Here's the lesson you might glean from many of the first-time filmmakers at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival: having a background in something other than directing can ultimately help you make better films. If you're concerned that your current path may not be putting you on the farm-to-table pipeline for aspiring directors... well, don't be. The following filmmakers came to direct their first films, and premiere them at Sundance, from three very different backgrounds that informed their unique directing styles.
Kordell "KD" Johnson and Devin Blackmon appear in Dayveon by Amman Abbasi, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Amman Abbasi came to direct his first feature from a music background. He released multiple EPs and composed music for the documentaries Voices for Justice, The Wall, and Warrior Champions, all of which informed his directorial vision in Dayveon.
Amman Abbasi, director of Dayveon, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Dave Anderson"The motivation [to make Dayveon in the style it is in] may be tied in with me making music, and oftentimes thinking about films," Abbasi said. "I want to do deep experimentation, just as I have always done in music.
"I don't really know what the word 'director' means, because I have always thought that you have to learn the many aspects of filmmaking. I don't really know how to direct without actually knowing the specifics of those disciplines. Composing was no different than how we worked in rehearsals with the actors. I think it was always about capturing the emotional intent of the film. The music came during the scripting process. And it evolved, too. It's always this big ball of evolution, even during the edit. Being comfortable to pivot, being able to throw away crap and say, 'this doesn't work; it once did, but it no longer does,' allows the project to start informing itself.
"So, in a way, the music evolved as the story did."
Don't Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!
Eduardo Macedo and Adeli Gonzales appear in Don't Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! by Felipe Bragança, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glauco Firpo.
Felipe Bragança cut his teeth co-directing low-budget experimental movies with longtime collaborator Marina Meliande. In working on experimental films that played with genre, Bragança was able to apply that experimentation to the unmistakeably dreamlike world of Don't Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! his first solo, traditional narrative feature.
Felipe Bragança, director of Don't Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
"I write a poem, and then I work with that," he said. "I write the first version really fast. When I have forty pages that convey the feeling, I have to go 'Okay, now let's go back there and see how all the characters speak and fine tune the specific points.' I think the first version is more like writing music than a script."
"I think, as a Latin American filmmaker in my generation, we all grew up watching the American genre movies and TV. Sometimes, art house movies take the approach of denying that cultural import, and say 'let’s do the opposite.' I’m not going to deny that; I'm going to create something new from it. Someone might ask, 'Oh, you're a Brazilian, you should do something different, why are you referencing The Warriors?' Because all filmmakers my age, 30 something, saw this film. We grew up in an era that received all this pop culture from the U.S. and I like to [challenge myself] to take those symbols and reinvent them."
Dree Hemingway and Michelle Morgan apepar in L.A. Times by Michelle Morgan, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.Michelle Morgan is both an actress and writer, having acted in and written for numerous film and television projects, including a story credit on the upcoming Lego Movie Sequel. Understanding the process of flexibility that comes with the intersection of writing, acting, and directing is what informed Morgan's cohesive comedy knockout, L.A. Times.
Michelle Morgan, director of L.A. Times, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
"The interesting thing about being an actor and the director is that, as a director, you can watch other actors, and even if they're not feeling a certain take you can tell that it's still good," she said. "When I'm acting, I can't tell how it looks, I can just tell that it didn't feel right. Being both the actor and director is where you find the common ground between both disciplines.
"Part of it is learning to trust, where you need to let go of your expectations a little in order to make the film stronger. When you write a script, it’s going to take on a different life than it had in your mind when you are imagining it. When you bring it to the screen it takes on a completely different mind. And then when you start editing it, same with that. And then when you start adding music. There [are] all these different levels that take it to a place that you didn't really know it was going to be in. And I think that you need to be open-minded to do whatever works best for the film."
To learn more about the process behind these films, stay tuned for complete interviews with each of the filmmakers.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.