These Are the Biggest Challenges Filmmakers Faced Making Sundance Films

'Call Jane'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Your work isn't always under budget, on time, or easy!

We all know filmmaking is hard. You run into so many things like budgeting, location issues, casting problems—a pandemic! But challenges can still be viewed positively, if you learn from them.

That's why we spoke to a bunch of this year's fabulous Sundance creators and heard about some of their challenges, and how they overcame them. All these creators were asked to discuss their unique behind-the-scenes tales and any innovations they used on their sets to solve problems.

Check it out. Maybe their advice will help you avoid a headache of your own!

'Call Jane'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Phyllis Nagy, Director, Call Jane

“That's a question best answered over a series of good lagers. (Shooting a period piece on film with a single camera—which was our choice—over 23 days does tend to bring up some interesting challenges.)”

Eva Longoria Bastón, Director, La Guerra Civil

“We made La Guerra Civil in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Given the nature of the documentary, it was really important that I was able to lean into the intimacy of interviewing my subjects and not just rely on archival footage. To achieve that intimacy and make sure we got the breadth of representation on screen, I knew I needed to be in the room with our subjects. We encountered various challenges throughout our shoot, but fortunately we were able to get most of the interviews in-person, as everyone was eager to share their memories and talk about the significance of the fight and what it meant to them.”

Andre Hyland, Co-director/Producer/Writer/Actor, Culture Beat

“BTS are hands down our favorite boy band! Unfortunately, we were not able to get the rights to ‘Dynamite’ for our soundtrack.

As for other production challenges, hidden camera docu-style comes with its own set of unique challenges by nature. For example, hiding production in plain sight, finding marks, shooting in live areas, etc. It’s like setting up a sting operation, but you’re both the cop and the robber.”

'We Met in Virtual Reality'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Joe Hunting, Director/Producer/Editor/DP/Writer, We Met in Virtual Reality

We Met in Virtual Reality is a documentary shot entirely inside of the often chaotic worlds of VRChat (a user-generated social VR app). The biggest production challenge for the film was shooting for realism and capturing naturalistic movement. People inside VR move extremely fast and unpredictably, so ensuring I was wholly listening to a moment and directing subjects to physically move in their spaces rather than using controllers was a constant concern. The aesthetic of social VR is naturally disjointed and confused, so embracing imperfection was important to me when overcoming hurdles like movement. Getting physically comfortable to shoot in VR for typically 4 + hours was also a challenge!”

Adam Stone, DP, 2nd Chance

“To be honest, the shoot went off without a hitch. The only challenges I experienced was shooting B-roll in a blizzard.”

Charlotte Hornsby, DP, Master

“One of the biggest challenges was the fact that we started in 2020, and we had to break down. We just stopped the shoot because of COVID only two weeks and a few days into shooting and we didn't resume until a year later. So we lost a lot of locations, some actors, we had new crew members come in and we had an entirely new way of working, with face shields and masks and distancing.

At the same time, it was a full year that I had to reflect over the work I had done and to look at the dailies, and I wrote a ton of notes for myself and I revisited a bunch of our references, and I pulled in new references. So, in some strange way, that time off, for me, was also kind of a gift, where I could reflect on what I'd done and what I wanted to improve upon. I have this huge document of notes that I wrote for myself during that time, that really informed how I approached going back in for the second half.”

'Watcher'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Chloe Okuno, Director, Watcher

“On the ground, I think the first couple weeks, we were doing night shoots on location in freezing cold weather, so that was another challenge.

And then for myself personally, I would just say that as a filmmaker, I've done enough shorts, and I had just come off of V/H/S/94. So I felt quite confident, but that doesn't mean that other people had that same level of confidence in me, because it was my first feature. And I was also in a different country. And frankly, I think the fact that I am a female director probably played some part in the dynamic of the set. So that's always challenging under any circumstance.

But in this movie, the nice thing was that I felt like it was speaking to the emotion of the character, of the movie that I'm making. And she's a person who's surrounded by doubt and has to navigate her way through it in a way that was very scary and hard. And I just felt like I could feed what I was feeling into the story, and I think it actually ended up in that way having a positive effect.”

