'Just F**king Put It Together': Kestrin Pantera's Directing Advice to New Filmmakers
She has a point.
Kestrin Pantera has some pretty direct advice for aspiring directors. Pantera is an actor, writer, director, producer, editor, and musician, and her new film, Mother's Little Helpers, premiered at SXSW on March 9. It stars Pantera, Milana Vayntrub, Breeda Wool, and Sam Littlefield as siblings returning home to be with their dying mother, who is played by SNL alum Melanie Hutsell.
Everyone's carrying a lot of metaphorical baggage, mostly that they don't trust their mom, who has lied compulsively their entire lives. The film is an easy, artful exploration of the siblings' emotions and personal problems.
The premiere screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema South Lamar had a party-like atmosphere, with Pantera hyping the crowd and the cast reacting to her with wild cheers. They behaved like a rowdy family because Pantera had gathered some of her closest friends for the project. The movie didn't have a casting director.
"Normally I would just grab, almost like you're in a sandbox, whoever's around," she said. "And be like, 'You do this, and I'll be the mom, and you'll be the baby and we'll play family.' And I just had the balls to ask the most talented people who I was already friends with to do it. And that was kind of the scariest part, was asking Milana if she would act in my movie, and asking David Giuntoli if he would act in my movie."
She was a fan of Hutsell and met her after a live show. Pantera said she was "wildly inappropriate" about the fact that she was lactating after the birth of her son. A year later, Pantera pitched Hutsell the movie.
"I just had the balls to ask the most talented people who I was already friends with to do it."
"I was just like, 'So here's the story,'" she said. "'You wanna walk to my office next door, I can show you the big board and we can walk through the whole thing?' And I basically told her every single scene in the movie in this two-hour meeting, and she was like, 'Okay, cool.' And I was like, 'So we have the camera on Wednesday, so if you want to do it I need to know tomorrow.' She was like, 'Okay,' and we just did it."
Although Pantera had known many of the team as friends, she was still nervous about asking some of them to join the project.
"I think a lot of it was just asking people who had done bigger stuff than I had done up to that point to just do my shit and listen to me," she said. "It's a really vulnerable ask, because you're giving me permission to boss you around and tell you what to do and basically giving me your soul and your life and your time and your talent. And I'm going to take it all."
Pantera is free with compliments and praises the various members of her team, like director of photography Meena Singh. She shares the writing credits on this project with Hutsell, Littlefield, Vayntrub, and Wool, and producing credits with an even larger group.
"One toxic thought can spread and destroy a set, so we were really, really conscientious of everyone who is here is doing this because they want something out of it for them," she said. "Hence making everyone a co-writer, hence making everyone a producer, because it was what I had to offer them that would give them leverage in other aspects of their career for the future. Just one dinky credit on IMDb might be enough to help them get a different job or title in a future production. We didn't have a lot of money, so why not be generous with credits? What the fuck does it take away from me? Our movie's here, I still directed it."
Learning from her first feature
While making her first film, Let's Ruin It with Babies, Pantera had to do a lot of the post work herself. She edited the film alone, for instance. Between then and now, she said, she's learned a lot.
"I think I've learned how to lean on my team more, really have a producer and less of a predator style, producer/editor/director," she said. "Much less of that. More having a lot of editing support, having a lot of technical support. With my first movie, I didn't have a post-production facility that handled stuff, and that's very different. I remember the last film, I didn't have a sales agent, and I didn't have a publicist."
For the past 10 years, Pantera and her husband have run the RVIP during SXSW, an immersive party RV with karaoke. Having this business was something that put her front and center of the festival and gained her numerous networking connections. It also taught her about running a business and managing a team, talents that she later applied to filmmaking.
"Anything is easy after running the RV, I feel," she said. "The RV is a much more grueling management situation. There are logistical and mechanical aspects, there's a performative element, you're putting on a show, there's safety factors to consider."
Pantera said she actually enjoys the minutiae of agreements and contracts, and overall the experience has been beneficial.
"It helped me with articulating boundaries really clearly in a way that I think is helpful in bringing that to a film set but also creating a space we can emote freely," she said. "We pride ourselves on being a lot of people's first karaoke experience ever."
On the RV itself, Pantera has learned how to read guests' moods and figure out how to nudge them toward having fun with performing.
"I think that there is an element to filmmaking that is kind of like that," she said. "Teasing out people's comfort zones, creating that just by vibing off where they are and also in giving adjustments and takes. I mean, a lot of running the RV is just shouting at people and telling them what to do."
"You should be shooting and editing every single day until you are good, and then and only then do you deserve an editor."
Her advice to aspiring directors?
"The most important skill is to know how to edit," she said when asked for advice. "I would say download Adobe Premiere Creative Cloud right now. Figure it out, whatever you have to do to get it. Beg or steal, get it and get fluent in editing. You should be shooting and editing every single day until you are good, and then and only then do you deserve an editor. I think so many people get blocked by, 'But I need to hire an editor!' No, you fucking don't. Can you look at the thing and decide what's good? Just fucking put it together."
This is not to say that you shouldn't work with editors, she said. It's just good to have that knowledge in case of emergencies.
"Making films is a long, fucking grueling road," she said. "And you will be alone at two o'clock in the morning, crying in front of your laptop, and no one will be there to fucking help you except yourself, so you better be able to fucking switch a shot or swap out a clip or adjust the pacing without help."
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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.