82 Sundance Filmmakers Share Their Advice for Succeeding in Cinema

It's many of our dreams to walk the snow-covered streets of Sundance on the way to the screening of our passion project. We talked to some people who are actually doing it! Read their advice below. 

Every year thousands descend upon a Utah ski town to absorb some of the year's best films before anyone else. This year our team has already gathered there to talk with some of the filmmakers eager to show the world their stuff.

But these filmmakers are cognizant of how they got there. Just a year ago, in some cases, they were people who read blogs just like this one. People looking for advice on how to break-in, keep going, and make it to their first (or fifth) Sundance.

After speaking with almost 100 of them, including Josephine Decker (Shirley), Bill Benz (The Nowhere Inn), and even the legendary Ron Howard (Rebuilding Paradise), we decided to compile a little advice compendium to help inspire next year's participants and a new generation of filmmakers. 

Let's dig into what they had to say. 

Sundance Film Festival
Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Get Advice from the 2020 Sundance Filmmakers

Ron Howard (Director/Producer, Rebuilding Paradise): Be passionate and friendly!

Giles Jobin (Director, Dance Trail): "Don't believe the hype! Believe in yourself and follow your own instinct. New tech are there for you to grab. Watch contemporary dance, visual art and non narrative art. See that an image can be stronger than words."

Levan Akin (Writer/Director, And Then We Danced): There is a Swedish expression, it translates to ”dig where you stand” go for telling stories you know, the chances are those the ones that will be most interesting to an audience. Be specific.

Ron Cicero (co-director/producer, Happy Happy Joy Joy -  The Ren & Stimpy Story):

Yes, (4) major points:

1) There is nothing that can replace sitting in the director's chair yourself. I (Ron) had a 15-year career producing commercials and short-form content for some incredible directors / artists--Judd Apatow, Jesse Moss, Brett Foraker, Ben Grossmann and more. And while I often "knew" what to do from an intellectual standpoint, it's a completely different set of pressures and experiences when you are in the driver's seat.

2) Hire a great post production assistant asap. We didn't and it cost us a lot of time and agony.

3) As a director or producer, you're no different from any other leader. Yes, you need to have a clear vision of what you want, but you don't need to be an expert in every facet of the process. Instead, it's more important to be able to communicate what you want to those whose expertise in a given area outshines yours.

4) Hire people based on their shared passion and vision for your project and their potential. A shelf full of awards won't make much of a difference if someone isn't fully invested in your project AND shares your vision.

'Happy Happy Joy Joy - The Ren & Stimpy Story'

 

Hira Nabi (Director/Co-Producer/DP/Editor/Co-screenwriter, All That Perishes at the Edge of Land): Keep going back to your site and your characters. Always carry your camera, even if you won’t use it. Things take time to reveal themselves, even images. An image will slowly develop over time to fully actualize itself - be patient. Spend time with the people or places that you work with, they will slowly open themselves up to you.

 

Georgi M. Unkovski (Writer/Director, Sticker): Make films. Then send them to the most honest, unpleasant people for critique and listen. Also try to live interesting lives in the meantime.

Dylan Holmes Williams (Writer/Director, The Devil's Harmony): Be ambitious. There's a dogma about keeping shorts simple and contained, that is often true. But if there's a big idea that's really keeping you up at night, make it. Just be really thoughtful about how to make it work in 15 minutes.

Matt McCormick (Director/Producer, The Deepest Hole): Be patient, work hard, and have fun.  Remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint.

Charlie Tyrell (Director, Broken Orchestra): I don't feel like I can say anything that hasn't already been said. But surround yourself with allies that believe in you and your work and nurture those relationships.

Benjamin Ree (Director, The Painter and The Thief): For me, filmmaking is about asking intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging questions through observing human behaviour. Try hard to find the right questions to ask that feels personal to you. Use your energy there, and not use your energy in trying to answer all possible questions in your film. Life is too much of a mystery and too complex to give away simple answers.

Matt Wolf (Director, Spaceship Earth): Finish what you start, even if it's bad, or you'll never make the next thing.

