'Cast Your Crew Like Your Cast' and More Advice from Summer's Hottest Indie Filmmakers
Indie film is on fire this summer. Here's what we've learned from the directors, screenwriters, and crew who made it so.
As the bell tolls for summer blockbusters, modest indies seem to be on the rise in theaters across the world. This summer marks a high point for theatrical releases of some of our festival favorites from this past year, and we were able to speak to many of the filmmakers behind them to get advice that might help your next project along.
Click on the film title for the full interview, or read excerpted tips in this post.
From Director Ana Lily Amirpour:
What really turns you on should be what motivates you. But I think it's very easy to fake if you're turned on. We all do it. I do it, everybody does it. Not just about making movies, but like in life. Just don't fucking fake it. Be. Mean it. What do you really like?
I always use sex as a metaphor for that. I feel like it's the same in sex—you can fake it. Even just a little, you know [laughter]. You're like yeah, mm-hmm, like a performance. And suddenly you're like, "What am I really getting out of this?"
For filmmakers.... A lot of people feel that just doing something is better [than nothing]. So the metaphor for sex would be, "At least I have a boyfriend." But is it really the best use of your time? You could masturbate yourself, have a nice time. Try to avoid that numbness.
From Director Eliza Hittman:
With sexual scenes, you get the actors to be comfortable with each other. We got to know each other and that was part of the process, but with those scenes, you don't really do them until you turn the camera on to shoot them. That's the best way.
It's interesting because the cinematographer of the film, Hélène Louvart, had worked with people like Larry Clark. I asked her, "How does Larry Clark approach sexual content?" She said, "He was just very straightforward. It's like, 'You do it or you're not in the movie.'" For me, it's just about treating it like choreography and not forcing them to do it until the camera is rolling, so you’re just going through the choreography of the scene.
From Art Director Jennifer Dehghan:
I always do a script breakdown because that's how I wrap my head around the film and create a framework for all the details. Then, with the breakdown, you fill in all the details.
For 'The Beguiled,' we did a lot of research on domestic work to make sure that when you zoom in on the house and they were sewing or they were cleaning or they were playing their musical instruments, we did it all correctly. We bought books on table settings and dressings for the period, we went to museums and met with the directors and did research on ironwork and how the different kinds of wooden fences were made by hand. Then, of course, specific things, like what vegetables were grown in Virginia in this time period. We tried to plant those in the gardens.
As long as everyone understands the parameters of the project, then you can make choices based on your priorities.
From Producer Polly Staniford:
People go into a thriller wanting to be scared, so we knew we needed to do that. But we did talk a lot about not wanting to do traditional thriller tropes. Everything had to be there for the right reasons—we didn't want to just add a chase scene or a moment of violence for the sake of it. It had to come from a really truthful place. We always questioned everything we were putting in there, whilst also being very aware that we needed those moments to make the audience feel satisfied.
From Screenwriter Kevin Costello:
I think that making art for its own sake can often feel crazy or insane or, "Why am I doing this?" I feel like we’ve all been in that place with the stuff we’ve made. You have to have something to say. You have to trust that desire to get it out there and that desire to make it. Even though there’s no clear path towards where it’s going to end up or where it's going to lead, just following that passion is the only thing you can do. At the time we started writing Brigsby, it wasn’t like, "Oh yeah, we’re going to ride this ship all the way to party town." It was just something that I knew that I loved, so I made it a priority.
From Director Matthew Heineman:
Before you start your film, really get familiar with how that camera works, how that technology works. I mean everything. If you're in the middle of a big scene, you don't want to be thinking about, "How do I change my f-stop?” or "How do I change my white balance?” If you want to go high speed or low speed, [you should be able to] quickly adapt to the situation. By far, the most important thing—whether you shoot on a Handycam or on an ALEXA—is knowing your equipment and having it be innately part of who you are and how you shoot.
From Co-writer Steven Sears:
You have to kind of get screwed. Not by the world around you, but you need to write yourself into a corner, you need to give yourself a problem to work your way out of. I think that's what I've been realizing in the last couple of weeks is you need to put yourself in a creative bind, so you can really get creative to get out of it.
From Director Justin Chon:
As a director, you cannot make a film by yourself. If these people are coming to help me, I really have to respect them as artists. There [are] certain battles where you're like, "You know what? Let's do it your way," even though it may not have been exactly what I thought.
Working with a lot of people at once, you have to be fluid like that. It’s the same for the art department and the wardrobe. I have a lot of respect for what they do and their specialty and I have to be humble enough to know that I don't know the best answer all the time. For a lot of directors, ego gets in their way.
From Screenwriter Paul Laverty:
I've done historical stories, so if it's historical you try to understand the times. Going to libraries and seeing photographs and getting the music, looking at the poetry. Talk to grandparents, talk to children who remember the words of their grandparents. It's a long, exhaustive process. [You have to] march around the locations. If you're listening to people with respect, most people tell you their life stories.
Now, you don't copy a screenplay from the streets. What you do is almost like journalistic work. I've got to figure out what's going on. I've got to find out. I've got to join at the doors. A lot of it writing a screenplay is actually making connections. Then it's almost like, then things come into your lane. Once you got all this information, bit by bit, characters start growing in your mind.
From Director Firas Fayyad:
It was important to establish trust with the subjects, the cinematographers, the team. We talked to the characters all the time and told them how important it was to share their story with the world. We told them to trust in the people who will watch their story. We told them we wanted to help to stop the war.
