30+ Sundance filmmakers share how they overcame their biggest production hurdles.
With the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in full-swing, we're introducing the first part of a three-question survey No Film School conducted with filmmakers hosting a project in the festival. While parts two and three will be released later this week focusing on camera/gear and helpful advice for No Film School readers, today's edition asks the question: What was the biggest challenge you faced in making your film?
While there's now a palpable feeling of gratefulness and accomplishment in the air here in Park City, the filmmakers had to go-above-and-way-beyond to get to the finish line and taste that gratification. Below, they reveal how they did it.
Myrsini Aristidou (Director/Writer/Producer of Aria): We discovered the lead actress 24 hours before day one of the shoot, and had to inform the previous actress that she would not be doing the part.
James Belfer (Executive Producer on Tammy's Tiny Tea Time): Producing high-quality animation independently is very difficult (and rarely done) so it took us finding the right people willing to put in long hours for a long period of time.
Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck (Directors of The Cleaners): The cleansing of social media is a hidden industry outsourced to the developing world. The outsourcing companies hired by Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social media companies use code words to hide their clients and the work they do for them. The young “content moderators” are intimidated not to talk to anybody about what they see on their screen on a daily basis not even to their families, so in most cases their parents or loved ones have no idea what they do at work.
You can imagine how difficult it is to make a movie about a hidden industry like this. How challenging it is to get access to people whose workplace is secluded and surveilled strictly and who need to stay anonymous by all means because if they don’t they would suffer from massive repressive measures. It was a tedious and exhausting process to find protagonists for this film because, first of all, we needed to find out where exactly the work for Facebook and others is done. As we couldn't film them at their actual workspaces for obvious reasons, we soon decided to create a space based on the descriptions of the content moderators which allowed these young people to find the silence and concentration to actually verbalize what they have seen and experienced.
We were able to film in an almost finished office space that represented authentically under what circumstances the content moderators usually work and also gave them a feeling of familiarity and security. This room became the formal frame of our film. As it was our debut film, there’s still so much we have to find out ourselves. However, it’s all about balancing preparation and openness.
Alexandria Bombach (Director/Cinematographer/Editor of On Her Shoulders): Our protagonist Nadia's schedule day-by-day was unpredictable. When I first left to film, I had packed my bags to spend a month in Kurdistan to film the organization that works with Nadia. When I met Nadia and her team in New York, the plans had changed. They were headed to Canada. I spent the next three months following them to different countries and each day was a new challenge. Many of Nadia's meetings or interviews came together so quickly it was hard to get permission to get inside. It was also incredibly difficult to witness how much Nadia was doing and then still ask her to put on a wireless mic. Her work was exhausting, so I tried to have the least amount of impact as I could. It was not easy.
Andrew Carlberg (Producer of The Blazing World): The biggest challenge was creating a world that wasn't grounded in our reality on a short film budget.
Ashley Connor (DP on The Miseducation of Cameron Post & Madeline’s Madeline): On low budget films, the greatest challenge is always prioritizing time. You don’t have many days to shoot the film, so it’s really coming up with creative and precise ways to get it all shot within the scheduled amount of time. For me, I try to light in a way that lets me move around quite freely in case I need to move fast.
Christina Choe (Director/Writer of NANCY): As a first-time feature director, financing was, of course, a huge challenge. And when we finally got some traction, we actually lost a key investor in the aftermath of the presidential election—they just got cold feet in a time of unexpected, total uncertainty. We almost had to pull the plug, but my producers had nerves of steel, and we started shooting anyway, while still raising financing. Luckily, I was mostly shielded from that stress!
Julie Cohen and Betsy West (Directors/Producers of RBG): There are lots of challenges we could choose from! One of the biggest was telling a story focused on an institution, the U.S. Supreme Court, that doesn’t allow a lot of access. You can’t film Supreme Court arguments, or the Justices conferring on how to decide cases. There are strict limits both on Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg’s time and on what she can discuss on camera. But challenges are meant to be worked around, right?
We made use of the Court’s audio recordings. We did a wide range of interviews and gathered phenomenal archival footage. And we were hugely fortunate that Justice Ginsburg allowed us to film her in a variety of settings—spending time at home with her granddaughter; rehearsing for a speaking role in an opera; even in the gym working out with her personal trainer—that will give viewers a sense of really getting access the public doesn’t expect to get to a sitting Supreme Court Justice.
Laura Coxson (Producer of Chef Flynn): A main challenge was gaining the trust of our subjects, and access to their lives and films (Meg, mother of Flynn, shared her footage with us) which director Cameron Yates spent years earning. His patience and personality were the best asset to the film. We were given all of Meg's footage of Flynn's childhood, which is integral to our documentary film about their relationship and how his talent was fostered.
