Engaging artists: Milazzo, right, in conversation with actor Willem Dafoe as part of the Film: Masters series. Credit: Oriel Pe'er/The Modern School of Film.
Engaging artists: Milazzo, right, in conversation with actor Willem Dafoe as part of the Film: Masters series. Credit: Oriel Pe'er/The Modern School of Film.

Behind the Camera

Robert Milazzo ’94 trained with David Mamet, directed a feature film, founded a film school, and created a wildly popular film series. But he still considers himself a student.
May 15, 2013

Robert Milazzo is a patient, persistent man. Back in the late ’90s, as he was figuring out how to break into the film business, he made it his mission to somehow connect with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet.

Every single month for a year and a half, Milazzo mailed a letter to Mamet, seeking employment with the man he considered a master. Month after month his letters went unanswered. But then, one day, there was an unfamiliar voice on his answering machine.

“It was David’s assistant saying that he had received my letters. They couldn’t pay me anything or feed me, but did I want to come to Cambridge to work with him on his new play, Boston Marriage?” Milazzo recalls.

Milazzo was practically packing his bags before the message played out. In time, he became Mamet’s project associate, and he went on to work in a similar capacity with directors Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet. From this close training with some of the industry’s leading talents, Milazzo absorbed everything he could about filmmaking. In 2007, he directed War Eagle, Arkansas, starring Brian Dennehy, Mare Winningham, and Mary Kay Place. Meanwhile, he also was teaching classes and seminars in Europe and Asia, as well as at a number of colleges in the U.S., including Stanford, Columbia, Rutgers, Hofstra, The New School, Parsons School of Design, and the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where he founded its first-ever film production and studies program.

Today, Milazzo runs New York’s Modern School of Film, which he founded in 2012. The school offers hands-on workshops in filmmaking technique, intense mentoring, and opportunities to work closely with Milazzo’s impressive network of actors, producers, directors, and cinema artists.

Despite the transition from aspiring I’ll-do-anything gofer to sought-after film teacher, Milazzo says he does not consider himself an expert by any measure. “One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from Jorgen Leth, Lars Von Trier’s mentor,” says Milazzo. “He was introducing me to someone, and he said, ‘This is Robert. He is a film philosopher.’ I’m not a critic. I don’t want students to see things the way I see them. What I can do, though, is help students learn the technical and human aspects of filmmaking—to help them to tap into their own point of view and experiences. I tell students that every film is a documentary; it can’t help but reflect the filmmaker’s life and view at that point in time.”

Milazzo has enjoyed his biggest success to date with Film: Masters, a series he launched that includes film screenings and discussions with cinematic and artistic luminaries. Past guests have included Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, actors Willem Dafoe and Glenn Close, and legendary film editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Recent pairings have included comedian Fred Armisen on Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly uncomfortable The King of Comedy, actor Alan Cumming on the deadpan hilarity of Waiting for Guffman, and musician Shirley Manson of the band Garbage on the hypnotic, erotic In the Mood for Love. The series, which moved to the IFC Center in New York at the start of 2013, regularly sells out. This past March, New York magazine named the series “Best Movie Outing” in its “Best of New York” issue.

“I tell the people who come to our screenings that we are all students, myself included,” Milazzo says. “I want the screenings and discussions to be educational, not simply entertainment. I want there to be definitive takeaway with all of my work.”