Christopher Auchter (Waats'daa) (Director, Now is the Time): Tell a story that engages you. It is this engagement that will drive you to tell a layered and deep story that has a chance to captivate your audience.

Robert Machoian (Writer/Director/Editor/Producer, The Killing of Two Lovers): Make films make lots of films, I know many filmmakers who don't make films because they can find all the right reasons not too, it's sad. Also, make so many films that have played in major festivals before you ever ask your friends and family for money to make a movie. I would not recommend taking that risk until you have proven to yourself you can do it, because that chance only happens maybe once if you are lucky.

'The Killing of Two Lovers'

 

Andrew Fried (Director/Producer, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme): What I learned in completing this project is that you don't need to know exactly what you're creating to simply start telling a story.  If you had asked me at any point along this creative journey what I was making, I would have never had a real answer.  I was simply capturing footage that I believed was worthy of capture.  The fact that it is now a (hopefully) coherent story with a beginning, middle and end is more a result of the choices we made during our last round of interviews and in the edit room.  It's nice to have a comprehensive creative plan heading into any creative endeavor, but sometimes you just need to start and figure it out along the way.  Sometimes it's best to just go - jump without necessarily knowing where you'll land.

 

Christopher Auchter (Waats'daa) (Director, Now is the Time): Tell a story that engages you. It is this engagement that will drive you to tell a layered and deep story that has a chance to captivate your audience.

Pierre-Alain Giraud (Director, Solastalgia): It is always good to remind oneself that tools should be forgotten when a project is successful, and the newest technologies can be way too overwhelming. We nearly got eaten by technology making a project about that very subject. Poetry should not be lost on the way. The core of your story should probably tell you the relevant tools to use. Here, AR goggles, altering our vision, were chosen to question our relationship with technology, and our own blindness towards it.

Bill Benz (Director, The Nowhere Inn): If you're starting out in the industry as a PA or an assistant, don't be embarrassed to tell everyone you work for what your goals are (i.e. write, direct, produce, etc.) even if they seem too big or unattainable at the moment. No one can point you in the right direction if you don't say it out loud. #thesecret #oprah

Fernando Villena (Co-Director, Giving Voice): Read a lot of screenwriting books. All the secrets are in there.

Nate Milton (Director, Eli): I think the biggest thing in my little career has been just finishing stuff. I know a lot of talented people who have great ideas and for one reason or another can't get it across the finish line. Definitely don't be afraid to fail, it'll feel like a waste of time until it isn't. If you have a film you want to make, just make it -- my niece wanted to try out stop motion and we figured out how to animate her legos on an old iPhone in 5 minutes, the tools are all there. So the number one rule is finish a film and then show it to people. Getting feedback is huge. We are all born as critics, it's easy to criticize something and it's impossible to make something good. So make something that's bad and then criticize it until it's good. But the first step is making something. I think also when you find people you vibe with creatively, you naturally form into these teams and you support each other's projects and then suddenly you're all getting a lot of stuff made. Film is an amazing medium to tell stories with, it's the best. If you get a little feeling in your belly that's telling you to make something then that's your true north and just follow it until it's done.

Fernando Villena (Co-Director, Giving Voice): Read a lot of screenwriting books. All the secrets are in there.

'Giving Voice'

 

Zach Kuperstein (DP, The Climb): Go big or go home!  And by that, I mean be ambitious, and stick to your guns if you think some kind of crazy idea is worth pursuing.  It's impossible to stand out in the independent world if you don't take big risks and amaze people.  Nobody will care if you make a "good" movie... it has to be exceptional!

 

Emily Wilson (Director/Writer, Danny's Girl): Don't settle or compromise too much while making your film, because you won't enjoy or be fulfilled by the end result. And if you have a bad feeling about something, in pre-production or otherwise, speak up! Also, prepare diligently so you can step foot on set completely confident and sure of what you need to accomplish that day.

Jessie Kahnweiler (Director/Writer/Actor, He's the One): Just make your movie no matter what. Get your phone and your friends and make the thing you can't live without making.

