Can MasterClass Teach You Everything?

Yet Schriber told me, “We’re not necessarily trying to change a lot of what people do, but more how they see the world. We don’t say, ‘In this class, you’re going to spend a lot of time outlining before you start writing’; we market the James Cameron quote.” He added, “All the classes are subversive of mastery. They’re not ten thousand hours, they’re four. We’re not asking you to give up your life, and we’re not promising that you will become that professional who you’re watching. We’re asking if you love to learn.”

In March, MasterClass filmed the spray-paint and graffiti artist Futura in Brooklyn. The site’s producers seek to shoot instructors where they work or would feel at ease. For David Mamet’s class, they built a set that replicated his writing cabin log for log. For Futura’s class, they filmed him in his studio, as he made a painting called “Tempo Tantrum.” Then they moved to a set built to evoke one of the subway cars where he began tagging, in the nineteen-seventies. Nekisa Cooper, who oversees the content team, and who was on Zoom with me observing the live feed from the set, remarked, “Watching the instructor at work is the gold standard—it makes the other content much, much richer.”

The instructor’s experience during the two- or three-day shoots is akin to a Hollywood star’s. The content team had worked out Futura’s curriculum with him in lengthy conversations, and now a stand-in was ready to spell him when the lighting needed adjusting, and an assistant hovered to get him anything he needed. The crew was forbidden to ask for selfies, and he would have approval rights over the final cut, so he could relax into candor without fear of embarrassment. The writer Roxane Gay, who was flown to Iceland and lodged at a lake house with her wife during her class, told me, “It was the first time I’ve ever felt that my expertise was respected and valued by people who wanted something from me.”

Filming and editing a MasterClass costs a minimum of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and the money is evident onscreen. The sets are elaborate: Walter Mosley is framed by six thousand books, Questlove by ten thousand records. As many as four cameras are at work, and the main one uses an EyeDirect, which facilitates the classes’ distinctive “instructor eye contact”; the instructor sees the interviewer’s face mirrored in front of the lens and responds to it, so that he seems to be talking directly to you. Daniel Pink acknowledges that many of his sales techniques can be had for free on YouTube: “You can find some of the ingredients at grocery stores all over.” But, he says, “this is the full meal, presented to you with perfect service.”

Though MasterClass screens for “teachability,” it often finds that instructors can’t readily explain their process. David Schriber said, “People at dinner parties tell me, ‘Just because you’re the best in the world doesn’t mean you’re the best teacher.’ I say, ‘That’s our superpower—our ability to help you get your message across.’ ” The filmmakers used motion graphics to break down Simone Biles’s tumbling runs and slow-motion cameras to capture Tony Hawk’s skateboarding tricks. And they often script not just the interviewers’ questions but also the instructor’s answers.

On set with Futura, an interviewer named Dara Kell began to ask about his youth, when he was known as Lenny McGurr. Futura kept digressing into stories about running wild as a young man. “Can we just back up?” Kell said patiently. She had a producer and a director in her ear, weighing in from Los Angeles. “How did the discipline of the Navy influence your career?” It was an invitation to expound on how rampant creativity got focussed by martial rigor. Futura smiled under his watch cap. “Did I learn anything in the military as far as discipline?” he said. “Uh, no.”

Kell began to make pointed suggestions. “We need a few specific lines, to lead off the lessons,” she explained. “Feel free to put these into your own words, but something like ‘In this class, I’m going to teach you how to use a spray can, and how to access the world of abstraction.’ ” The opening lesson, filmed at the end, usually lays out the class’s scope. A moment later, Kell added, “And if you could say, ‘I’m going to break down the secrets of my painting skill, and give you a tool kit for expressing yourself through abstraction and symbolism’?” Futura repeated her cue, his expression hangdog but game. “Could you add something about being willing to paint outside of the lines, to make mistakes?” He cradled his head in his hands. “You’re doing great!”

“In this class,” he said, “I’m going to teach you how to paint outside the lines, how to move freely, to let yourself go.”