James P. Gannon, Director/DP/Producer, Deathwoods Deathtrap

“Another challenge I had was capturing the train footage. I knew I needed to have footage from on a train, but wasn't sure how to do that. I hiked on train tracks a few times early in the a.m. hours to try to capture footage, but kept running into no trespassing signs. I reached out to everyone I know, and found people who worked on trains but no one could get me access. Eventually, I found a train you can pay to ride for fun… it’s for class trips for little kids and stuff. It just happened they were doing a Mother’s Day ride, so I booked tickets and showed up early so I could be on the last train car. Once the train ticket taker left, with instructions for everyone to ‘stay in their seats.’ I got up and filmed as much as I could, he never came back, and I was able to get what I needed.”

Constanza Castro and Doménica Castro, Directors/Producers/Writers, We Are Here

“We were working on We Are Here during the pandemic, while also simultaneously working on a commercial that was traveling around the United States. Any and all of our free time was used to make this film. Our animator Cecilia Reeve lives in London and one of our featured talent is in Italy, so we had to maneuver schedules and time zones to make it work. The beauty of our work is that when you work with incredibly talented people who also share the same level of love and passion for the story, you can jump through any obstacle!”

'We Are Here'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ben Klein and Violet Columbus, Directors/Producers, The Exiles

“Because the subject of our film is a documentarian herself, she's keenly aware of the power and presence of a camera. In order to capture her more natural moments, we trailed Christine almost constantly with a camera in our first year of production. She would often tell us, 'You shoot too much!' and remind us that in her day, they shot with a 1:1 shooting ratio and only rarely 2:1.

By the time we began interviewing the Exiles with Christine, she was extremely comfortable with our presence which allowed us to act as a fly on the wall as she reunited with the exiled dissidents.

This mutual trust manifested most directly in our final shoot of production, a nearly five-hour interview with Christine, which is a centerpiece of the film and guides the narrative framework.”

Jim Archer, Director, Brian and Charles

“Our main challenge was trying to get a 90-minute film shot in four weeks while still allowing for experimentation and improvisation. Which thanks to an amazingly slick and fun crew, we managed to do. Also working around a 7-foot robot on set.”

Jarmo Kiuru, DP, Girl Picture (Tytöt Tytöt Tytöt)

“One night sequence in the middle of the film was shot in a location that didn't provide literally any usable right for us, both interior and exterior. Together with the gaffer and set designer we needed to walk an extra mile to bring that place to life. Then there was of course all the action on ice: me, my grip, and the sound recordist were happy to put on our skates!”

Thiago Macêdo Correia, Producer, Mars One

“We had many obstacles due to the low budget and challenging story. We had many locations to shoot in, so they were hard to find with so little time. We had three specific stories that were kinda crazy and challenging to deal with. First, while capturing a bike sound for foley on the set, the boom operator (a girl that was an excellent bike rider) fell off the bike and broke her arm. Later on, the stills photographer was mugged on the last day of shooting, and we lost all the stills (including our cast and crew photo, shot that day). They took his camera, computer, hard drives, and motorcycle (it was the only day he went to set driving himself). Finally, after the last day of shooting, the main actor Cícero, who plays Deivinho, broke his arm playing soccer.”

'Mars One'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Adanne Ebo, Producer, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.

“Several scenes and our climax takes place on the side of a very busy road. Although we were able to get some shots on the side of an actual road, some we had to use a 'fake' road and make that into a realistic double for the actual road.”

Adamma Ebo, Director, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.

“Creatively, for me, it was using this mixture of style. It became very, very challenging and I think what my DP suggested is that we ... He had this whole spreadsheet already mapped out at the beginning of every day for what lens we're using for it, what the style is going to be, what the scene calls for and backups to that, if it didn't work. So organization really helped push that one through.”

Nina Menkes, Producer/Director, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

“The main unique challenge here was how to tell our story through the use of film clips, we had to find film clips that fit exactly into the flow of the film and supported the message that our interviewees were sharing. The film ultimately includes over 175 film clips, but it was an enormous job of research and trial and error to nail down the exact right clips to use. In addition, we were shooting the great majority of our interviews during the pandemic and it was challenging to do these remote over zoom. Nonetheless, we're excited at the powerful result!”

