5 Completely Different Approaches You Can Take to Make Your First Feature

Hitting obstacles on the road to a feature? Savor these case studies.

It’s hard to make a feature film. It takes a lot of time and energy. And it often requires a big bag of cash. (Or at least we are told that it does.)

At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and 2020 Slamdance Film Festival, No Film School spoke to many first-time filmmakers who defied not only the odds but feature film conventions that are sometimes considered necessary to the process. Consider the following examples as case studies in alternative ways to make your feature dreams a reality.
Here are five completely different case studies that all worked!

Case Study #1. Got an idea but tired of development? Just grab the camera and go.

Residue, directed by Merawi Gerima

Something interesting will happen. That’s how it worked for filmmaker Merawi Gerima. He met a recently graduated DP, Mark Jeevaratnam and three days later, they were shooting a feature. They shot in the DC neighborhood Gerima grew up in, pulling family members and friends off the street to act with trained professionals like Obinna Nwachukwu. The result was an auteur-status feature called Residue that won top awards at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.

Stay tuned for an interview with Gerima, Jeevaratnam, and Nwachukwu. For now, here’s some advice from Gerima.

“People will put restrictions on what you can do, scaring you that it's hard to embark on a future. ‘You can't do a feature film for less than…$20,000 or $100,000 or $1 million. For me, the best thing I could say is do it. With whoever you have around you, with whatever you have, no matter how it turns out, and, allow the imperfections. My favorite thing about our film is the imperfection. What we didn't have caused us to shoot it in that way, and those serendipitous mistakes that we edited into the film are what I like about it.”

"...Do it. With whoever you have around you, with whatever you have, no matter how it turns out, and, allow the imperfections."

Case Study #2. Have a directorial style that’s difficult to explain? Make a short first.

A still from małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore by Sky Hopinka, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, directed by Sky Hopinka

We’re not telling you to make a short JUST to explain your feature. (Although that could work). What we’re saying is, if you have an experimental or hard-to-define style, it will help if you can point to a short film to explain it to people. That’s how it worked with Sky Hopinka, whose experimental documentary małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore premiered in the New Frontier section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Hopinka had already proven himself and his unique storytelling style over the course of many short films. By the time he came to make a feature, he had the confidence and support to bring it to fruition.

Stay tuned for a full interview with Hopinka, and for now, a line of advice.

“Make a lot of films and don’t get caught up in funding or money that you'd need to make a film. You just need a camera and a microphone. I feel like that's often a big barrier that we feel is impassible unless we have so much support or so much backing or whatever. Make films for yourself. I made a lot of short films that I'm proud of and not so proud of. It is important to fail in a lot of different ways to succeed in a lot of different ways.”

"I made a lot of short films that I'm proud of and not so proud."

Case Study #3. Start below-the-line. By the time you have a great idea, you will have the skills and crew to make it!

Still from 'The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me,' an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Mountains Are A Dream That Call to Me, directed by Cedric Cheung-Lau

Want to make a feature, but find yourself currently making a living on set? Great! That’s exactly what the process was for Cedric Cheung-Lau. He always had the dream of being a director, but he also loved being on set. And he learned while being on set. A lot. He was the chief lighting tech on films from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, to Patti Cake$. There, he met his collaborators, people who had been in the film set trenches with him. These great people then decided to join Cheung-Lau on a 19-day trek through the Annapurna Mountains to shoot The Mountains Are A Dream That Call to Me.

Read the full interview about making this film here, and pull this piece of advice from Cedric Cheung-Lau.

“I don't think there's a right or wrong way to do it. I think we all find our ways forward. We're all trying to figure it out. It worked for me, and I'm very lucky it did in this way. I hope I get to make another film down the line. I think in some ways, it's also about just doing it. There are a million excuses not to make a film, but all those excuses boil down to the one thing: you're not doing it. I know it's easier said than done.”

"I don't think there's a right or wrong way to do it."

Case Study #4. Need to inspire confidence that you know what you’re doing? Shoot your film before you shoot your film.

La Leyenda Negra, directed by Patricia Vidal Delgado

Then your first day on set will truly be a breeze. That’s how it worked for Patricia Vidal Delgado, who wanted to make a gorgeous black and white film set at Compton High School. Starring Compton HS students. Who had never acted before. To navigate her first feature with such first-timer on an 18-day shoot, Vidal Delgado cut her rehearsals and shared them on Vimeo with key people in her crew.

You can read our full article on the making of the film here and this advice from Vidal Delgado.

"When you're starting out, it's hard to get investors, it's hard to get money, but there is a good side to that...Embrace the position you are in...Even if you shoot a scene a certain way, and if it doesn't quite work, it doesn't matter because you'll be a better filmmaker for it the next time around. Don't be afraid and don't make any excuses."

"If it doesn't quite work, it doesn't matter because you'll be a better filmmaker for it the next time around."

Case Study #5. Got no direct experience in the lead? Enlist the help of a co-director.

Crip Camp, co-directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht

For certain stories and for certain experiences, having a co-director can not only be helpful, it can be crucial. For sound designer Jim LeBrecht, he had a story that was important and extremely personal. He was able to bring experienced award-winning director Nicole Newnham in to make the film with him, not only navigating the process, but actually adding incredibly important outside perspective to a story that was very close.

Read our full interview with Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht here, and have some parting advice from LeBrecht.

"Everybody has a real fear of being a failure or being found out as an imposter. But you have to start somewhere. And one of the things that I realized in life that we all started out as babies. We all started off in this very, very ordinary place, and we had to find our way up in the world. Francis Coppola, every director, started off with a little bit of fear in their heart about trying to take a step up. But you have to buy into the fact that you're going to have failures and mistakes, and it's the only way to go."

"Everybody has a real fear of being a failure or being found out as an imposter."

Case Study #6. Have the contact of someone in the industry who is amazing? Cold-email away!

Wait, didn’t we say five case studies? Yes, but there are so many more! That includes the amazing story of Lance Oppenheim, who cold-emailed Darren Aronofsky about producing his film Some Kind of Heaven. Check out the whole case study in our three-part series, The Sundance Diaries.

May the study of these cases help you into feature film fruition!

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance 2020 banner

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by SmallHD : real-time confidence for creatives and by RØDE Microphones – The Choice of Today’s Creative Generation     

Header image is a still from Slamdance award-winning film 'Residue' directed by Merawi Gerima.

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1 Comment

These are great tips, Oakley! Before I set out to make my first feature, Mr Misfortune, I shot a bunch of short films. The main objective was to improve as a writer and director, but I also wanted to tweak the production methodology until I landed on the right crew/resource dynamics that would allow me to shoot a feature on a nano-budget (< $10,000). When I shot my fourth short, Natural Causes, that approach entailed me producing, directing, and shooting, with two additional crew members: a dedicated sound person and a hybrid AC/PA. Keeping the cast and crew small allowed us to make two company moves and get through an eight page script in less than 10 hours (including meal breaks). I decided to use the same setup for the feature (with the addition of an additional PA on one or two days that involved scenes with more than three cast members). A smaller team makes for a more agile production, which in turn enabled me to shoot my feature in 10 days. Everything was meticulously planned, and besides a few normal-caliber production obstacles that came up, it was a very smooth shoot. The movie is now available on Amazon. If you have $1.99 and want to support independent film, check it out! https://www.amazon.com/Mr-Misfortune-Michael-ONeal/dp/B084551GQK/ref=sr_...

February 14, 2020 at 10:53AM

Rick Caplan