January 31, 2018
Sundance 2018

Get Your Work to the Finish Line With These Tips from Sundance Filmmakers

Need some encouragement? 20+ Sundance filmmakers offer advice on getting your film made and seen.

Even though this year's Sundance Film Festival came to a conclusion last week, we're still reeling from the experience and aren't ready to let it go quite yet. And so we won't! Here, festival filmmakers offer words of wisdom and advice on getting your work to the finish line. As news of festival line-ups and competitive awards get covered more and more frequently during these winter months, it's important not to get discouraged and to remember that each film has a different path to completion. We hope this provides some inspiration for yours.

'This is Home,' courtesy of Alexandra Shiva.

Myrsini Aristidou (Director/Writer/Producer of Aria): Follow your intuition.

Alexandria Bombach (Director/Cinematographer/Editor of On Her Shoulders): Don't wait for permission to do this work. No one will ever give it to you. If anything, there will be plenty of people who give you advice about your projects and try to convince you to make them smaller. They may tell you not to do them at all. This comes from a place of fear for you, which is nice and all, but never made anyone a filmmaker. Go with your gut, dive in, and start learning (aka failing) as much and as quickly as you can. I am so thankful for each of my huge failures. Often, those failures were the seeds for something much greater. 

Andrew Carlberg (Producer of The Blazing World): Don't be afraid to ask anyone for anything.

Ashley Connor (DP on The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Madeline’s Madeline): Come prepared, be flexible, and hire people smarter than yourself. 

Christina Choe (Director/Writer of NANCY): What makes you unique is what will serve you in the end. Try to live your life and gain from those experiences so you can develop your original voice. Perseverance is key. 

Julie Cohen and Betsy West (Directors/Producers of RBG): Julie Cohen: Choose a subject that has enough layers to it and fascinates you so intensely that you are not just willing, but enthusiastic, about making it a huge part of your life for a substantial period of time. A good threshold question to ask yourself: would I be happy talking about this subject at literally every dinner party I go to for the next three years?

Betsy West: Making films is about developing relationships with your subject, with your team, and with everyone you encounter along the way. Be curious, be kind, and above all else, do your homework! Thorough research will prevent you from asking uninformed questions that will undermine the confidence of your subject. It will keep you from settling for easy answers. And it will lead you to uncharted territory where the most fascinating aspects of your story are to be found.

Dime Davis (Director of Wild Wild West: A Beautiful Rant by Mark Bradford): Make the damn film! It might suck, but it will also be an incredible experience. You'll hate it. You'll love it. Mostly though, you'll learn! (And then rinse and repeat.)

Liz Destro (Producer of Lizzie): Get as much help/advice as possible!

Michael Dweck (Director of The Last Race): Don’t wait for permission or take no for an answer. Be comfortable taking risks. Have confidence and conviction in your vision.

Robert Greene (Director/Editor/Writer of Bisbee '17): Watch movies. Don't be afraid to make bad movies. Follow that little voice that made you want to make movies from the start. There is wisdom in that immature instinct to make things but you have to combine that urge with a knowledge of what other filmmakers have done before you can really make something as relevant or moving or mysterious or as groundbreaking as you hope. But you can.

Anna Margaret Hollyman (Director of Maude): I was really nervous about what I felt were inadequacies in my film knowledge. I was intimidated by the technical aspect of the camera, as well as things like the lighting. But it's true: just be sure to surround yourself with a really fantastic crew. You're not supposed to be the camera expert on set; the DP is. Same goes for the gaffer, etc. Everyone is there to work together, and while you may be the director steering the ship, a good film set is an egalitarian space where you're collaborating and helping each other out when you hit a road bump. There's a balance to it all. And it makes it way more fun when you're all figuring it out together. Oh, and my other piece of age-old advice: don't skimp on craft services. 

Marc Johnson (Director of Ultraviolet)Never give up.

Nathaniel Kahn (Director of The Price of Everything): Tell it from your gut and from your heart. If you do that, mining feelings and experiences from your own life, you will succeed. For a medium so good at delivering fantasy and dreams, film is exquisitely sensitive to what is real and true. Don’t fake it trying to be anyone other than yourself. And it’s key to remember this: how much money a film makes is no measure of its value or cinematic quality. Trust in the work!

'American Animals,' courtesy of Bart Layton.