Many times, the characters felt tired and they wanted to stop filming. They would ignore my conversations. They didn’t answer the cinematographers. They were feeling depressed about the situation that was developing in Aleppo and Syria. if we lost a character halfway through shooting the film, I would think about adding another character, and [it would be difficult] to follow all of the characters. So it’s important to have a conversation with your subjects. Make them trust. Be honest with them. With trust, everything will be okay.
From Director of Photography Quyen Tran:
No matter what project you’re working on, always, always try to do the best you can do and try to maintain a level of artistic integrity. You never know who’s going to see something. I shot this very, very low-budget movie when I first got out of film school and I got recognized for it and I got an agent through it.
From Director Julian Rosefeldt:
Stay curious and do things you really want to do. That's what I'm telling my students when I'm teaching. It's not about the market and how to find a distributor or audience, it's about finding out about what you really want to do—your own handwriting, what makes you special, and fighting to defend that as much as you can. And that is very difficult. It's very tempting to fall in the market trap or just do what other people do, and think what you do is not good because it's so special. It can also be very unbalancing or make you insecure if you have something in mind that doesn't fit the schemes.
From Director Andrew Cohn:
Don't force yourself to go make movies. If there's not something I'm really, really into, I'm not able to do it because I know how hard and how long and how much dedication it takes. I think that waiting for the right project is better than just jumping into something just to be productive.
From DP Darius Khondji:
When I talk to the director, I usually can understand the mood of the scene. If you listen very carefully to what words they are using, somewhere hidden in there is the key for the lighting and camerawork. This is even if the director doesn't know what he wants, exactly—which was not the case with Bong [Joon Ho]. Bong was incredibly well prepared. But some directors that don't work like that and decide everything on location. You should try to be very open and sensitive and not come too quickly with your ideas. Listen to what the director is saying when they describe the scene and you'll find the key to lighting it.
From VFX Supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer:
For up-and-coming VFX artists, it sounds sort of cliché, but just keep your eyes open and look at how people move, how life behaves. Keep drawing, and really just try to get your head around a computer and make sure you're comfortable with all the functionality and the tools that are available to create images.
Make sure that you enjoy how light plays off the water and how reflections and refractions work. And how shadows look.
From Director Avi Nesher:
I cast my crew the same way I cast my cast. I do it by design. I like to bring in different sensibilities. I take a long, long time working on a movie, letting everyone have their say. For me, it truly is a collaborative work. I really give my DP and my composer a chance to bring in their own culture into my culture. I really hope that what would come of it would be something truly original. Quite often it works out very nicely.
For this movie's cast, we have German actors, we have Polish actors, we have Israeli actors. The way they all come together is really quite miraculous. Cinema has been around for a hundred years, and people say that every story known to mankind has been told, and I'm not quite sure it's true. I really think there's a lot of stuff we can explore, and the best way to exploring is by getting outside of our comfort zone and bringing in people from different cultures into your own process.
From Director Dustin Guy Defa:
In writing, I do a long outline and I spend a lot of time getting into the characters before I start writing the dialogue. When I actually do start writing the script, I think I know who they are but I'm not entirely sure, and then they start speaking and I start to get to know them, and then sometimes I have to backtrack and fix the dialogue where I thought I knew how they were going to speak.
Sometimes once you start working on plot things and structure and outline, then those start to also shape the character. It's not always that the characters are first; sometimes, the plot kicks in and then the characters start following that.
From Editor Daniel Garber:
It's damn near impossible to make a broad fair use claim about everything. At a certain point in the edit, near the end of the process, you have lawyers come in and look at the case-by-case usage. Each individual use or referencing that has a piece of archival footage has to stand on its own on sufficient tenants of fair use to hold water.
As a result, even the films that make the most aggressive fair use claims will have a good dosage of material that they do license, because it actually bolsters fair use claims. In a case like The Reagan Show, it's really critical that the legal arguments for the use of archives are very strong.
From Director Laura Poitras:
As a filmmaker or journalist, it’s important to interrogate the power that you occupy. I think that’s the only way you can consider other people’s positions. Some people have more power and some people have less power in terms of their vulnerability.
For example, it is disturbing and terrifying to me that Trump was elected after his declaration around predatory behavior and his unabashed racism, but then you have to interrogate why Trump doesn’t get challenged. We have to ask ourselves why the beliefs he’s conveyed are just something that is acceptable to American voters. Or, in a broader context, how is his behavior something we’ve decided is excusable? Which is not to show any sympathy for Hillary Clinton, because I have none. But Trump is something uniquely horrifying. There are so many communities that are now under threat, under attack. And we need to ask ourselves why these attitudes have been made acceptable.
From Director John Trengrove:
I find that when I challenge myself to step into a place that I'm not completely in control, or that I'm fearful of, that’s always where I make my most interesting work. As soon as things are too easy or familiar, I end up being boring. So in a way, what I've learned is to trust that squirmy, uncomfortable place. When you follow that uncomfortable place, you invariably reach something interesting.
From Co-director Sabaah Folayan:
As filmmakers, we could spend a lifetime honing this craft. Have conversations with your audience. Engage your audience in a call and response. Think about what they're going to think, how are they going to feel, and what is the next thing they need to feel? Exploring that relationship with that gravity is such a special process.
Lose that kind of stale connotation of expert interview, but also move away from the exploitative, bird's eye view thing. We kind of have this very dry set of conventions. Our resistance needs to be on the plane of storytelling as well. Look at the story and footage as media that can be used to shape and persuade and to change.