Alexandre Dostie (Director/Screenwriter, Je finirai en prison (I'll End Up in Jail)): I don't know if I have any advice to give to anybody after 2 short films... But I'd say that making my films like they were one-shot deals (which they always are in the end when you think about it)... Like, doing a film like it was an all-in bet. Not knowing if I would make another one afterward... I think it kept me humble, genuine and lead me to appreciate, even in adversity, most of the whole process. Embrace it like it was the last time.

Zamo Mkhwanazi (Writer/ Director/Producer, Sadla): Patience is everything. I wanted to get this film into Sundance 2019, but I knew if I didn't get as close to the film I wanted as possible, it would tank, so patience was key.

Josh Ruben (Writer/Director/Producer/Star, Scare Me): Find your tribe, brainstorm ideas that rile each other up, and take turns helping make each other's work. When you hit record, you're living the dream.

Zhannat Alshanova (Director, Paola Makes A Wish): Take care of your mental health. Find something (or someone) stable, because filmmaking will always be a rollercoaster with crazy ups and downs.

Natalie Erika James (Writer/Director, Relic): In the simplest terms: keep making stuff! Keep making stuff you believe in using all the resources available to you. Keep making stuff even if you only have a couple hours a week in between your day job. Make lots of mistakes. Be ambitious. Don’t compare yourself to others. Protect your creative voice and your passion for the work at all costs. Drown out the noise and do the hard work. Don’t be an asshole.

Ariane Labed (Director, Olla): Don’t think there is a way to tell a story, you have to find your own tone, your language. Don’t try to please anyone.

'Olla'

Romola Garai (Director/Writer, Amulet): Try to make the cheapest possible film you can first off. Do this and you give yourself the greatest chance of artistic freedom and this enables you to find your voice before others can tell you who or what you are.

Balthazar Lab (Director of Photography, Olla): You have to be confident from the beginning and be sure of the sincerity of your project.

Kenny Suleimanagich (DP, Three Deaths): Shooting film can be daunting, and seem expensive and slow. But if you plan every step of the way, and communicate clearly with all departments, there is no better feeling than getting your dailies back and seeing the work everyone put into it on screen.

Teemu Niukkanen (Director, Are You Hungry?): Don't over-analyze, just do it.

Zachary Kislevitz (Producer, The Shawl): Specialize early. Find your tribe.

Lawrence Michael Levine (Director, Black Bear): I don't know if this qualifies as advice, but any time I've made something hoping other people would like it, they haven't. Any time I've done something for myself, they have.

Grelier Florentine (Director, My Juke-Box): Continue to experiment!

Sam Painter (Cinematographer, The GoGo's): Shoot as much as you can. Work for as many people as you can. Read. Research. Go to movies. Ask questions. Don't act like you know it all, even if you do. Don't have an attitude. Be on time. You do all that, you'll have a career.

Andrea Vinciguerra (Director, No, I Don't Want to Dance!): Best advice I can give: Put money on a side and invest them on a project that is somehow different from anything you have ever saw.

Jerry Rothwell (Director, The Reason I Jump): Research deeply - know as much as you can about the world you are portraying. Follow your nose when shooting, but prep like crazy beforehand.  Try and get as much time in the edit as you can.  Screen your cuts with people you don’t know, but try and understand their experience of the cut rather than just acting on their notes.  Find producers who will trust the direction you’re taking and create the space for you to take risks.  Be yourself - let the film reflect your reasons for making it.

Antoine Cayrol (Producer, Atomu): Keep trying always !!!

Richard Misek (Co-producer/Co-director, A Machine for Viewing): More a plea than particular advice - don't just aim to shoot short fiction and then sometime later feature-length fiction. There's a whole world of new technologies and approaches to film out there. The form of film hasn't really changed that much in the last 50 years. Right now, I think the most exciting place to be is where film mixes with forms that are still in development.

