13 Filmmakers Share the Advice You Need to Direct an Indie Feature

Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Everyone wants to make a film and play Sundance. Here are 13 filmmakers who did, and their best advice for you!

Nothing about making a feature film is easy, let alone making it good. Here is some great advice from a group of filmmakers who did just that, from horror stories, personal dramas, cinematic epics, and exhilarating documentaries at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Take a look and see if there isn't some useful advice for your particular struggle.

Don't take rejection to heart

Prano Bailey-Bond (Director, Censor): ... Don't take rejection too much to heart because there's a lot of rejection along the way. And sometimes people don't always get your ideas initially. And the best thing to do is just go out there and do it anyway, show the world. That's kind of what I did with my early shorts. I didn't get funding. So I was like, "Fine. I'll just lock Annika [Summerson] in a warehouse with me for two days and make her film me doing something weird." And that turned out quite well.

Then when it comes to horror, I think it's about finding your unique way into the genre. It's such an imaginative genre, and that's what I love about it. Pretty much you can do anything in horror. And I think it's about bringing your imagination to the genre and finding your own unique language within it.

Watch, watch, watch and then practice, practice, practice

Annika Summerson (DP, Censor): Shooting horror. I would say, if you look at it from a technical point of view, just watch loads and loads of films that scare you and then try to figure out why they scare you, how the camera builds up the tension. What is it that makes you jump? How do you use the shadows? You know, not only the light but actually, how do you use shadows? And just do research, and then obviously go out and practice, practice, practice.

Niamh Algar appears in 'Censor' by Prano Bailey-Bond, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Don't be distracted by networking—it's all about craft

Ajitpal Singh (Director, Fire in the Mountains): In 2009 or so, some of my friends had come to Bombay. I was still living in Ahmedabad. And they had become producers, production designers. They were really successful. I started to feel very insecure. Why am I in Ahmedabad? I should also go to Bombay, I should start networking with people.

Then I read this book called Screenwriters Masterclass. And one of the interviews was by Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of Amores Perros and 21 Grams and Babel. And the journalist asked him, “What would be your advice for aspiring writers about networking?” And he said, “I would advise not to bother about networking. If your work has legs, it will run. If your work doesn't have a leg, it will crawl anyway. So focus on your craft.” And that was the interview that kept me back in Ahmedabad. I decided to stay and to write a screenplay.

So I did. I sent it to Sundance. I got into the Screenwriters Lab. And guess who was my mentor? Guillermo Arriaga. So my advice would be that, focus on your craft.

In cinema, less is more

Sean Ellis (Director, Eight for Silver): The advice I would say is if you write, "A monster attacks a boy in the woods," okay, how do you film that, right? But if you've got two kids and one says to the other, "Don't go through the woods," and he says, "Why?" and he says, "There's a monster in the woods," it's costing nothing, but your audience already has got the idea.

Again, it's talking about that cerebral idea of being able to place an idea in the audience's head, and then where do you take that idea? I think it just comes back to maybe less is more, in some respects, and the idea and how you present the ideas. 

Bartosz Bieleina appears in 'Prime Time' by Jakub Piątek, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tomek Kaczor

Visualize your story early on

Jakub Piątek (Director, Prime Time): Just [get] out some amount of elements, and then just [focus] on what you want to get. For example, having one space that you're trying to tell your story. It becomes handy also production-wise in terms of financing.

Don't wait around for the biggest budget

Albert Birney (Co-Director, Strawberry Mansion): So many times with this script, I would send it to people to read and they would be like, "Oh, I really loved it, but how are you going to make this for less than $20 million?" If I had listened to them, I would have never made it. We would've still been looking to get $20 million or something. I knew that there was another way to make this movie.

There's a joy that comes from just stepping off the cliff and figuring it out as you fall, and having faith that you're going to learn to fly as you're falling. I think so much of making this film was believing that we could do it. We were going to figure out the effects and figure out the animations, and even if we didn't all have it figured out when we started, we just started. You get a momentum and you meet new collaborators and new people that can help along the way. If you're inspired and you have an idea, there's a way. Figure it out.

