Challenges in filmmaking? Take your pick. For narrative, there’s writing (and re-writing) a good script, dealing with investors, or getting good performances.

In documentary, there’s earning the trust of your subjects, bringing archives to life, and following the story to the sometimes bitter end.

Is there any part of the filmmaking process that is not a challenge?

At the all-virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School was searching for answers to these filmmaking challenges from innovative directors. Here is a compilation of some of the most important challenges we heard, and the best ways to overcome them.

50621343131_07f0b17c21_kVinamrata Rai appears in 'Fire in the Mountains' by Ajitpal Singh, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Challenge 1: Getting good performances

Fire in the Mountains director Ajitpal Singh shot his first feature in a remote village in the Himalayas, and he knew that getting the performances right from the actors would be his biggest challenge.

Ajitpal Singh: Even though I did some theater, I was not really good at directing actors. My strength has always been creating images. I've also done a lot of photography. The problem with my first three short films was the performances were weak. And in the fourth short film, which went to Oberhausen, they were much better, but the scale was so small. So for Fire in the Mountains, I had a big challenge because it's a very emotional and dramatic story. They can't just perform as if they are models in a typical arthouse cinema. But I also didn't want them to emote in a way that is fake.

So, what we did to tackle it was we had these seven days of workshop. It was mostly reading the screenplay with the intention to ask a lot of questions and then build the backstory of all the characters. There was a very interesting thing that happened during that reading. At first, the actors had resistance, “Why are we analyzing it so much?” But then, what happened, I started forcing them not to say “the character” wouldn't do this or would do that but instead say, "No, I would not do it. I would do this."

And the moment they started using [the] word "I," they stopped being judgmental about the character. They instead thought, "Why am I doing this?" I helped all of them to see the story from their point of view.

Stay tuned for our full interview with Ajit Singh.

50609976738_eba5b2c623_kTor Thanapob appears in 'One for the Road' by Baz Poonpiriya, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Challenge 2: Believing that your material is worthy

After Wong Kar-Wai encouraged him to throw out his original script, One for the Road director Baz Poonpiriya based his film on his own real-life experiences. This challenged him with self-doubt.

Baz Poonpiriya: I think the most challenging is the idea that kept popping in my head every day I go out shooting: Is my life that interesting?

Because this movie... a lot of it comes from my own personal experiences. Everything we shot really happened in my life and it brings back my memory. And I have to try to convey that on the screen, on the heart, and on the actor and actress. And I always keep asking myself, "Really, are we going to do something like this? I don't think it's that interesting or anything.”  And I had to fight with myself a lot throughout the process. I still don't know the answer.

But when I watched the film, it felt weird somehow, in a good way. It felt like finally, I got the chance to have closure on a lot of stuff that happened in my life, even though [that closure] did not really happen. But in my state of mind, it felt complete.

Check out our full interview with Baz Poonpiriya.

50617589316_183a425399_cKentucker Audley appears in 'Strawberry Mansion' by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tyler Davis

Challenge 3: Not losing the magic on a bigger production

For Strawberry Mansion co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, the challenge was keeping true to themselves as the production grew.

Kentucker Audley: I would say just working on a bigger scale and working with a whole new team of people that I personally didn't know. Sylvio was tiny. It was a very kind of backyard production. It was 75% just laughing and having fun. I kind of expected the same for Strawberry Mansion. But it got a little bigger than we imagined. I mean, it was still comparatively tiny compared to a bigger movie, but it felt out of our control. We had a lot bigger crew and a producing team and investors. This is hard to manage and it's very stressful. You feel like you're almost not allowed to have fun anymore because it's more money involved, and there's more people to hold accountable. So I would say the biggest challenge was keeping that original feeling while ramping up to a bigger-scope movie.

Albert Birney: I think that's one reason why I love working with Kentucker. Having a co-director, co-writer feels like you've got someone to go through it with you. At the end of the day, or in the beginning of the day, you can look over and be like, okay, I know who's on my team here.

Making movies isn't natural, you're going against the laws of the universe. You're changing time and making people say things that they normally wouldn't say. So it's good to have a partner to get through it.

Stay tuned for our full interview with Audley and Birney.

50615103532_2b84dbe9a7_kCamaron Engels and Francesca Noel appear in 'R#J' by Carey Williams, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Charles Murphy

Challenge 4: Not asking, why am I doing this to myself?