Sandra Rodriguez (Director/Producer, Chomsky vs Chomsky: First Encounter): This project came in "too early". About 2 years ago, I started looking for funds as an independent director. All responses were positive (very), but nobody wanted to "dive in first", as AI seemed to far reached. To complicated... So my solution was to gather a smaller team of testers and tinkerers. We started developing a prototype together. It made things more concrete. We were able to find funds for a prototype, and from one thing to another, got the ball rolling on the project. In fact, we were surprised at how much easier building independent systems was that was any potential funder was expecting. Once they are able to see the speed of our progress, even at early stages of prototyping, things started looking up for the project's financing. So the advice would be: start simple, prototype, test, present, and expand!

'Chomsky vs Chomsky: First Encounter'

Sngmoo lee (Producer/Writer, Scarecrow): A whole new era of visual storytelling is coming to creative storytellers. Keep your eyes and ears open to new technology.

Nic Koller (Lead Artist/Director/Creator, Flowers & a Switchblade): Keep doing what you're inspired by and everything else will follow.

Brian Andrews (Writer/Director/Producer, Hominidae): Quality over quantity. Once you get your chops take your absolute strongest idea, find the niche where it best fits in culture, and focus like a laser on creating the most expressive visualization of that concept possible.

Sebastian Gonzalez (Producer, Hypha): Believe in your projects, reach out to your community and work!

Bianca Kennedy & The Swan Collective (VR Artists, Animalia Sum): Insanely hard work pays out in the end, even if you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel for 6 months straight.

Bridget (Writer/Director, Blocks): Make the thing you want to make. Make the project you want to watch. There are so many different voices out there, you just have to use yours. I think everyone is hungry for specific stories so don’t worry about being too niche. To quote my osteopath, "you can only shine your own weird light."

Pierre "Pyare" Friquet (Lead Artist, Spaced Out): For me, the three words mean the same thing: even Martin Scorcese is an aspiring independent filmmaker, still hungry for aspiring poetry and beauty via his cinema...For me, it’s about being obsessed [with] what you make, bitten by the bug of sharpening your own self and contaminated by the fever of creation. Also, it’s about banging your head against the wall again and again! For any creative person facing doubts, I highly recommend reading Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of ten letters written by Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year-old cadet. The book is about how a poet should feel, love, and seek truth in trying to understand and experience the world around him and engage the world of art.

'Spaced Out'

 

Tara Miele (Writer/Director, Wander Darkly): Don’t be perfect, be brave. Try things that might fail big. And on top of that, try to enjoy it.  Enjoy the risk, the question, the uncertainty of whether or not your crazy ideas will all work. That place of discovery can be so uncomfortable but it is where all the good stuff happens.

 

Eugene Ashe (Director/Writer, Sylvie's Love): Shoot film not megapixels... if you can. That is to say, there are traditions that come with shooting on film, that are dying quickly and should be preserved for future generations: like the Champagne roll, where everyone on set toasts with Champagne to celebrate the 100th roll of footage in the can -- There’s also nothing like the knot you get in your stomach while waiting for the first AC to check the gate before you can move on to the next shot. GOOD GATE!

Randall Okita (Director, The Book of Distance): Stay hungry.

Alex Fischer & Eleanor Wilson (Writers/Directors, Save Yourselves!): Do all the preparation you can while you are waiting for the movie to get financed. Once it happens it just happens and there is never enough time on the day.

John James (Director, Siempre, Luis): It’s important to have a disciplined process for tracking and logging all footage (audio and video) from the start. People in the doc world will often minimize the time-suck and pain of organizing all of this data when it comes time for the edit. You’ll be able to spend a lot more of your time on things that will inevitably pop-up later, like business talent and license negotiations and the inevitable legal. To the extent that funding isn’t an issue, secure a lawyer’s services early on to draft and review all of your production documents. Create a shared drive of all signed appearance and location agreements. Hire an archival producer early on too, if you know that you’ll be supporting your story with archival content.

Benjamin Moses Smith (Editor, Spree): Don't make a film like this. Har har, jk. Be willing to take your film wherever it needs to go and as far as it needs to go. I'm sure that cliche probably applies in writing and production, but I know it applies in post. Our world is so saturated with video now, people are ready for new language and new ways of mixing media. You can use that to your advantage when you're cutting and finding your movie. You can rip out a crucial scene and come up with a better way to get its meaning across, or a totally new meaning, if your actor is willing to grab their iPhone and you're willing to think of your movie as something that's always evolving even after it's been shot.