Shana Hagan, ASC, DP, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

“One of the biggest challenges was shooting Nina Menkes’ on-stage presentation of her Sex and Power talk. Because we knew her talk would be the backbone of the film’s structure, we wanted to shoot the main event on an epic scale. Filming in a large theater we set up a huge 24’ screen to project images and video clips behind her. We also shot with a live audience and utilized three cameras to cover various angles. We ended up shooting the presentation a couple of times in order to get different coverage on Nina, the screen and the audience. It presented a lot of challenges logistically and technically, but in the end became an integral part of the finished film.”

Cecily Rhett, Editor/Creative Producer, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

“My goal in editing and creative producing Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power was to prove the triangle of correlation between the objectification of women in cinema, employment for women in the film industry, and sexual harassment and assault. I wanted the connection to be made clear, to clarify the unity of themes for the viewer. The talk that the film is based on goes through film history chronologically, but I wanted the film to be thematic, to be an argument. My mother is a lawyer and I think I got this methodical persistence from her work. I wanted to support the content of the talk with more voices that could speak to the systemic nature of the issues that were linked to the objectification of women. So that meant more seeking out more interviews that would evolve with the edit. It was also very important to me to create an emotional structure for the movie that alternated dark and light, and then pulled you down, down, down, until we release you slowly into the ending. I like to release slowly to not give the audience ‘the bends’ as I think of it. Part of figuring out the ending was realizing that rage is also a kind of brightness, that can yield creativity, truth, and change.”

'Warsha'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Dania Bdeir, Writer/Director, Warsha

“When the pandemic started, everyone in the world felt like the ground beneath them had been violently ripped away as I'm sure many filmmakers struggled to make their films. But for us Lebanese, this emotional roller coaster started in October 2019 and is still ongoing.

The dismay was further exacerbated when on August 4th, 2020, Beirut had the largest non-nuclear explosion in history rip through Beirut. I witnessed it in front of my eyes, and even filmed it, not realizing the catastrophe that was about to happen. I will never be the same since that moment. It was a post-apocalyptic day and it has paralyzed me emotionally, literally, and creatively. Warsha's production house of our Lebanese co-producer was located in one of the worst-hit areas and it was destroyed: glass everywhere. The editor's apartment was completely ravaged. He was at home sitting at his workstation by the glass when it happened and he was injured and stuck in his apartment for a few hours not able to escape. The front door exploded and was blocked. The main actor Khansa as well suffered some damages... Every single person in Lebanon was hit that day whether physically or emotionally. Needless to say, it was hard to think about a film after that.”

Bradley Rust Gray, Director, blood

“When we got to Japan, our production company let us down so we needed to hire an entirely new company, but fortunately I found a line producer to help make that happen. I also wanted to focus on having as many days possible to shoot, and I wanted to shoot on real locations using real people in the background. This meant having a very small team: DP, 1st, 2nd, and one sound person. I had my assistant manage the schedule, costumes, make up, translations, and she kept my notes AKA script supervisor. It was a big job, but because we worked at a calm pace with more days this was manageable. She worked in coordination with our AD and my producer worked with the production company remotely, managing locations, payments, etc. The gaffer worked 2 to 3 days a week whenever we needed her. In Iceland we followed the same set up. Also, coincidentally, for some reason it was hard finding first AC's in both Japan and Iceland who fit our schedule, so we switched out first AC's often, which is not something I'd do again, but we had a great team, and they were all talented. It worked out great.”

Saul Williams, Co-director/Writer/Composer, Neptune Frost

“We had to gather over a ton of e-waste in order to build Digitaria—the village made of recycled computer parts—where the majority of our film takes place.”

'Last Flight Home'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ondi Timoner, Director/Producer/Editor/DP, Last Flight Home

“I never expected to turn the camera onto my family until my father decided to end his own life in late January 2021. I was just desperate to bottle my wonderful father up somehow, and this was the only way I knew how. He was my best friend, my greatest pal, and champion, and the most inspiring person my family and I, and most of our community, had ever known—so when he decided to end his life, I was quite suddenly catapulted into documenting as unobtrusively as possible—setting it all up in a way that would cause the least disruption of anyone’s experience, including mine. I put cameras on sticks and a lavalier mic on Dad and anyone who came to visit him. Still, I didn’t know that I was making a documentary while I was shooting this film. I was fully immersed in caring for my father while also soaking up every last minute I could have with him.

