It's no secret that festivals are where many directors have gotten their starts, moving from films financed with maxed-out credit cards and shown at midnight screenings to big-budget epics, movie stars and the responsibility of handling a superhero franchise beloved by millions. Three directors with experience in both worlds, Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight), Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, Star Trek: Beyond), and Taika Waititi (Eagle vs Shark, Thor: Ragnarok) sat down at Sundance with radio host John Horn about navigating both worlds in a wide-ranging discussion. Watch the entire conversation on Sundance Institute's Youtube channel here, or read our top takeaways below.
Controversy can lead to success
For Lin, whose Better Luck Tomorrow was a look at high-achieving, affluent Asian-American teens who flirt with danger, a deal with MTV Films brought both "hundreds of calls" overnight as well as some unexpected backlash he hadn't been prepared for by his film school education. During a Q&A after its third screening at Sundance in 2001 (after the film had picked up considerable buzz), the mood turned contentious when an audience member gave the director flack for his depiction of Asian-Americans. Another member stood up to vigorously defend Lin, and this exchange "made all the difference....They were trying to clear out the theater for the next screening and no one would leave." That moment brought the film to a new level of social importance and helped boost its reputation and, in turn, led Lin to his current franchise career, directing three of the Fast and Furious films, as well as 2016's Star Trek Beyond.
In a connection between the two worlds, Han, a character in Tomorrow, also appeared in the Furious franchise, even though the two iterations existed in different universes.
Keep your crew close
When Hardwicke was shopping her first feature Thirteen, (an edgy tale of two teenagers on the cusp of adolescence who find themselves in over their heads in an adult world) she had already worked as a production designer on films like Vanilla Sky and Three Kings, and so had a "front seat" and knew about the differences in scale and politics between indie film and Hollywood work. After her next film, Lords of Dogtown, she moved into the stratosphere territory when she directed the adaptation of Twilight, the best-selling first entry in the beloved series of vampire novels that brought the genre to a new generation.
Horn asked about the importance of working with trusted team members from earlier in their career and for Hardwicke, it was her DP Elliot Davis, who had also worked with her on Dogtown and she found it "very helpful...he stepped with me from the beginning and taught me a lot."
For Taika Waititi, director of last year's hit Thor: Ragnorak, it was his production designer from 2007's Eagle vs. Shark, Joe Bleakely "just 'cause I got to hire a friend and it's like of the few people I got to bring with me...[it's] really important having some consistency with the people I work with."
The biggest difference
Hardwicke described the challenges she faced in making a movie like Twilight, which, while it shared a focus on an adolescent female lead with Thirteen, was a production on a scale unlike any other she'd worked on as a director. Interestingly, though, because the franchise had yet to become such a monster, "it was still a little bit like an indie film" as "nobody thought it would make any money so I didn't have quite the scrutiny and I just tried to make it as personal as I did in Thirteen."
The sheer size of the production, however, was a major change. Even as a trained architect and former production designer on big films who knew it was "all about planning," when it came time to apportion resources and make shot lists, "I knew I would just have that many minutes to get that or it cost you know all this money and I blew it and I had X number of days to shoot so I was very detailed very prepared but the night before a big sequence I just realized I couldn't do it in those three days a lot it and I cut out like a whole beat."
"If you have a hundred million dollar idea and only ten million dollars, then you start asking the right questions." -Justin Lin,
When Horn mentioned the old trusim, "Let your budget be your aesthetic," meaning if you have $50,000, the film you're going to end up with will not be the same as one with a budget of upwards of $100 million, Lin begged to differ slightly, saying, "I feel like you try to tell your story and, if you have a hundred million dollar idea and only ten million dollars, then you start asking the right questions of how to make that happen, but I think if you let the budget lead that's when you lose your perspective and I think the soul of the film."
Of course, for a filmmaker toiling in the indie trenches, the very idea of working with only ten million dollars, as all three have, this can seem like a pretty bold statement. Nevertheless, it points out the unique challenges faced by the filmmakers who have gone from the festival circuit to Hollywood, and especially to films where the stakes are just as high (because every film is a tight-rope walk), but the machinery in place, the politics, and the resources to be apportioned are so disproportionate to what you're used to dealing with.
This is a great talk to check out if you've ever wondered how a filmmaker could even fathom the change from a character-based drama shot with friends to a mega-budget star vehicle that also happens to have a rabid fan base who are watching every step you make. It's a tricky mountain to climb, but these three filmmakers navigated with surprising felicity evidenced in an ability to bring an indie spirit to the Hollywood machine, a trait that no doubt contributed to the success of their (far) more high-profile follow-ups.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.