Robin Jensen (Director, Farce): Ask yourself if your project is worth spending several years in making. If not - don´t do it. Make films about something you feel really passionate about. If it rings true, it will show.

Patricia Vidal Delgado (Director, La Leyenda Negra): Trust your instincts and make the film YOU want to make.

Kareem Tabsch (Director, Mucho Mucho Amor): Tell the stories you know, of your community and of your heroes.  Walter Mercado is a Latino icon, a pioneer who was always unabashedly himself and who thrived in a conservative culture, by spreading a message of love and peace.  He was a staple of our childhood and our households who came into over 120 million homes a day for thirty years.  Telling his story has been an honor, a pleasure, and an immense responsibility because we know how much he's meant for so many people.   Every community has its own Walter- someone who has made a lasting impression and who has a story that needs to be shared.  Don't wait for others to do it and don't be discouraged by those who might not get it.  There are so many others just waiting to see their stories on the big screen.

'Mucho Mucho Amor'

Radu Ciorniciuc (Director, Acasă, My Home): Work hard, don't let anyone tell you your story is not worth telling and try making the best out of this beautiful experience of making a film. There's this popular saying, in Romania, coming from the communist times: make the best with the little you have. Being an indie filmmaker means that you have more freedom to tell meaningful stories than any of the established hotshots. Use this freedom to learn, to become a better person and storyteller, to create beauty.

Adam Carter Rehmeier (Writer/Director/Editor, Dinner in America): Find yourself a sounding board who isn't a parent/sibling/significant other. Someone who understands the industry and whose opinion you trust, someone who is there for you 24/7 when you need to vent/pitch ideas/work through problems. Also, ABW [Always Be Working]. If I get stuck on a script, I sketch other characters/scenarios instead of staring at a wall. That's actually how DINNER IN AMERICA was born. Lastly, don't be a SHITHEAD -- especially to assistants and receptionists -- you will most likely be sitting across a table from them in two or three years, pitching your next film.

Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, Mike Attie (All three are Directors/Producers, Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa): Although documentary filmmakers are often drawn to the exotic and esoteric, sometimes the best stories are right in your backyard. This film addresses a national concern, yet the call center is just walking distance from our offices.

Sam Feder (Director, Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen): Over everything else, work with people you like and trust.

Erick Castrillon (Writer/Producer, Blast Beat): Make your projects about the things that make you passionate the most, because you're gonna spend a lot of time talking about those same things... and your passion when you talk about those things, and why they are important to you, is what's going to persuade others to join your journey. That passion is your fuel when you're not getting paid or when you're working two jobs just to be able to keep creating. Allow yourself to evolve as artists, challenge yourself to make something truly amazing... something that really comes from your gut. Trust the process, and trust yourself when the time comes. And finally but most importantly, build up the courage to speak your mind and call out what you don't like, what you do like, and what you need to get where you're going.

Matt Yoka (Director/Producer/Co-Editor, Whirlybird): Filmmaking is collaborating.

Joko Anwar (Director, Impetigore): Learn from mistakes. Yours and other people's.

Josephine Decker (Director, Shirley): Make your film.  Don't despair when no one sees it.  Show it to people you love.  Make another film.  Don't despair when no one sees it.  Show it to people you love. Make another film.  By now, the people you love are rooting for you, and they might write about your film or notice that you've gotten a lot better at storytelling, and you might be surprised how far your work goes when you trust your creative instincts and give up on anyone ever seeing anything you make!

'Shirley'

Sam Soko (Director/Producer, Softie): I have worked on this film for over 7 years, I have learned so much and continue to. One such lesson was trying to maintain the vision of what I wanted to say throughout the process. With all the constraints that come your way, I believe your voice is the priority. Use the advice you get to learn and build on it. Actually listen to the advice you get and think it through before implementing it or dismissing it. The second thing is; good documentary is found in moments and you have to be ready to capture them. The tools are a means to an end. Let us innovate to improve our stories but not let our stories be subordinate to them.