Dime Davis (Director of Wild Wild West: A Beautiful Rant by Mark Bradford): Our film is categorized as a documentary short. But to my producing partner, Elle Lorraine, and me, it feels more like an experimental art film. Very early on, we chose to be bold with every aspect of the film: the visuals, the interview, the editing, the music. So, the real challenge was making sure none of these elements overpowered another. We needed it all to work harmoniously for the piece to work as a whole.
Liz Destro (Producer of Lizzie): Typical answer: time. No real way to overcome it except to shot list and plan each minute and cut anything not essential.
Michael Dweck (Director of The Last Race): The chaos of the race track where we shot was a constant challenge to the deliberate and composed approach we wanted to bring to the images. It was loud. So loud that verbal communication was often impossible, and we had to resort to a makeshift sign language to communicate amid the cacophony. On the long summer that we shot most of the film, racing happened once a week on Saturdays, and during that time we needed to get as much footage as possible. As we navigated around the pits of the track, cars would be coming at us from every direction, rarely willing to slow down or swerve to avoid the camera set up.
Setting up a shot and seeing it through to completion often became a game of chicken between the drivers and us. It usually took many losses before we got the shot we needed, which was fair; after all, it was their turf. After a day of shooting at the track, our ears would be ringing, and we would be coughing up all the exhaust we sucked down until we came back the following week and did it all over again.
Robert Greene (Director/Editor/Writer of Bisbee '17): The mining company tried to stop us from creating our replica train on the exact site of the Bisbee Deportation 100 years prior and tried to keep us from recreating the march of striking immigrant miners on the highway, but my producers (Douglas Tirola, Susan Bedusa and Bennett Elliott) are fucking heroes so they danced and punched their way to a win and turned would-be adversaries into allies. It's crucial to have people making a movie with you who are smarter and more capable and are better hustlers than you'll ever be.
Anna Margaret Hollyman (Director of Maude): Aside from getting over my chronic imposter syndrome? One of our scenes required a vintage Bronco. It was an essential plot point, and it fell through the morning of shooting. Through sheer happenstance, the house across the street from our location happened to have one, and the owner had stayed home for the day with a cold. After one of my producers, Bettina Barrow, knocked on his door and explained the circumstances, he tossed us the keys and let us use it for the day.
We felt beyond lucky, it almost seemed too good to be true. I think it was a good lesson in understanding that once you're in production, as much as things can constantly go off the rails, there are also some strange and mysterious ways things end up working themselves out beyond your control.
Isabella Eklöf (Director of Holiday): The biggest challenge was getting the Dutch, Danish and Turkish team mentalities to work together. We only partly overcame it; we just trudged on.
Nathaniel Kahn (Director of The Price of Everything): The greatest production challenge was weaving all the stories of our various characters together into a coherent whole. To make a film like this one, which is narratively quite complex, you really need to allow time in the editing room and trust you will come out on the other side. It took us more than a year to put it all together and I was very lucky to be able to work with several talented editors—the primary one was Sabine Krayenbühl, whose sense of how to make a scene out of vérité material is extraordinary.
One must not be afraid to give and give and give to a film until it begins to make sense. This is often hard for people outside the process to understand. To make a film like this, you have to accept that it will go through periods when it really doesn’t work, but then suddenly, you move things around, eliminate unnecessary elements and the film start to click.
Gus Krieger (Director/Producer/Co-Screenwriter of My Name Is Myeisha): Our biggest challenge was likely financing and making sure we had all the appropriate resources for realizing the collective vision. Get out there and shoot something—short, webisode, whatever. There's no better education than making it happen yourself.
Bart Layton (Director/Writer of American Animals): Coming from having only really made documentaries in the past, every single thing seemed like a colossal production challenge. I'd never written a screenplay before and had minimal experience of working with actors. Having never been to film school, I felt like there was mountain of stuff I didn't know how to do, a technical language I hadn't learned. With docs, the crew can be as small as just one, whereas this was a union shoot and with that comes a lot of bodies and trucks.
No one stopped telling me I'd written twice the number of scenes we could feasibly shoot in the time, I had also written in some elements of non-fiction and it was hard to demonstrate how these were going to be woven into the film seamlessly (even I could only hope they would!). I guess I overcame these anxieties by over-preparing, worrying every minute element, every line of dialogue, talking every shot through with my cinematographer, storyboarding almost everything (I never ended up sharing the boards with the crew but kept them in my back pocket) in order to have a solid plan that could be thrown away on the day in favour of something better or more spontaneous.
Heather Lenz (Director/Producer of Kusama-Infinity): There have been too many challenges to count. These days, I try to take inspiration from the subject of my film, Yayoi Kusama. She overcame so many obstacles but found a way to not only survive, but thrive.
