‘Failure is the Process’: Sundance Directors & DPs Share Their Best Filmmaking Advice
We’ve compiled the most crucial advice from filmmakers at Sundance 2016 to inspire you to get out there and make great films! From veteran virtuosos to fresh-faced first-timers, the common thread: it's crucial to maintain your artistic vision in the face of intimidation — and in spite of mistakes.
The following sage advice should be great motivation to grab your camera and go. But wait, don't go just yet! First, watch the supercut of the best pieces of advice we culled from our on-camera interviews, and then read through the kernels of wisdom in print below.
Click on any film title to read or watch more of the No Film School interview with these talented filmmakers about the process that brought their film to life.
From director Felix van Groeningen:
Never stop. Work hard. Believe in it. I work really hard, but I was also really lucky to meet the right people at the right time in my life. I think my advice would be to focus. It’s the only way it works for me. At some point in my life when everybody started making money, I didn't make any money, but I went for my thing. But I was lucky to not have to do that for years and years. But if you love it, you have to continue, and it can happen.
From Cinematographer Elliot Davis:
The number one thing is you have to believe in yourself, in your own vision as an artist. If you don't have that, you'll be weak. It's about being able to carry through: every decision you make has to augment your vision. Everything has a cause and effect. If you let some things go, it's going to come back and bite you in terms of how you think the film's supposed to be. How do you get to be like that? By developing yourself as a person. To me the way you do that is you study anything but cinematography. You want to develop a way of looking at the world: a worldview that becomes your own, that is your way of seeing things as a person and an artist. I don't care what that is, if you study economics, business, literature, art history... everything is connected to everything. Cinema is a blank slate, just like when a writer looks at the blank page. The frame is also blank. It's what you bring to that.
You want to develop a way of looking at the world: a worldview that becomes your own, that is your way of seeing things as a person and an artist.
From director Matt Johnson:
If you have a voice or if there is something unique about you, focus on that. Make movies about yourself. I don't mean cast yourself in your movies -- or do. I do that, but you don't have to do that. Just let your stories come from you, at least when you're starting out, because you know yourself best and you have a unique perspective on this world that nobody else has. If you think that you're a meaningless nobody and nothing you think is interesting, that's not true. You're actually extremely unique, and if you find a way to communicate that to people through your films, you will be recognized for it. The only thing that's valuable in new storytellers is their voice. You have one; it's just sometimes very scary to believe in yourself.
From director Werner Herzog:
You have to have some sort of vision. If you don't have a vision, you will fail in the entire system. That's one thing, and you have to have the courage to do what you really want and have to do. Today it has become fairly easy to make films, because it's not expensive anymore. You can make a feature film, a full-length theatrical feature film, for $10,000 -- There's a real paradigm shift on the internet, and a shift of, for example, distribution systems that are failing most of the time nowadays. But you are the ones who will develop distribution systems on the internet, for example. It's your task now, and I cannot give you advice about how to do it, but the world is yours.
If you think that you're a meaningless nobody, that's not true. You're actually extremely unique, and if you find a way to communicate that to people through your films, you'll be recognized for it.
From director Bernardo Britto:
Do it. Don’t wait around, just do it. Don’t wait for the money or anything. Just figure out a way and do it. And also watch movies. Watch as much stuff as you can. But don’t overthink things because then you’re gonna end up making something like everybody else."
THE FREE WORLD
From cinematographer Bérénice Eveno:
Do it. Do it yourself. Learn by yourself. And also trust your guts. I think sometimes film school formats you, and I think that you need to just trust your guts no matter what.
Experiment. Don't be afraid. Try new things and take chances, because if you don't, you don't grow.
From cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC:
Hire people who know more than you do around you. Get the best grip and electric crew you can possibly get. Get first assistants and operators who have done more than you have but who agree with your way of working. Listen, take advice. Be open to changes on set, to things being not exactly as you planned them to be. Experiment. Don't be afraid. Try new things and take chances, because if you don't, you don't grow.
From screenwriter Amy Fox:
Last year a study came out that looked at men and women directors and writers with first features. They compared what happened with their careers after that first feature. For men, a first feature at a big festival tended to launch their career as a director or writer, and it was not the case for the majority of women. I had a film at Sundance some years ago, a feature that I wrote that was also a Sony Pictures Classic film. Certainly I have gone on working and writing, but it didn't launch me the way I expected it would and I've been putting that on my self. When that study came out, for me it was very empowering. You have to realize that there's a system working against women, and that it may not be because of your own personal shortcomings or the shortcomings of your film. It’s important to understand that, and to work against that.
It's important to make your first film exactly how you envision how you want to make it because that emotional connection stays with you.
From director So Yong Kim:
Go make your film! It's important to make your first film exactly how you envision how you want to make it because that emotional connection stays with you. You don't want to make your first film and say, "I regret listening to my producer and compromising." You don't want to come back to that regret later. You want to feel like you made your film the way you wanted, the way you believed, that it was your concept and you treasure that experience.
Here are some of the best excerpts of advice from the video supercut above, distilled into bite-sized pieces:
From director Kirsten Johnson:
Be kind to yourself -- making mistakes is necessary. What feels like the failing of it is actually the process of it.
From director Nanfu Wang:
Just go ahead and do it with the equipment you have -- even if it's just a cell phone -- and have the determination to finish it with or without money. No matter what.
If you want to make risky, innovative work -- which you should -- and you're not famous, you will have a hard time getting funding. So make sure you don't need a lot of money!
From producer Bob Hawk
Please make at least one short film before you tackle a feature. But bottom line, don't make a film unless you have to make it...as opposed to filmmakers who are more into the idea that it's groovy to be an independent filmmaker, but who don't have anything to say.
From director Nick Pesce:
Even when it didn’t work, and made us no money, and made us lose money, and screwed us over, and gave us panic attacks, you just keep doing it hoping, blind faith hoping, that someone else will have faith in you.
You must keep making stuff...If you just sit around talking about making films, it will slowly eat away at you.
From director Penny Lane:
If you want to make risky, innovative work -- which you should -- and you're not famous, you will have a hard time getting funding. So make sure you don't need a lot of money! It's easier to make a standard, mediocre, run-of-the-mill movie. That's the reality of life.
From director Andrew Neel:
You must keep making stuff. Whether that means picking up a camera and shooting a documentary about your brother. Or a short film. If you can get your hands on a camera, make things. If you just sit around talking about making films, it will slowly eat away at you.
Thank you to all the filmmakers for sharing this advice with us. Now, quit reading, and go shoot something!
For more, see complete coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.