“If you could say, ‘If you’re a creative person, this class is for you. If you’re a painter, a photographer’—feel free to put it into your own words.” Kell was looking for a trailer line that would arrest idle scrollers—something “thumb-stopping,” in the industry parlance.

“This class is for you”—Futura teared up, dropping his head back into his hands. “I just lost it, Dara.” Eying him empathetically, Nekisa Cooper told me, “There’s a formula and a checklist for these things, but trying to get a marketing line is a challenge, because the instructor is typically emotional as they reflect on the import of it all, the legacy, and you want a sound bite.”

In the end, Futura’s opening chapter was a shrewdly edited montage, interspersing shots of him painting with old footage of graffiti-spangled subway cars, as the artist expressed his thoughts in a stitched-together voice-over. It concludes with him telling us, on camera, that his journey is retraceable if you just remain open to possibility: “I’m sitting here an end result of something I certainly didn’t think I could do.”

After the shoot, I talked to Futura in his studio in Red Hook. “I was so nervous,” he said. “It was weird to have to speak about what I do in a way that’s not really me. I feel like the best way I could teach anyone is to give them physical instruction, to be with them. And, even then, I can’t impart that knowledge of ‘It’s thirty per cent pressure on the nozzle, or sixty per cent mixing the propellant and the color.’ ” He had broken down, he explained, because “I wanted to express something about passion, about how it’s not about getting paid, but I think I got overwhelmed. They’re going to have just me and Jeff Koons to teach painting. . . .” His voice trembled. He was wearing the watch cap and faux-military flight suit that MasterClass had dressed him in for the shoot, and he’d brought most of the subway-car set to his studio. He was becoming MasterClass’s idea of what he should be. “Being in their archive is a Bruce Lee moment. People will say, Oh, you’re like a Jedi, you’re Yoda,” he said. “It’s the most prestigious thing I’ve ever done.”

In MasterClass’s early years, teaching was a speculative venture, a way for instructors who’d written their memoirs, or maxed out on Instagram, to connect with passionate fans. It quickly became an élite guild. Rogier told me, “I said to Steph Curry, ‘Why are you doing this? You don’t need to.’ He said, ‘I saw who you had on the shelf, and I want to be on the shelf with those people.’ ” (The financial incentive is a relatively small part of the appeal; instructors’ fees, which have exceeded a hundred thousand dollars, have dropped as the company’s audience has grown.)

The site is less a schoolhouse than a clubhouse, whose members lend one another prestige. Schriber said, “I always make fun of David for going after people from his youth, like Usher,” who taught an early class. “But people who are actually aware of Usher say they do think of him as an expert—and Usher is a class that a lot of people take.” Rogier told me, “I’m very good, apparently, at figuring out people who other people will think are experts.” It’s the kind of empathetic projection that can win you money on “Family Feud.” “Or it could just be that I’m an average person.”

Tan France, best known for upgrading wardrobes on “Queer Eye,” told me, “People had maybe thought, Ah, he’s a joke, he’s not really doing anything except putting a suit on someone who looks terrible, so of course they look better afterward. MasterClass has been so beneficial—finally, I feel like I’ve been vindicated.” Ron Finley, an urban gardener whose class walks students through making a planter out of a dresser drawer, said that his class instantly changed his profile: “A girlfriend of mine said, ‘You know, the only thing you’re going to be remembered for, the rest of your life, is the dresser drawers.’ And I got all these proposals of marriage on social media: ‘He can plant my garden all day!’ Oh, my God . . .”

Rogier acknowledged that not all of the site’s classes will be Library of Alexandria-worthy: “Tan France’s class, or the dog-training class, I don’t think a lot of people will go back to in a hundred years.” But, he added, “it’s hard to know what will stand the test of time. When the Wright brothers were running a bike with wings off a hill, or whatever, I would not have asked them to teach a MasterClass, because it would have seemed crazy.”

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