As I sat down to edit what was supposed to be a 5-10 minute memorial video a couple of weeks after his death for a Zoom service my sister, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, was officiating on March 21, 2021, the incredibly rich and beautiful footage poured over me. I found that my father was alive in the AVID! I could grieve him, often with laughter as he was extremely sharp-witted, and visit with him during long nights. Scenes and moments presented themselves almost effortlessly, and each could be seamlessly sculpted with a beginning, middle, and end while remaining absolutely truthful.”

Cooper Raiff, Director/Writer/Producer/Actor, Cha Cha Real Smooth

“We had to shoot 10 days in an abandoned mall. Four of the six bar and bat mitzvahs were filmed inside vacated restaurants and stores, one of them I am pretty sure used to be an Abercrombie. That wasn't ideal.”

Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes, Co-directors, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

“Perhaps the greatest production challenge was ensuring that the lives and the struggles of the Disney workers felt intimate. We had myriad challenges gaining access to their day in and day out lives. We were unable to follow them into Disneyland. And in several cases, their families and/or roommates were not comfortable with us filming inside their homes. So we were forced to use borrowed spaces and in some cases film interviews and scenes outdoors.”

'Hatching'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Hanna Bergholm, Director, Hatching

“We have a monster creature as one of our main characters. It was important that the creature has a real physical presence. Therefore I wanted it to be an animatronic puppet instead of a CG character. I knew that we needed the best possible artist to make this puppet, so I Googled ‘The best animatronic designer in the world’ and found Gustav Hoegen who has been the lead animatronic designer in Star Wars, Jurassic World, and Prometheus, to mention a few. I emailed him describing the story and he got excited about it and agreed to create the puppet for us. In the shootings with the puppet we had Gustav moving the puppet’s facial expressions with a remote control and five puppeteers moving its limbs with rods. It took several takes to make the puppet look alive. In the editing our scenes with the monster looked hilarious with five puppeteers around it dressed up in green suits.”

Gustav Möller, Director, The Dark Heart

“Shooting in the woods was always tricky and often frustrating. You could shoot half a scene in sunlight, and then it would start pouring down. So the gaffer spent most of the time looking up at the clouds. There was a constant dilemma on whether to start shooting all over, or waiting for the weather to change, losing time either way. But at the end of the day, it was worth it. The light in those scenes is unmatched, and impossible to recreate artificially.”

Alex Pritz, Director/Producer/DP, The Territory

“This film was incredibly difficult to make from a logistical standpoint. We were often operating without internet for days or weeks at a time, in remote locations with little law enforcement. Members of our team fell ill with malaria, we had countless flat tires, and broken equipment. And that was all before COVID hit. With the pandemic raging through Brazil, we moved our production to a remote workflow, and offered our film's participants remote filmmaking workshops as well as full camera and audio kits through contactless exchanges. This allowed the film to take on a totally new approach, continuing production through the pandemic.”

Bianca Stigter, Writer/Director, Three Minutes - A Lengthening

“The main challenge was keeping the focus on the original footage. And supporting it with different sounds, from interviews with writer Glenn Kurtz and Holocaust survivor Maurice Chandler, who appears in the film as a 13-year-old boy, to old and new music.”

'Palm Trees and Power Lines'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jamie Dack, Writer/Director/Producer, Palm Trees and Power Lines

“Funding Palm Trees and Power Lines was challenging given that it’s my first feature, but also because of the intensity of the subject matter. I think some financiers felt that it was execution-dependent and that they wanted to see how the material was handled.

