The Art of Teaching Film
By Angelica Alatriste and Freya Golden
He wears a red-checkered button up and an animated expression. The pendant of keys around his neck jangle with each expansive gesture, as he commands his remarkably organized classroom. Whether he is leading morning meditation, giving students feedback on their work, or heading production lessons, Queens native and Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) film teacher, Mr. Spagnuoli is always on.
When students are frustrated or unsatisfied with the progress they are making in the rigorous, four-year film program, Mr. Spagnuoli will give them a gentle reminder: “Never stop creating.” An expression most film students can recite without thinking, or lifting their gaze from their laptops.
Mr. Spagnuoli is brimming with stories. However, as he shares his own, the importance of his artistic pursuits in shaping his narrative becomes evident, as he gives light to the true definition of being an artist.
As a teenager, Mr. Spagnuoli attended the High School of Art and Design in Queens. Initially an illustrator, he discovered his passion for the moving image in his Junior year, after transferring to the recently instated (and sooner dissolved) Film/Video major. Like many, his high school experience was mixed, and he struggled to differentiate himself from the crowd.
“I would make sure I got a certain haircut every couple weeks and never went without a haircut, when I had hair. I had name brand clothing. I would carry myself in a very serious way. I didn’t joke around a lot. I wanted in, and wanted people to think I was cool,” Mr. Spagnuoli says.
While he was driven in his film and English classes, for the most part, Mr. Spagnuoli was a student who “fell between the cracks.” Despite his effort in school, he wasn’t pushed by his teachers or given the necessary support for his success.
Mr. Spagnuoli was working unhappily in the restaurant industry when he was offered the opportunity to direct, Yo! It’s Middle School Charlie Brown. (A hip-hop Peanuts inspired theater production at his son’s middle school).
“I remember watching the play at the back of the auditorium and being like they are doing everything I taught them to do! This is pretty awesome,” he says.
This was his inspiration to go back to school in order to become a teacher, as he hoped to reach students that were like him, who might otherwise go unnoticed. He wound up teaching middle school English for three years before finally determining he wanted to teach and pursue art in tandem.
Ever since he began teaching at FSSA, Mr. Spagnouli has spent each summer working on his own projects. His most recent film, Two Wrongs, explores toxic masculinity, something he’s intimately acquainted with, as he grew up Italian-American in Queens, and was heavily influenced by his environment and the people around him.
For him, expressing his stories in a candid way is essential to his work as a filmmaker, and he says the personal stories you tell should really be an expression of you, it should be your DNA. He refers to the “notorious” film director Quentin Tarantino pointing to one of his quotes to further his perspective on creating personal stories and what it is he wants to reveal through his work.
“When you watch your work you should feel embarrassed because you should feel like there’s something revealing about yourself you’re really afraid for people to know about,” he says.
For him, something embarrassing to reveal are moments in his life when his manhood was questioned by the people around him. He used these experiences in order to form the idea for his most recent film, where a father tries to prove himself, after his masculinity is challenged in front of his son.
Even though he’s come a long way since his high school years, Mr. Spagnuoli still has the desire to continue to grow and evolve not only for his own personal reasons but also for his students.
In September 2022, he began his 6th year at Sinatra, and has every intention to keep pushing forward creatively and continue to tell meaningful stories. “ I love storytelling,” he says, “I love filmmaking. ”
Mr. Spagnuoli credits his experiences growing up, his teaching, and the lessons he’s learned in art to help him further evolve as a filmmaker and a person.