Bing Liu (Director/Producer of Minding the Gap): Being a one-man-band meant a mistake or a slip up was always imminent. So I had to always redesign my camera rig or my audio set-up to accommodate the situation and be ready for quick changes on the production day.
Sev Ohanian (Co-Writer/Producer of Search): The greatest challenge was consistently selling people on the idea of the film in the first place. We were exploring uncharted territory with the making of this one, and while in the past there have been other films that have similar conceits, with Search we were trying something entirely different and new. It was convincing actors (or their reps) to take the plunge, crew members to become pioneers, or our own investors to spend a little bit extra... and we needed a way to make them all see what the film could become.
Ultimately, our core team came together and created a three-minute proof-of-concept we made for scrap. We cast our own roommates as the characters and slapped it together in a few days on an ancient computer, but the end result was a sample tease of the final version of the movie. And it acted as the beacon that drew our entire cast and crew take a leap of faith to join us on the ride. And I'm so glad they did!
Jack Henry Robbins (Director of Painting with Joan): Filming on analog VHS is a challenge within itself: making sure the footage came out and was captured correctly, dealing with old equipment. Applying VHS footage to the modern post process is also super tricky, like synching sound or transferring footage.
Maxim Pozdorovkin (Director, Producer/Editor of Our New President): There is a radical simplicity to making an archival film. The myriad of production and storytelling challenges faced on most films are reduced, in an archival film, to one big towering question: how do you make this material not seem like a random assemblage of footage? How do you make this material watchable as a film? This threat hangs over the film long into the editing process. Yet, over time, you find the film's tone and a storytelling voice emerges that holds all the material together. It is a fraught process but a magical one.
Amy Scott (Director of Hal): Having children and trying to push forward with the edit was a challenge and so was finding financing to complete the edit. However, our producing team buckled down and we all worked for free with our own equipment and skills until it was finished
Alexandra Shiva (Director/Producer of This is Home): The language barrier was the greatest production challenge. Three of the four families we followed spoke no English. We had to figure out a way to work in the field, both with and without an interpreter. What saved us was finding a small group of Syrian advisors, who helped translate not only the language but also the culture. There were still plenty of times when we were unable to have an interpreter present, which meant that I had to operate more on instinct. I really had to trust my gut in those moments and in the end, I think it helped me become a more intuitive filmmaker.
The language barrier was also an issue in the editing room. We had every word in the nearly 300 hours of footage translated. We didn't want to miss a single moment.
Reema Sengupta (Director/Writer of Counterfeit Kunkoo): On the third day of the shoot, we were supposed to shoot in a government hospital. We had secured permission from the head of the hospital, and conducted extensive tech research. On the day of the shoot, we were suddenly told we can’t shoot. It turned out the person who gave us permission didn’t have the authority to do so, and since it was the weekend, we couldn’t get any permission that day.
Immediately we split the crew up – two teams went location hunting, while I ran to a prop shop with the art director and picked up anything that would make a space look like a hospital. A couple of hours later, we were shooting in a school corridor converted into a hospital set. Despite a delay of 5-6 hours, we still wrapped the day on time!
Sandi Tan (Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor of Shirkers): The dread of seeing myself on camera and hearing myself narrating the VO was the biggest challenge. As a camera-shy person, this was a great personal horror. But over the course of the one-year edit, I learned to detach me-me from filmmaker-me, and filmmaker-me from film-subject-me (or what my team calls "the Sandi character"), and then re-enter the fray yet again as a completely objective stranger-impersonating-me-the-filmmaker as I worked on the final cut. It was a whole lot of detaching and compartmentalizing and swapping of masks.
Lorna Tucker (Director of Westwood): Filming until my due date in my pregnancy caused quite a few production challenges—especially in the middle of the summer at the very end when I decided it was time to film lengthy interviews in a windowless room upstairs at the fantastic Groucho Club in London bang in the middle of a heatwave. I think I nearly fainted on several occasions!
Other than that, I think the general problems first-time filmmakers find, borrowing equipment from friends, begging companies to help us (and we were incredibly lucky to gain support early on from ARRI, and even brands such as The North Face saved the day when we had to go to the Arctic for the Greenpeace trip and couldn't afford adequate clothing). So a big shout-out to all those companies that had faith in us and saved our butts those first few years of filming.
Charlotte Wells (Director of Blue Christmas): We shot a period piece on film with a 10-person crew. Everybody was stretched and working beyond belief, but the crew was a close knit group who works together often. We made adjustments, added support where it was needed, and produced something that I think appears on screen to have been made on a much bigger scale.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.