For R#J director Carey Williams, the challenges were anything from working with Shakespeare in modern-day to just not falling apart.

Carey Williams: I mean, every film has its challenges so it's like, "Well, stop crying and make this movie." Challenges are really kind of like opportunities. For R#J, one of the big challenges was figuring out what from the old text [Shakespeare] to use and what from modern-day vernacular to use. But that was just trial and error, figuring it out and balancing it out, as you do with making something.

I used to edit for many years and sometimes when I'm shooting a movie, I'm like, "Why am I doing this to myself? I could be in an air-conditioned editing bay, no problems, bathroom's right there." But I do it because I love it. It's like every time you're making a film, you're just putting out the fires and doing the challenges because you've got to, you have to.

Read our interview with Carey Williams.

50885338668_fc2e8ecb7a_kA still from 'Bring Your Own Brigade' by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Getty Images

Challenge 5: Being true the story, wherever it takes you

For Bring Your Own Brigade director Lucy Walker, the challenges involved telling a story that was real, not just one that fit into an easy cookie-cutter mold.

Lucy Walker: I want to make films that deliver a satisfying experience. I like watching movies that have act structures. I've trained my brain to think in terms of acts and that's why the documentaries I've made land with audiences. But you're also trying to be true to the story. And I think this one, I was trying to find what the story was. It was originally intended to be a short film about one fire—and then that just didn't cut it.

It became bigger than that. In letting it be bigger than that, trying to find a structure was the challenge. Tied into that, there's a challenge with the material of the fire because it's so visceral and so frightening. And you don't want to be schlocky with it. I didn't want to be salacious about these moments that are life and death.  I would only show what the fire was about if I really used that information for something.

The more I got more into it, I realized it wasn't just a climate change movie, it was actually all this stuff I didn't even know existed. So I think that the challenge with the film was allowing for the subject to be more complicated than is convenient, or I'd originally allowed for. I had to let the film take the journey it needed to take, rather than  falsely draw a line under it and say, "Okay, that's all folks." I had to get to the bottom of understanding what is really going on.

Stay tuned for our full interview with Lucy Walker.

50610462041_8986945c76_cA still from 'Rebel Hearts' by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

Challenge 6: Transporting the audiences to events in the past

For Rebel Hearts director Pedro Kos, the task was to bring a story to life that had almost been forgotten by history.

Pedro Kos: There were a lot of extremely compelling and unforgettable stories, but how to bring them to life when, especially for the '60s, a lot of the material that we have are photographs and letters?

We really began to think more in the animation space and in the motion graphics space. I grew up with the comics of the Justice League. And for me, these women are like the Justice League, but the real-life Justice League. And instead of Clark Kent becoming Superman, they're taking off the habit to become these superwomen who changed the world.

So I was really rethinking the visual language. And Judy Korin, one of our extraordinary producers, who I had the luck to work with on The Great Hack, she knew exactly sort of the animator to go to, and that was Una Lorenzen. And Una, who is an Icelandic animator based in Montreal, was also equally inspired by Coretta’s art. We talked about taking elements from that and animating certain sections of the story, from becoming nuns to dispensing their vows at the end. We felt it was a cohesive element to bring this whole story together and elevate it, and give it the emotional resonance that we all knew that it had.

Read our interview with Pedro Kos and Shawnee Isaac-Smith.

50828144793_8aae273688_c1A still from 'Captains of Zaatari' by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Challenge 7: Building a relationship with people who have no reason to trust you

For Captains of Zaatari filmmaker Ali El Arabi, the challenge was not just to get permission to shoot in a refugee camp, but to win over the people in it.

Ali El Arabi: During the entire first year, I was just trying to establish good relations with Mahmoud and Fawzi and the family and the place. And establish a strong relationship from my crew to Mahmoud and Fawzi. This trust meant I could not change anyone from my crew for six years. If I changed anything, the boys would be different. 

In the beginning, I give Mahmoud and Fawzi the cameras and I told them, "Okay, shoot me every day. You will shoot me one day, I will shoot you one day." After one year, I had collected a lot of material. It's bad material. There was nothing I could use for the film.

Read our full interview with Ali El Arabi.

Thank you, filmmakers!

If any of these challenges sound familiar to you, let us how you overcame them in the comments.

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.