Zoe Wittock (Director, Jumbo): Trust your guts!

Cedric Cheung-Lau (Director, The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me): Surround yourself with positivity and people you love and who love you back. They will be there for you and that support is invaluable during a film shoot. I was lucky enough to have many of my friends climbing up a mountain with me and their belief in me and the project, their collaborative spirits, and their love is the only reason I am where I am today.

Patrick Lawrence (Editor, Scare Me): I always tell aspiring editors to make sure they learn the basics of every Editing platform, especially Premiere, Avid and Resolve. As well as make sure they network and meet good Producers to build solid relationships with... Also watching a ton of films for reference helps as well haha.

Santiago (Director, Regret): Persistence and perseverance. No one will do it for you.

David Bruckner (Director, The Night House): Don't burden yourself early on with financing challenges or festival exposure. Find a cheap, low friction way to create as much content as possible with other artists in your orbit. Make shorts for you and the people around you. A period of low-risk experimentation is essential for building your own relationship with the medium.

Daniel Patterson (Cinematographer, Miss Juneteenth): Never Stop Experimenting.

Gustavo Matheu (Producer/Editor, La Llorona): Keep doing films you love, no matter what. Lose the fear of failing in the process. No matter if your country has no industry structure (like mine), no matter if you're still learning, there's no such thing a the perfect timing or the ideal mix of elements. You will figure out what's best for your project while you're doing it.

Jean Xavier de Lestrade (Director, Laetitia): Trust your intuition

Sofi Marshall (Editor, Save Yourselves!): Find people you love working with and keep them close.

Catherine Gund (Director/Producer, Aggie): If you can find any footage shot before 2003, make stories with it. It doesn’t look like anything shot today and it’s far more precious and rare. Archives have tremendous power to tell us who we were and who we can become. To move forward, we must reveal and create at the same time. Also, if you’re making a film about someone you’re close to, don’t forget to trust your voice. It’s your film. Everyone else would make a very different film about her. Lean into your unique perspective, not away from it.

Braden King (Director/Producer, The Evening Hour): I'll quote Arthur Ashe: "Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can."

Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht (Directors/Producers, Crip Camp): Believe in your story. It took years to find all of the footage needed to picture our story and in some cases the right people to tell the story. But the story in Jim’s heart and mind, and our shared vision for how to tell it, was so powerful that we had faith we would find our way to the best way of picturing it. For those up and coming filmmakers with disabilities, we urge you to keep going. It’s only recently that we can see that the filmmaking world is waking up to the fact that our stories and our community has vital stories to tell and that WE are the people to tell them. There is no excuse for diversity or inclusion efforts to box us out. You might have to advocate for yourself a bit more than you’d like, but you’re not just doing it for yourself, you are doing it for the people coming up behind you. One last thing, your film doesn’t have to be about disability, nor should it have to be. But what is has to be is something that you're passionate about and want to share with the world.

'Crip Camp'

Emma Sullivan (Director, Into the Deep): If you have a story you are burning to tell just get out there and start shooting. Making mistakes and learning along the way is what it's all about. Documentaries take years, so be patient with the process and be prepared to go wherever the story takes you. Also, remember to stay true to yourself and true to the story that you want to tell.

Giorgio Angelini (Producer/Writer/Cinematographer, Feels Good Man): Travel as much as you can. Talk to as many people as you can. Try to not get locked into your own narrow frame of thought.

Courtney Ware (Editor, Miss Juneteenth): Know your tools! Don't let not knowing how to work or use something to get in the way of creating. The more you know your way around your tools, the more you can focus on trying new things.


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

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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     

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I like it very much

January 25, 2020 at 10:02PM

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McDVOICE is the official website of McDonald’s Customer Satisfaction Survey. The main aim of this survey from McDonald’s is to ensure that the customers are satisfied with the food quality and the behavior of the staff.

January 27, 2020 at 11:06AM

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Sarah Smith
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There are quite a few blowhards giving advice.. The best advice is no advice

January 27, 2020 at 7:44PM

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