Bart Layton (Director/Writer of American Animals): I'm not sure I feel qualified to dish out advice but I guess it would be along the lines of this: Shake your script until nothing comes loose. Understand why every scene is there and whose scene it is. Know what every character wants overall and then what they want in every scene. Know what their emotional journey through the scene is. If you're a control freak (as most of us directors are), I'd advise doing an insane amount of prep. I heard that Herzog said storyboards are for cowards, but for me, storyboarding allows you to visualize the whole movie in detail and talk it out. It may only show stick figures, but you need never show them to anyone, and it can help you figure out how you want to move between scenes and how close you want to be to your characters. Most of all, it provides a sense of having a plan. That will help to relax you and be open to the real magic that happens on the day, thanks to these mesmerizing folks called actors. Oh, and also apply to the Sundance Labs!  That was an experience I'm eternally grateful for.

Tatiana Leite (Executive Producer of Loveling): Make sure you really want to make your film. Know what your film is how you intend to achieve it. Developing a very good relationship with your producer is essential. Be open to listening and exchange ideas.

Bing Liu (Director of Minding the Gap): Tell the story you're willing to fail a million times over to be able to tell.

Sev Ohanian (Co-Writer/Producer of Search): I'm a big believer in self-education. There's absolutely endless merit to "just go and shoot something." My own career started because I went out and made a movie on my own. However, in the current industry where there are countless filmmakers creating their own content, first-time filmmakers have to be smarter than ever and should use every advantage possible to make sure their films are as good as possible and can be positioned for maximum impact.

I'm an adjunct professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, and I can't recommend film school enough. BUT you can't go wrong with hitting Amazon.com and searching for every screenwriting or film production book on the market. Read them cover to cover. Go to your local library or find great articles online (there's a great site called No Film School that's got tons of them). So yes, get out there and make your movies, on your own cameras and phones, and don't let anyone tell you that's not possible for first-timers. But before you do: try to learn from the experiences (and mistakes) of the filmmakers who have come before you.

Maxim Pozdorovkin (Director, Producer/Editor of Our New President): Be stubborn. While working, always know the specific problem that you are solving at any given moment. Be open to contingency, to expressive possibilities that you didn't foresee. Be playful.

Amy Scott (Director of Hal): If you feel compelled to make something, make it. Don't wait, and don't stop halfway through. It might take years, but finishing is the most rewarding feeling in the world. 

Alexandra Shiva (Director/Producer of This is Home): I'll share the best advice that I have ever received, which is to be as specific as possible in your storytelling. Focus on the subjects and the story in front of you. Let go of whatever preconceived notions you might have about what the film should be and what message it should send. If you are true to the subjects (and do justice to their experiences) then you've done your job. 

'Counterfeit Kunkoo,' courtesy of Reema Sengupta.

Reema Sengupta (Director/Writer of Counterfeit Kunkoo): Preparation will be your biggest strength. Spend a lot of time and effort on the preproduction, document everything to the last detail. Take the time to do multiple tech checks, and go into production knowing exactly what you want. This helps you to stop worrying about the basics and explore spontaneity on set. Get honest friends who will tell you what you need to hear and not what you'd like to hear. Most importantly, make films! I'd like to tell young independent filmmakers to be exactly that: "young." Be ambitious, dreamy, unafraid, and a tad bit naive. "Independent filmmakers'" should make films without waiting for someone to come and make them happen. The struggle is real and so is your hustle.

Sandi Tan (Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor of Shirkers): If you want to make a good movie, watch great movies. If you want to make a bad movie (some people do), watch terrible movies. But always: watch movies! So many people jump into filmmaking arrogantly, believing they're inventing the wheel, or that they're savants. Even if you're trying out something genuinely fresh, there's always something to learn from the wonderful movies made by over a century of filmmakers before you, not just in Hollywood but in the entire world. From the truest ones, you'll feel a genuine LOVE of the medium. It'll be palpable. Grab onto that. Be inspired. Let that excitement, that ecstatic ardor, fuel you. If you don't, filmmaking is so damn hard, and I tell you, it's going to crush your poor heart.

Lorna Tucker (Director of Westwood): Trust your instincts, learn the art of collaboration, and never give up. If you truly believe, at the bottom of your heart, that your story needs to be heard, it will get there in the end. Trust in it. If it doesn't happen as quickly as you want it to, that's only because the world isn't ready yet!

Charlotte Wells (Director of Blue Christmas): See every project through to completion, and then move right on to the next one.

Sarah Winshall (Producer of Clara’s Ghost): Don’t wait for permission or for the stars to align or for it to be the right time; when you know what you want to make,  just forge ahead!


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.

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