January 25, 2017
Sundance 2017

How to Find Your Directing Style: Sundance Auteurs Share Lessons Learned

"Copy your heroes, get it out of your system. What's left is what you are the most obsessed with, and becomes part of your own style."

David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pete's Dragon) and Athina Tsangari (Attenberg, Chevalier) are two directors known for their articulate and unique styles. How did they arrive at these cohesive visions? How do they script and shoot? And how do they stay consistent to their styles while trying new stuff? The two directors sat down inside the 2017 Sundance Filmmaker Lodge with moderator Holly Herrick to have a cozy Cinema Café discussion about all of these things. You can watch the full discussion here.

Start by copying everything you love

If you're feeling frustrated by the pressure to churn out completely original works, you may be relieved to hear that David Lowery and Athina Tsangari started developing their own deeply personal styles by, well, copying films they loved! "I was mostly ripping people off in all the films I made as a kid," said David Lowery. "I made a terrible Tarantino rip-off. When I first saw Pulp Fiction, it changed what I thought about how you could tell a story. Through Tarantino, I then discovered Godard."

"I was mostly ripping people off in all the films I made as a kid."

Athina Tsangari felt similarly, concluding that imitation of work from people you admire is crucial in the beginning. "It's important to get it out of your system. Copy your heroes, get it out of your system. What's left is what you were the most obsessed with, and becomes part of your own style. I made a Godard rip-off imitation when I was first starting out. I still consider [his films] to be my biggest mentor."

Quentin Tarantino's ubiquitous breakthrough, "Pulp Fiction."

When thinking of your story, consider tone or image first

"For me it starts with capturing a tone," said Lowery. "The story comes from there. All my films have a beginning, middle, and end. I don't have an outline or anything. I'm following that tonal light in the sky. It's like grabbing at smoke. You can't grab it. But maybe you can capture it if you build a wall around it."

"You're like a detective of your own brain."

Tsangari also feels that a lot of it starts with tone, and will usually start thinking about a story using one image. "With Attenberg, I started with one image: two girls kissing in front of a wall. Then I start to think about what's behind that picture. You're like a detective of your own brain. You start to indicate what the image is and ask, 'Who are these girls? What if one of them didn't want to be kissed?'"

But what about the plot? Lowery concluded that capturing the tone is the most important. "If I get worried about the audience and start wondering whether they understand or if I need to add a plot point, I find that the work suffers."

The original concept of Athina Tsangari's film "Attenberg" became an iconic moment in the film.

Consider using a shooting code

"My DP comes, and we create a code for the film," said Tsangari. "Before we start each scene, we know the code, so we start with that. For example, in Attenberg we shot all long shots in the beginning. And the code was no more than three shots per scene. As the film goes along, we switch to close-up. It's right for the film. On Chevalier, we let the actors know the camera could always land on them. So the actors were always on, even if it is dead time [for their character]."

On set, keep your presence of mind

"On set, you can get antsy and want to scratch what you had planned. You can say, 'Ok, let's just shoot it this [less complicated] way,'" said Lowery. "You need to take a step back, and ask yourself, 'What are we doing?' It's better to take the extra time, or make someone uncomfortable for a bit in order to make a better film down the line. Meditate, take a deep breath, do what you need to. You have to have the presence of mind to remember what you are there to do in the first place."

A still from David Lowery's big budget foray, "Pete's Dragon."

It's OK to keep making the same film over again

"I realize, I keep making the same film," said Tsangari. "It's not autobiographical, but there is a sense of yourself that comes through in all of your work. When I look back at my work—even my first short film, about a girl not fitting into things—I always make something about not fitting in."

Lowery agreed with Tsangari about subconscious consistencies in your work that make up your style, and noted that you're more likely to notice them making shorts. "When you make shorts, no one is telling you what to do," said Lowery. "For some reason, when no one is telling you what to do, those things rise."

David Lowery will be Live Blogging the making of Disney's Pete's Dragon 2015
David Lowery on set of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints."

Understand how much your collaborators contribute

Lowery spoke to the need to keep the people around you who help you create your vision, and said that it was something he felt very deeply about when he got signed on to direct Pete's Dragon.

"...our collaboration runs so deep, that my movie is really our movie."

"On a big budget film, there's this sense that I'm the newcomer because I haven't done big budget. So they want to put you with a team who will help navigate that. At the same time, my movies have been successful because of my team. When I went to Disney, I told them my vision for how [Pete's Dragon] would feel. I said I need my crew to achieve the feeling I've had on all my other films. My production designer [Jade Healy] for example, our collaboration runs so deep, that my movie is really our movie. My team had to interview to get it, but was clear they were the right people for the job."


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.     

Featured image: A film still from 'A Ghost Story' by David Lowery, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Andrew Droz Palermo.

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