Another challenge was the sheer number of locations the film required. This meant lots of scouting, and then fitting all of the company moves, prepping/wrapping out, and California traffic into our shoot schedule. It was important to me that the locations looked a certain way, as the visual inspiration for the film was a series of photographs I had taken in Southern California. The colors, textures, architecture, and even the foliage, were all important elements of the world I set this story in, and I really didn’t want this part of the film to be compromised. I also think picking the right location is such a huge part of any film’s look, and so we spent a lot of time trying to find these places. While I couldn’t always get my dream spot, I think shooting on location allowed for the texture and details I was looking for but it also meant being open to reimagining some of my original ideas for the world.”

Tyler Davidson, Producer, Emily the Criminal

“Not unlike what many indies face, most of our challenges stemmed from stretching time and resources beyond our means. I didn’t fully realize how ambitious the script was in terms of set pieces and number of locations until the tech scout, when we found ourselves caravanning all over Los Angeles day and night on multiple days to see everything. There are a number of driving and road scenes in the film, several which contain intense action. And controlling roads, especially in LA, isn't cheap. City permits, police, barricades—you need it all. So we had to be creative with how to contain those scenes in a way that didn’t crush the budget but still gave us the illusion of scope. We always wanted to give the script what we felt it deserved and deliver the highest possible production value.”

'892'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Abi Corbin, Director/Co-writer, 892

“Because much of the story takes place through phone calls, it was important for me that both actors portraying the characters on the call be on the phone. Usually, in production, it is a script supervisor or the director reading the off camera side of dialogue. But the type of emotional distance that creates for an actor is counter to capturing the authenticity and intimacy, I knew the story demanded.

This production need/mandate from me was met with much push back as we were already a small movie with large ambition. Beyond that, it was a logistic challenge for sound, because we needed to capture clean, cuttable dialogue.”

Alejandro Loayza Grisi, Writer/Director, Utama

“Without a doubt, being in such a climatically hostile place also makes day-to-day life difficult. The [day] begins very cold and as the sun rises, so does the heat, it is a high desert climate at almost 4,000 meters above sea level. The behind-the-scenes photos are very funny because we are all dressed up covering all our skin, we are desert people.

Working with llamas was also a challenge, they are very intelligent animals and like any actor they were improving with each take. They were already deciphering what we needed from them, and by take five they already knew. We worked with three different groups of llamas to avoid them having to travel long distances from location to location. One day, despite the insistence of production and art, the owner of one group brought them with a different distinctive to the film and we had to remove the collars they were wearing one by one. It is a job that is usually done inside the corral and we were in an open field, so we made a human cordon and we took them off one by one, all crew members joined, it was a very funny moment.”

Carlota Pereda, Writer/Director, Piggy

“The main challenge is time, it always is. And heat. We shot at 50 degrees Celsius some days. So we had to be quick and efficient. I never shoot coverage, but there really was no room for it here.”

Margaret Brown, Director/Producer/Co-Writer, Descendant

“So I asked my core production crew (shout out to Derek, Beau, Ian, Kyle, Zac, and Justin), and we have a list of specific challenges. 1) The insane Alabama heat on long summer days carrying equipment. 2) Being asked to leave a historically white cemetery while interviewing one of our characters—this via cell phone calls from the city while being followed by a black truck and men with binoculars. 3) Having to change into a ball gown in the parking lot of a Mardi Gras Ball. 4) Working with southern “COVID handlers” that turned out not to believe in COVID (they were fired immediately). 5) Hiring boat captains to take us to film on the Mobile river and finding out they were members of Sons of the Confederacy mid-trip.”

'Babysitter'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Josée Deshaies, DP, Babysitter

“We worked with SFX as much as possible, keeping VFX minimal. I particularly love the real smog we created on set for the babysitter disappearance. And very basic mechanical tricks (frame ramping, and lights dimming down like on [a] theater stage). We used VFX to create [bigger] crowds and things that were difficult during the pandemic—[like] putting extras without masks, close to the main actor.”

Reid Davenport, Director, I Didn’t See You There

“I think finding the balance of vulnerability. I do fear that I am very vulnerable in the experiment, and that's challenging for me. The other hard thing was this is part of my life but I can never perfectly replicate my perspective. It's difficult to gauge what people would respond to, so even accessing the film myself is kind of difficult because it’s such a central part of my life.”     

You Might Also Like

Your Comment