'If It Sucks, You Need to Know!' and More Indispensable Advice from Sundance Filmmakers
Here are the best filmmaking tips we got from Sundance directors this year.
Park City has packed up the film festival party, so we've scoured our extensive coverage of Sundance 2017 to give you the best advice we picked up from fellow filmmakers. May this wisdom inspire you to go out and make some good films!
Director Justin Chon:
I'm a huge believer of being in the field and learning by doing, rather than learning out a textbook. I didn't go to film school. The way I learned is just being on set and constantly asking questions of anyone who's knowledgeable about anything and being curious. and getting feedback too.
Also, get feedback. Ask friends and tell them to be honest, because if it sucks, you need to know! That's my advice.
Director Julian Rosefeldt:
You should stay curious and do things you really want to do. That's what I told my students when I was 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.
That's why I also am very skeptical of all these scriptwriting guides, like how to create unforgettable characters, blah, blah. It's all bullshit. It might be good to have read it, but then it's difficult to get it out of your mind. You’re taught three, four recipes again and again in different schools. That's why I think it's great to go museums as a film director and as an artist to go to good films. Just learn from it and widen your horizons, travel a lot, see a lot of things.
Director Dustin Guy Defa:
Work very hard, don't be lazy and don't waste people's time.
Director John Trengove:
When I challenge myself to step into a place that I'm not completely in control, or that I'm fearful of, that is 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 and to just follow it, because invariably you reach something interesting.
Director Dave McCary:
It goes back to just doing whatever you can to make something. Make those mistakes and know you’re going to make shitty videos. I mean, now that phones pretty much have high enough quality to the point you can create an entire movie with them, no one is not able to do this. If you really want it, just do it.
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.
Director Eliza Hittman:
A lot of people wait for some ungodly amount [of money] to come in before they make things. I wouldn't have been able to begin to build a career without working within limitations. I think you just have to not be afraid to work with what you have. In some ways, the desire to make the film has to come before your own expectations of what the set and toolkit are that you think you need to make it. You just have to have the desire to make it and work with what you have and not always wait on cast.
Director Michelle Morgan:
No one is going to ask you to be a filmmaker. You have to make a decision that you are going to be a filmmaker, no matter how long it takes and how hard it is. I could have easily given up a hundred and fifty-seven times, but something inside me was like, No! I have to make this film. So my advice would be, understand and accept that rejection is going to court you along every step of the way.
Humiliation and rejection will always be a constant. You just have to believe enough in what you’re doing to have that voice inside your head be louder. It's not going to be easy....You have to think outside the box. You can’t have too much pride, because you’re going to need to ask for a lot of things. And favors. And support. I think you have to give zero fucks.
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.
Director Ramona Diaz:
This is the best time to be a documentary filmmaker, I think. It's more democratic. You can just pick up a camera and go and make a film. That's, in a way, good and bad, because the other side of that is you really have to figure out your story. You really have to constantly, every day, ask yourself, "Okay, what am I trying to say?" and "Why am I the one saying that?"
You have to discover your voice and what you really want to say. Is it that important that you take four or five years out of your life to make? It's a constant question, I think. That question I think you should ask yourself every day. If you get a really solid answer and you're still gung-ho, then make the film.
Director Rahul Jain:
In terms of non-fiction, be open to accidents more. Actually, create conditions where more randomness and chaos can take over. It's a real dark minefield, but for me, it gave the best results. Have a plan, but be open to changing it, because reality is not objective. It's relative. If we can interpret the many multi-dimensional layers of this cake, then you hope that you're getting closer to knowing.
Co-Director Cary Murnion:
Movies take a long time to get going. You’re going to hear lots of no's, but if you believe in it, usually it’ll come. You have to have a good idea, but you really have to persevere because there are so many people trying to make movies that it's so easy to just drop off.
Co-Director Jonathan Millot:
It’s a cliché, but just do. There’s no reason not to do anymore. I also think there is a lot of cool, new stuff out there. Learn VR. Learn some of this stuff that old filmmakers can’t do and you’re immediately ahead of so many other people that are stuck doing the old stuff. If you’re a young filmmaker you’re still learning things anyways, so just learn more of the new stuff and see how you can create new visuals in ways that no one has ever seen before. That will be a way to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd.
Director Matthew Heineman:
I have fallen in love with one-man banding, and I think that's allowed me to get really intimate footage. It comes with not having a circus around you, but really forging those personal relationships, and being in that room alone with whomever it is. Your camera should just be innately part of who you are in the same way you don't think about breathing, or blinking, or walking. You just do it.
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.
Director Amman Abbasi:
Go in with no expectations. Trust that your film will get the reception that it needs, and allow yourself to enjoy it.
The Good Postman
Director Tonislav Hristov:
I don't think that anyone should think about the form. The form is not something that you think about, it's a tool that you then use to tell your story. Be really aware, really well prepared before you come with your camera. Spend time with the people without cameras. Just talk to them and earn their trust. I think that trust is something that you see in the film, especially in documentaries. If these people don't trust you, then you sense it right away.
Before I Fall
Director Ry Russo-Young:
I think filmmaking is a craft that you have to practice. We're obsessed with the prodigies who make one thing and it's amazing and then they win an Oscar. A lot of people have to make a bunch of films, and keep practicing what they're doing to get to something that they're meant to make. I think perseverance, practice, and hard work are the important things.
The more I direct, the more I realize how much I can learn from the people around me. I don't have to have all the answers. It takes great confidence to acknowledge that you don't know everything. People ask you questions on set all the time. It's okay to say, "I need a few minutes to think about that." It doesn't make you weak, it makes you strong.
The other piece of advice I have is prep and prep and prep and prep. You can never be too prepped! You gotta know that script like the back of your hand.
Don’t Swallow My Heart Alligator Girl!
Director Felipe Bragança:
You have to be stubborn like crazy. When you close your eyes, you have to continue seeing your movie. I say that I know I'm ready to make a movie when I close my eyes and I can hear the sound of the movie. If can hear the atmosphere, describe the sounds inside the movie, you are ready. If you still think of a movie that is outside of you, you still have work to do.
Director Jeff Orlowski:
There are so many stories that need to be told. There's so much out there that it's easy to find something important. Just find a story, and tell it.
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.