5 Filmmakers on the Biggest Challenges They Faced Getting Feature Films to SXSW
From first-timers to Academy Award veterans, do directors face arduous obstacles on every film?
Whether it's a comfort or a concern, the following round-up suggests the answer is yes. Below, five directors from very different backgrounds describe the biggest challenge they faced making the feature films that premiered at SXSW 2015.
Director Benjamin Dickinson describes the most challenging aspect of making the slightly-futuristic film that won the SXSW Special Jury Award for Visual Excellence:
The biggest challenge that I had making the film was just that I was wearing too many hats. Directing and acting at the same time was the biggest challenge I had. I brought it upon myself. The perspective shift between being an actor in a scene where you're doing some difficult, emotional work or inhabiting a difficult space and then also acting with the other actor and then stopping, going and watching playback and not only making sure that the camera move is right and that you're blocking it right but also trying to evaluate your own performance and whether it's authentic, it's a lot. I mean it's switching between emotional and analytical back and forth. I'm that way anyway, so maybe I have a predisposition to do it but the toll on my body, honestly...
There were some aspects of it that were advantageous. I found that I was able to direct the characters through my acting a little bit. If I felt on a take I wasn't getting what I wanted from them, rather than taking them inside and saying, "Try it this way or try something different," or "I wasn't feeling that," I could actually adjust them by how I was acting in the scene. That was efficient...I didn't have to spend time honing a performance from the lead character. I could just do it and yeah, the hard part was just I didn't sometimes know if I was giving a believable performance because it's difficult to evaluate yourself and then make adjustments. [My DP] helped a lot. Then, I had the editors, Andrew and Megan, on set for some of the scenes to help me and give me some notes on my performance sometimes because I needed it. Yes, that was the most challenging thing and I don't think I'll ever do it again.
Even seven-time Academy Award nominee Robert Duvall has to contend with exacerbating shooting schedules on the production of Wild Horses:
The toughest thing was just getting it done in 23 days, that was a big, big challenge. Meeting each day's demand of 9 pages, which is usually 2 or 3 or 4. When you get 9 pages a day, that’s a lot. Shooting that many scenes, and getting the proper coverage and the thoroughness needed to complete a scene. Yeah, that was a challenge each day, but it was like a stagecoach rider or a crazy train rider, it was just whoa, and then suddenly it's over. You just have to hang on and do it. It's a big sense of a thrust.
Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, who traveled across the world to profile four Afghan photojournalists, describe their biggest challenge as being the ethics of depicting real-life characters:
Alexandria: I think the hardest part was wanting so badly to cover Afghans in a way where there was dignity and respect in their stories, because we had such utmost respect for the photojournalists that we were covering that it was a constant pressure to do their stories justice. It was such immense responsibility and just such an honor. The access that they gave us was such an honor to have. They're essentially risking their lives to give us access and also for us to put this film out. A lot of sleepless nights thinking about that. More than anything, that was definitely it, and throughout the edit that continued. I think that was the biggest pressure for both of us, just trying to navigate that emotionally.
Mo: Yeah, and at the same time when people see a piece about an artist or about individuals who are doing a craft, I think there's a tendency to be like, "Oh they're doing a portrait series or something." That challenge was balanced with the fact that we weren't just going to glowingly endorse their photography, even though it's beautiful and you see the power of it, we wanted their human stories to unfold so it meant also capturing the awkward interactions with subjects, capturing the impatience sometimes. All the things that we saw unfold. We didn't want it to just be like, "Aren't they great? Look at their work." Because that's not real life.
Actor/Director Ross Partridge describes the difficulties of telling a story with a main character that audiences like to hate:
The biggest challenge was taking a character that is set up to be somebody that possibly no one would like, and making every moment about finding the humanity [in that character]. Staying true to the idea that this person is full of love, and is capable of love. People are flawed, and human nature is that we're very complicated. People are trying to do the right thing, but often they don't, and they can't. But the ultimate goal is that there's pain in all of it, and we're all suffering, and there's always some sense of some hope on the other side. Keeping that alive in order for people to feel compassion about [the main character], that was the biggest trick.
Daniel Park describes the unforeseen difficulties of making a feature film based on a popular web series:
I think the biggest challenge I have, and I'm being super-honest here, is when I started the web series, I didn't want to have any actors, I didn't want good actors or great actors. I see the acting still and I admire the art of acting, but I didn't want acting. I wanted just natural people being themselves. My group of friends were very natural on camera, so they killed it for the web series...Since we made the web series to when we went to production, there's a four-year gap. People change during four years. Personalities change, and the characters were still based upon their real-life personalities four years ago...The closer we got to production, I realized, "Oh, my god, they're not the same people anymore. I can't get that same natural excitement or comedy or seriousness that they had." The dynamic was different, so as we got closer to shooting, I realized, "Oh, my god, it's going to require some directing actually. Like, damn it, I have to direct!" It was tough, because we were on such a strict schedule. I'll be honest. I think the first week, I wasn't getting it…
By the time the second week rolled around, I think everyone started getting some flow of things again, and the acting started coming out. That was the most challenging thing for me. It was me actually learning how to direct while on set. I was like, "Oh, crap! So I have to learn how to direct people now." That's some true no-film-school stuff right there.
Are challenges like these part-and-parcel of the filmmaking process? Have you experienced similar obstacles, and how have you overcome them?