Admit When You Need Help, Work with Friends, and More Advice from the Sundance Filmmakers
40+ Sundance filmmakers share the best advice they have to get your first feature/project off the ground.
If you fancy yourself a hard-working, optimistic filmmaker hoping to get your first feature off the ground, then you already know that you will eventually be able to do it. If you believe in getting your vision up on the big screen, chances are you will find the resources necessary to make that happen.
Do we sound crazy? It's not as far-fetched as you may think. Filmmaking is a tough business but nothing can stop you from engaging with the artform itself. If you want to make a feature, sure, it will be a daunting struggle that threatens to test your passion at every turn, but if you can find a way, then you will follow that path.
With the 2019 Sundance Film Festival currently in progress, we asked several of this year's participating filmmakers what advice they would give to filmmakers looking to direct their first feature.
Scroll down to read the wisdom they offered.
A.J. Eaton (Director of David Crosby: Remember My Name): As Mark Twain said “write what you know.” Make movies and tell stories about subjects and themes you’re familiar with and passionate about.
Adam Newport-Berra (Director of Photography on The Last Black Man in San Francisco): Work hard, embrace your obstacles, be kind and good to those around you, believe in yourself and your collaborators, and when all else fails, trust in the simplest truths of the story you are telling.
Alex Chi (Producer of Ms. Purple): For a first time producer, definitely hope for the best but always be ready for the worst. It's important to plan as best as you can but it's essential to be able to problem solve the day of when the unexpected happens. There are many issues that can and will arise on set and the ability to keep a level head and to find solutions is key, especially starting out.
Alex Lehmann (Director of Paddleton): You don't have to have all the answers, but never make any up.
Andre Hyland (Director, Actor, and Producer of Old Haunt): Don't wait for everything to be perfect to shoot, just make a film no matter how big or small, then you'll be a filmmaker because then you are making films, plain and simple. Also, make something that excites you, not just something you think will excite other people. Do it for yourself first, it'll be your point of view and there's only one of you, so don't waste it. Learn how to make a film by making a film. Now go get started! Stop reading this...GO!
Anita Gou (Producer of Honey Boy and The Farewell): Don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and do as much homework as possible on your own to get your work to the highest quality possible. And don't be afraid to lean on experts and mentors and admit when you need help!
Britt Poulton (Director and Writer of Them That Follow): My single greatest piece of advice to other filmmakers, especially female filmmakers, is to choose your producers wisely. From start to finish, through every aspect of the filmmaking process, it is your producers who shape the space you work in. Partner with people who will both champion and challenge you, those who will protect you, not only your vision but your wellbeing. With the wrong producers my experience making Them That Follow could have been crushing, both personally and creatively. I went through a challenging pregnancy while shooting our film and my producers got me through it. Never once did they question whether I could do my job, they simply asked how they could support me. And boy did they! From midnight Indian food runs (thank you, Bradley Gallo!) to anti-nausea medication refills (thank you, Danielle Robinson!)—my producers showed up. They even designed our shooting schedule so we would be off on Mondays, allowing me to attend prenatal appointments (thank you, Mike Leahy!). All that is to say, making a film is a deeply collaborative process. This is less a job, and more a lifestyle—always be mindful of those you let into your life.
Bronwyn Cornelius (Producer of Clemency): Create a great team that believes in the project and each other— from the top-down to the bottom-up. You are all important, and you are all there to ultimately accomplish the same goal.
Charlie Scully (Producer of The Sound of Silence): Be patient. Don't rush your project out there until you feel it's in the best shape possible. Don't direct a feature until you feel as confident as you can to be able to do so. Direct a few shorts and commercials so you can get a handle on it. Even then, directing a short is a far cry from actually doing a feature. You really have to do your best to nail it the first time or else the second feature will be a lot tougher to get off the ground.
Chester Algernal Gordon (Producer of Fran This Summer): Really get to know your subjects if you’re making films about others outside of your experience. Add layers to your characters and give them depth. Find the humanity in every character.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: (The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind): I was glad that we’d worked through the entire script with an exhaustive shot list that maximized our hours of daylight and that we’d broken everything down according to the sun’s position at every moment. This gave us a solid and strict game plan to get the most out of every day in challenging circumstances. Like so much in life, preparation is critical.
Dan Madison Savage (Director and Writer of Them That Follow): Directing is adapting. Things will go wrong. It's your job to recognize it and to do so quickly. But I always tried to keep in mind what we needed, not what I wanted. So let go, and open up; it’s when I found myself at my best, and my collaborators at theirs. Try something different and let yourself be surprised.
David Wnendt (Director of The Sunlit Night): Well I have three that have served me well so far.. 1. Nobody likes smart asses 2. Don't trust people with snake tattoos 3. Don't eat yellow snow.
Debra Eisenstadt (Director, Writer, and Producer of Imaginary Order): Don't wait for someone to give you permission to do what you want to do. Understand no one cares about your project as much as you do. So focus, work hard, take charge and figure out how to get it done yourself.
