A lot of actors may think they're the smartest guy in the room, but James Woods probably is. He comes with a Mensa IQ and rat-a-tat wit that never shies away from nibbling at the movie industry feeding him.
Woods, 64, shoots straight from the lip about Hollywood's follies, including the penchant for spending fortunes producing "cast iron pastry" with story and heart as afterthoughts. Studio executives are fat cats looking over their shoulders, union workers can be lazy, and movies are worse for it all, so he says.
Film school students can learn much from a blunt realist like Woods. Recently several dozen in Sarasota did. Woods could've been anywhere but there — accepting a career achievement award ("a little too narcissistic for my tastes") or jumping on a charity bandwagon ("break out the violins").
Instead the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actor visited Ringling College of Art and Design as part of the digital filmmaking program's Studio Lab series in which visiting professionals tutor students on various facets of the craft.
"I'm here in what we called at MIT a nonzero sum, or better known as a win-win kind of paradigm," he said. "I think the future of filmmaking is here, and I'm always looking for a good job. I'm saying that kind of tongue in cheek, but Orson Welles was (25) when he made Citizen Kane.
"I may be shaking hands today or taking a question from or supposedly mentoring somebody who's going to make next year's Academy Award picture for eight grand."
Maybe someone like Andrew Burhoe, 23, who showed Woods his award-winning junior thesis short film An Ever Present Silence, a moody reflection on parenting and death. Woods was impressed, offering advice Burhoe needed and confirmation of his creative instincts.
"The pointers he gave me were the exact ones I'd tried to do in post (production), but I wasn't able to pull it off," Burhoe said. "He knew exactly how to do it.
"The fact that he was willing to sit down and say: 'Look, I've got this to show you. You need to hear these ideas,' some people don't want to do that. But here's this filmmaker willing to be intimate and personal, to tell you what you need to do. It doesn't get any better than that."
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The Studio Lab series is another innovation in a 4-year-old program already ranked among the top 25 film schools worldwide, according to a Hollywood Reporter survey. In an era when shooting on film is becoming obsolete and Eastman Kodak is poised to declare bankruptcy, Ringling focuses entirely on digital production, setting it apart from others on the list.
"This may be the only school that never really had a film program," Woods said. "They started right in with digital filmmaking. Right away they said: If we're going to be involved we're going to look forward, not back. The future's here."
Last year the Studio Lab attracted actors Andy Garcia and Bill Paxton, director Werner Herzog, producer Paul Schiff and Martha Stewart, who all discussed multimedia platforms. Woods kicked off the 2012 program, with actor Elijah Wood scheduled to attend this week and others to be announced later.
A couple of celebrity visitors left Ringling notably impressed. Herzog returned as an adjunct faculty member, editing his death row documentary Into the Abyss in a classroom with student input. The day after he left, Garcia recommended Ringling to his nephew. Woods suggested he may revisit to work on a short film project he has in mind.
"There's no way to put a dollar amount on what it's like for these artists to be involved," said Sam Logan, co-founder of Future in Film, an agency collaborating with Ringling on the series. "This is a who-you-know business. If you don't know anybody it's very difficult" to break in.
"Mr. Woods is watching their films, working with them on editing, giving them creative ideas. He knows them now. So one day it's not a kid in the crowd, it's 'I know that guy. I've seen his work.' That's an invaluable advantage."
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Ringling and Future in Film have more in mind than brushes with celebrity. The state-of-the-art facilities that already produced two student Academy Award winners are adding a sound mixing facility this year, enabling filmmakers to produce entire movies in Sarasota from first shot to final cut.
Recently the Anna Paquin project Free Ride used Ringling students and facilities during principal photography.
"They couldn't have done that film without the support of this infrastructure," said David Shapiro of Future in Film. "They used editing bays here, cameras, the space to do their designs. It was real, artistic and collaborative, and had a really good vibe to it.
"Sarasota has always been exciting as a place to do films. The only thing that has been missing was an infrastructure to support it. Getting a (sound) mixing facility is a big part of that. If people can actually finish a film here it's a very good step to more projects coming."
Woods is convinced that students he met at Ringling will handle anything coming their way, here or in Hollywood.
"These kids are ready to step out the door and into the workplace, and bring with them a different mind-set than we had before," he said. "They think nothing is impossible. Honestly, if I had the mind-set then that these kids have now, my whole career would have been different.
"They have no reasons to believe they shouldn't be masters of their own destiny."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.