A still from 'Captains of Zaatari' by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Go out and shoot!

Alistair Petrie (Actor, Eight for Silver): I think it's the best of times. When I graduated from drama school, if you wanted to direct something, it was tough because you were kind of going, "Well, maybe I can find my grandpa's Super 8 camera." It's obvious to say, but now I can pick up a phone that has astounding lenses. I can shoot, I can plug in a 10-buck microphone into the port and I can record dialogue. You can go out and make a film for nothing.

In fact, it's the best piece of advice I give to young actors actually going to drama school, which is I say, "Create. Always create, because you can. Who knows, you might be able to write. You might be able to direct. Don't just sit by the phone to ring." It was always that case as a young actor. But now, we have the opportunity. You can put yourself online. You have an audience of billions who may well see your work, so create. Never stop. Never stop trying to create. We have the platform to do that.

Always build trust over technique

Ali El Arabi (Director, Captains of Zaatari): The most important thing is the relationship between you and the characters that are being portrayed. It's very important to find yourself in these characters and find similarities between you and the characters. You must always step up your work. You can’t feel down, you should always be optimistic, always looking forward. The most important thing is time. Time is crucial when it comes to recording events and shooting events. Do not get impressed by the technique. Use little things to make great things. 

Cecilia Milocco appears in 'Knocking' by Frida Kempff, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Hannes Krantz

Don't take no for an answer

Shawnee Isaac-Smith (Producer, Rebel Hearts): One thing I learned over the many years of recording their stories is, don't take no for an answer. A lot of people that I asked at the very beginning weren't willing to be interviewed. But if I kept going back to them, or time would pass and they'd be in another spot, they might. Then as things changed in the world, they became a little bit more settled and able to talk.

If someone says no once, it doesn't necessarily mean you can't go back and find out again. So hold on to that star.

Stay hungry, despite all the many obstacles

Carey Williams (Director, R#J): My advice to other filmmakers is to not shy away from something that seems like a challenge that you don't quite understand how you would overcome it.  As filmmakers, we're hungry to make stuff and we're hungry to get our voices out. But oftentimes, there are things getting in the way. Either rejection or you can't get the money or locations, or you name it.  Don't let any of those things stop you from doing it. 

Tor Thanapob and Ice Natara appear 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

Don't let filmmaking ruin your life

Baz Poonpiriya (Director, One for the Road): How should I start? I used to be a young aspiring filmmaker. That's the reason I went to New York. I tried to attend film school, but then this didn't happen, because, you had to spend a lot of money on film school. So I had to change my plan. I had to save up money, and make my own short film.

All that stuff that can make you feel depressed, can make you feel disappointed.

I think the key to it is that you have to balance your passion and your lives. You’re supposed to have passion, but you cannot let that passion run you down when it didn't turn out the way you want it to be. You just have to have that passion, and go along with your life, and try to make yourself happy. And try to make the people that love you, that surrounded you, happy also. I think with that success will happen, even though it may take more time than usual.

Listen to your inner voice

Frida Kempff (Director, Knocking): It's easy to say, but I would—because this was my experience—try to be bold. Listen to your inner voice and trust that instinct. Because I felt this is a low-budget movie, and I felt that I have nothing to lose.

If it's not going to be a good film, then people will not remember it. But I learned something along the way. So I think that's good because sometimes it's such an anxiety. "It has to be so perfect." But I mean, it doesn't have to be perfect, or maybe that's something good. Just release that burden in a way, and have fun. Because when you have fun, you become more creative.

So I said to the team that whatever we do, just have fun and be bold.

Michael Greyeyes appears in 'Wild Indian' by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eli Born

Be prepared to fail horribly

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Director, Wild Indian): Write about your life, and don't really worry too much about what it is. Go out and get a camera and shoot stuff.

I made 20 short films on DSLRs before I ever got into Sundance, or got into any festival. And that was a really valuable experience because I knew what I wanted to make by the time I got an opportunity to shoot with a real crew and real actors.

There's no better learning experience than failing horribly, and I think people need to become really comfortable with that.

Thank you, filmmakers!     

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

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