Elegance Bratton (Producer of Fran This Summer): I think the most important thing for a first-time filmmaker is to trust your experience. Your cinematic voice is the combination of your craft and the life you live. So be present in every moment of every day and put what to learn in your work. The world needs to hear what you have to say. Just say it with heart and soul.
Emelie Mahdavian & Su Kim (Producers of Midnight Traveler): Find experienced collaborators to guide you.
Eric Lin (Director of Photography on The Sound of Silence): My advice is an obvious one: you need to surround yourself with good people. However, this isn’t easy as it sounds because it also means being truthful with yourself about what your own shortcomings are and what you need help with. The energy of the crew suffuses what happens in front of the camera and I want as little as possible to impede the flow of creativity on set. With the right crew and the right environment, that creativity comes from all directions, the AC, the key grip, etc.
Also, do your research. When I’m considering hiring someone new, I always want to know how they will react to challenging situations while shooting which is tough to figure out in a short interview. If I’m looking for new crew for projects out of town or out of the country, I always check in with DPs who have worked with that crewperson to get an understanding of how the crewperson worked and operated on set. Don’t be afraid to reach out for feedback. You’d be surprised how open people, especially DPs, are to giving feedback even if you contact them out of the blue. I shot My Blind Brother in Cleveland and a lot of local crew worked on Miles shot by Roberto Schaefer (Quantum of Solace). I cold emailed him and he was generous enough to call me back right away and give me great insight to the crew he worked with even though he was very busy at the time. I tried to return the same courtesy whenever people reach out to me and keep the cycle of goodwill going. And, in fact, things came full circle two years later when Matthew Libatique (A Star is Born, Venom) emailed me asking for my feedback on some of the same crew I worked with in Cleveland for a small film he was shooting there.
Garret Price (Director and Editor of Love, Antosha): No project is ever too small or big as long as the material is something you connect with. It's actually the smaller projects I've taken on that have ultimately paid off in the end.
Grant Sputore (Director of I Am Mother): Adapt and persevere.
Henrik Georgsson (Director of The Man Who Played with Fire): Don't hesitate, just do it.
Irene Taylor Brodsky (Director of Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements): Story is King. That should always be your driving force, not the equipment you use. Identify your blind spots as a director—maybe they are technical, maybe with your style—and then find a team who can complement your skill set and vision.
Jason Orley (Director and Writer of Big Time Adolescence): 1. You are really never done writing the movie until the last day of editing. Have a clear vision, but be open to new ideas and moments of inspiration on set. In most of the scenes in this film, there is some line of dialogue or artistic detail that was not discovered until we got to set that day. And more often than not, those are my favorite moments in the movie. 2. It’s important to hire a crew who can execute your vision, but it’s more important to hire a crew who have their own unique perspective and can offer ideas you would never have thought of.
Joe Berlinger (Director of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile): I always tell young filmmakers that the best thing that they can do is just go out and make something. Find what you are passionate about and don’t let anything stop you from turning your dream into a reality. Bruce Sinofsky and I maxed out 12 credit cards and took out second mortgages on our homes when making our first film, Brother’s Keeper, which premiered at Sundance in 1992. We were in such incredible debt and had no idea if the film would be at all successful, but we were happy doing what we loved no matter what ended up happening. Back then renting gear, buying film, and having your footage processed and married to an audio track would cost hundreds of dollars for every 10 minutes of shooting. Today, advancements in technology have democratized the filmmaking process and made it a lot easier for first-timers to grab a camera and create. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way, but I’m glad that there are more resources out there for young filmmakers looking to get their start today.
Julian Cautherley (Producer of Clemency): You are not a first-time filmmaker. Trust your instincts. Listen and sponge up from others and surround yourself with people that are great at what they do and who believe in the movie you want to make. Above all, make sure you are fine working with these people for months and years on end and can stand being in a sprinter van for long periods of time.
Justin Chon (Director of Ms. Purple): Shoot, shoot, shoot. Don't wait. Then examine and consider how to do it better and then go shoot again
Ken Rosenberg (Director and Producer of Bedlam) and Peter Miller (Producer of Bedlam): Documentary is always a profoundly collaborative medium, not just among the filmmaking team, but between the filmmakers and the people whose lives we have the honor of documenting. Everything we do as filmmakers should reflect our respect and commitment to the people whose lives we are allowed to share in our films.
Kim Longinotto (Director of Shooting the Mafia): I don't ever give advice. We're all so different and each film has its own journey.
Lucas Gath (Co-Director and Director of Photography of Ghost Fleet VR): If you want to do VR/360, try new things and don't be afraid of making mistakes.
That's what film is all about, and that applies even more to VR/360.
In this new landscape, any mistake can be a breakthrough, and any new idea could redefine and shift the direction of 360 storytelling. The AR/VR/XR world is in diapers. Take advantage of how much you can do.
