The AFI Conservatory, one of the crown jewels of the American Film Institute, celebrated its 50th anniversary in style Thursday night at the place where it all started, the fabled Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. One of the first “colleges” for filmmakers (there were only four at the time), it opened at Greystone in 1969 and stayed there until 1981 ,when it moved to Griffith Park, where it still stands at the former Immaculate Heart campus.
The students — or fellows, as they are called for that first class — included future Oscar- nominated legends like Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, the latter among many alumni who returned to the original campus for a class-reunion-of-all-class-reunions Thursday. Others attending included three-time Oscar nominee and 2019 Honorary Academy Award winner David Lynch from the class of 1970, Pieter Jan Brugge (Class of 1979), Jay Cassidy (1976), Susannah Grant (1991), Liz Hannah (2009), Marshall Herskovitz (1975), Mel Jones (2010), Matthew Libatique (1992), Melina Matsoukas (2005), LaToya Morgan (2005), Rachel Morrison (2006), Wally Pfister (1988) and Mark Waters (1992).
However, that was just a few, and the returnees ran the gamut from the earliest enrollee in 1969 filmmaker Paul Davids to recent grads like Max Barbakow, who earned his MFA in directing in 2016 and is just completing his first feature film, Palm Springs, starring Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons.
As I entered the impressive lobby, I ran into AFI Fellow Edward Zwick, who told me stories of his time there in the mid 70’s, and also recounted the checkered history of the 44,000-square-foot place from the time it was owned by the Doheny family, who got caught up in the Teapot Dome scandal and were in charge of the house just four months in 1929 when Ned Doheny died in a murder/suicide. The place is so big it eventually became a city park in 1971 and leased to AFI until they moved. In one of the rooms, I ran into Deschanel and fellow cinematographer Pfister, who were reminiscing about making movies there, as was Lynch, who told me he hadn’t been back to the property in at least 25 years, maybe ever (he wasn’t sure), but perfectly described where the projection booth was and just what kind of equipment it had from 70MM to 16MM. Lynch famously slept in the Greystone Stables at the bottom of the hill while he was making his movie Eraserhead. Lynch was also catching up with the other member of the class of ’70 who attended last night, Oscar Williams, a young black filmmaker at the time who vividly recalled his every moment making a movie there. He had flown in for the evening from the Virgin Islands.
Although at that time Williams was a rare person of color among the students, AFI is proud to point out now that 42% of the current class are people of color, and 51% are women, proof positive of the eventual impact of the establishment in 1974 of the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women. That statistic was provided by AFI Founding Director George Stevens Jr., who gave eloquent remarks about the importance of all this in the industry after a vintage film was shown, with AFI Chairman of the Board of Trustees Charlton Heston showing off the campus when it had just opened. Stevens recalled sitting down with Billy Wilder, one of many notables who would come by to talk to the students, and Wilder described the enterprise as only he could: “Ah, I see what you’re doing — you’re teaching new dogs old tricks!” Stevens recounted the list of other famed filmmakers who would lend their advice and counsel to the fellows in the very first week it opened, “writers, Ray Bradbury, Dalton Trumbo, and Budd Schulberg; directors Sam Peckinpah, Rouben Mamoulian, Gene Kelly, Don Siegel, and Robert Wise; and composer Henry Mancini. The tradition that began fifty years ago is to this day the heartbeat of our Conservatory.”
AFI President Emerita Jean Picker Firstenberg and current AFI President & CEO Bob Gazzale also honored the anniversary. Firstenberg spoke about succeeding Stevens in the job, and managing the transition from Greystone, which they got for $1 (!), to the current location on Western in 1981, which was one of her first tasks as the Greystone lease was expiring. “There is some debate about whether we outgrew this magical setting, or if we were escorted to the gate,” she laughed, while adding the very first visit she made to Greystone was to be shown David Lynch’s Eraserhead. “What have I gotten myself into?” she asked. She described the maturation of the Conservatory into the institution of higher learning for moviemakers that it has become over the last 50 years.
Among those at the celebration were AFI Board of Trustees member and Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn , as well as Kathleen Kennedy, the new chairman of the AFI Board of Trustees who told me that she conducted her first meeting in the job on Thursday morning. As we found out today, that meeting was to choose the 48th recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award, and a cool choice it was to pick Julie Andrews, who will receive the honor on April 25th.
Stevens, by the way, was also in town this week for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences annual George Stevens Lecture, which took place Monday night, but this year was dedicated to another anniversary, the 60th for his father’s seminal 1959 Oscar winner, The Diary of Anne Frank, which was unveiled at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in a stunning 4K restoration. The film, the first time a major Hollywood studio tackled a Holocaust theme, is every bit as important and powerful as the day it premiered. Stars Millie Perkins (who played the title role) and Diane Baker, joined Stevens Jr. and real life survivor Lya Frank for a conversation before the film. This year marks the 90th anniversary of Anne Frank’s birth.