They’re high school students and they have friends in all the majors. There are seven majors, and we’re just one of those seven. I showed a film earlier in class today, a student screening that involves some dancers. The student was able to cast some of the NESA dancers, and also cast the NESA dance teacher as a very judgmental dance teacher in the film, even though she’s not like that in real life! We have some instrumental musicians here who always want to know when we’re doing something because they want to write music for us. The visual artists are just down the hall, so they’re constantly storyboarding and sketching things for us too. It’s neat to see everyone working together for this one single product. And then when we show it at the 800 Pound Film Festival at the end of the year, all those people that contributed get to come into the theater, watch that film and see a piece of their work in that film. That’s really rewarding.

Although based on a Northeast ISD campus, NESA is open to students from all over the region, as long as they have transportation to the school. To learn more about the programs and apply, visit their website.