Luke Lorentzen (Director, Producer, Editor, and Director of Photography on Midnight Family): I've always found it very useful to pick subject matters that repeat themselves, especially with my early films. Having the ability to try certain approaches and fail without ruining the story has been insanely helpful to my process. I would also encourage first-time filmmakers to just go shoot and shoot and shoot. Learn and play with every single part of the filmmaking process.
Lulu Wang (Director and Writer of The Farewell): Make things. Make a short, make a podcast, write a short story, find any way you can to keep making things because you never know where your next opportunity will come from.
Martha Stephens (Director of To the Stars): This isn’t groundbreaking information and I’m sure you’ve heard it before but I find it very useful: 1. Only tell stories you love. 2. Don’t wait for permission, just make it as small and as dirty as you have to. 3. Always be present on set, don’t get bogged down with the what if’s.
Matt Porwoll (Director of Photography on Tigerland): My advice to first-time filmmakers is to always follow the story. Don’t let technology get in the way of telling that story. There will always be hiccups with gear and speed bumps in production, but they come with the territory. Make mistakes (as ALL docs encounter), learn from those mistakes, and keep going. As long as you follow the story, everything will work out in the end.
Michael Lloyd Green (Writer and Co-Producer of I Am Mother): Work with friends, people who know you, who trust you, who speak your language. And who will forgive you quickly when you say or do the wrong thing. And you will, more than once. Be quick to extend them the same courtesy.
Michael Prall (Producer of The Sound of Silence): Surround yourself with talented people that you actually like. You're going to spend a lot of time together, so make sure you're in good company. But at the same time, make sure they challenge you to do your best, and be sure to do them the same favor.
Minhal Baig (Director of Hala): Make the films that you want to make. Start small and make movies with your friends.
Mirrah Foulkes (Director of Judy and Punch): Work as hard as you possibly can without killing yourself and don't acquiesce too easily because once you get to the edit you will always wish you hadn't.
Myf Hopkins (Producer of The Last Tree): Fake it until you make it but never be afraid to ask for help.
Penny Lane (Director of Hail Satan?): I will aim this to directors specifically: I find that it is sometimes or even often the case that, as the director, you may feel this uneasy feeling that you alone do not know what your job is, that everyone else right down to the PAs definitely know what their job is and you sort of... don't?? In those moments you must remember that your job, as the director, is to KNOW WHAT THE FUCKING MOVIE IS and to communicate that effectively at all times. Your crew members do not necessarily even know why you are in a certain location filming certain things, or who the protagonists are, or where the scene would potentially fit into a larger story. Your editors are not mindreaders, either. You have to stay extremely aware of what the movie is (and is not), and be ready to answer decisively the one million questions you will be asked every day about what to do next. That's the actual job of director, and I find it's shockingly easy to forget.
Rashaad Ernesto Green (Director of Premature): Just do it. Trust yourself and get it done by any means necessary.
Richard Ladkani (Director and Director of Photography on Sea of Shadows): The path to success is never the easy one. You will have to take financial, physical or social risks to advance in this very competitive genre. You have to believe in yourself and stay committed to what you want to achieve. Don't ever deliver average work and be ok with it. Give your everything, show that you can have unique ideas and prove your talent whenever possible. Look out for this one chance that people will offer to you one day and seize the moment to show what you are capable of.
Ross Kauffman (Director, Producer, and Co-Cinematographer on Tigerland): I didn't go to film school. That's all I'm saying.
Ruben Impens (Director of Photography on Dirty God and Mustang): Relax and keep calm, it's just a movie. Follow your guts and treat the people and the subject with love and respect but fight for it as a tiger.
Sacha Polak (Director of Dirty God): I was not the best film student of my class. I am pretty sure of that. In life, many things happen without a reason. Maybe I was the one with most of the luck. Or maybe I just wanted to make films more badly then others. Try to prepare as best as you can and then try to be like water sometimes because nothing is going the way you thought and you better come up with a new idea. Try to be open and see what is there around you. Try to hold on to your initial ideas at other times. Stamping your feet or yelling does not seem to work that well.
Samantha Buck & Marie Schlingmann (Co-Directors and Co-Writers of Sister Aimee): Here’s a few contradictory tidbits: low-budget usually means you have more creative control, so take advantage of it. This is not the project to smooth out the edges. Let it be totally you. Also, be prepared to make compromises on everything (never on the performances though)!
Shola Amoo (Director of The Last Tree): Your perspective is your USP.
Tayarisha Poe (Director and Writer of Selah and the Spades): Don't shoot for coverage, shoot for what the story needs.
Tim Mason (Director and Co-Writer of Work in Progress): Go make it. Make something. It might not be perfect and you might not have all the resources you want, but embrace you what you do have and go do it. I know it may seem overwhelming at the start, but a mouse can eat an elephant one bite at a time, so just get it started and take the first bite.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Director and Producer of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am): Raise more funds. You will need them.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.