Limited Shoots, Scheduling Nightmares, and More Sundance Production Challenges
40+ Sundance filmmakers share how they overcame their biggest production hurdles.
Getting a film to the finish line is tough work. You've spent countless months prepping the film, mapping out how your production will take place, and assembling a crew that will assist in getting your vision up on the big screen. With all of this thought put into the project, what could possibly go wrong? Actually, a number of things.
As the 2019 Sundance Film Festival kicks off this week, we asked filmmakers with projects featured in the fest what the most difficult aspects of their productions were. This was asked less as a display of schadenfreude and more as an optimisitic display of overcoming all obstacles. Even in the face of difficulty, these Sundance filmmakers bucked the odds and adjusted their workflow to accomodate all challenges.
Scroll down below to read how they did it.
A.J. Eaton (Director of David Crosby: Remember My Name): Every film is faced with their own set of unique circumstantial snafus, and the Crozumentary (as we lovingly nicknamed it during production) was certainly no exception. 77-year-old Crosby is in the midst of a remarkable third-act renaissance. He’s recorded four solo albums in the last three years and has been touring extensively with two separate bands. But, he’s doing all of this with eight stents in his heart, he has diabetes, and he’s had a liver transplant. He is indeed living on borrowed time. It was terrifying to think each concert or recording session could be his last. From a documentary standpoint, we couldn’t afford NOT to shoot him, yet from a financial standpoint, we often couldn't afford TO shoot him.
Adam Newport-Berra (Director of Photography on The Last Black Man in San Francisco): Our greatest challenge on the film was achieving our incredibly ambitious vision on a small budget with very limited time...basically every first-time filmmaker's greatest and most testing struggle. We had an incredible cast and immensely dedicated crew who worked tirelessly to not only accomplish the production, but raise the level of the film to something beyond the page. I truly believe that everyone's touch helped create the strange, beautiful, and wholly unique world Joe Talbot and I set out to build for this film.
Alex Chi (Producer of Ms. Purple): This film, in particular, was extremely difficult in terms of scheduling and figuring out the logistical nightmare, especially in regards to locations. As a low budget film, we weren't able to own every location and had certain days/times they were available which made it extremely difficult to coordinate. We were able to overcome this with a great AD team who were constantly moving around the pieces of the puzzle and dedicated actors who believed in the film and opened up their schedules to allow for flexibility.
Alex Lehmann (Director of Paddleton): Flooding shut down all freeways out of Los Angeles and all of our actors had to go on these long six-to-eight hour journeys to get to set. Greeting them with joy and warmth and coffee (or wine) was so important in making them feel appreciated.
Andre Hyland (Director, Actor, and Producer of Old Haunt): My DP and I live in different cities, so coordinating/scheduling was a little tricky for reshoots/pick ups. But honestly it worked out fine, so it's a boring answer, and we were fortunate nothing crazy happened and it was a pretty breezy shoot.
Anita Gou (Producer of Honey Boy): One of the big challenges we had on the film was the editing process. In putting the film together, we realized we needed to reimagine the structure of the storytelling. It required a lot of collaborative and honest conversations between our director and our team of editors and producers, and having patience and faith in the reasons we were making the film. Through this, I believe we all ended up with a film that we're all immensely proud of.
Anita Gou (Producer of The Farewell): Our film presented very unique challenges in terms of casting. We needed a dynamic cast to protect both the autobiographical and the cross-cultural nature of the story. It took a lot of patience and our whole team always believing in the importance of authenticity in every aspect of the project. Fortunately, we ended up with an amazing cast of actors spanning from the US, China, and Australia, and we even cast one of the director's family members to play herself in the film!
Britt Poulton (Director and Writer of Them That Follow): The single greatest production challenge was both simple and complicated: the number of shooting days. As any filmmaker knows, there are never enough shooting days! But independent filmmakers feel the truth of this statement acutely—often faced with ambitious, even unrealistic, shooting schedules. No room for error or second-guessing. And even worse, no room to explore. More days cost more money. And that was not an option. So we needed to make the days we did have manageable. We needed to put ourselves in the position to shoot a film, not a schedule. The only way to do that, was to cut. In the end, we ended up cutting about 15% of our script before we ever stepped foot on set. Bringing with us only essential elements of our narrative, and killing a lot of darlings in the process. It was excruciating! But we had to protect our film, not our egos, and save ourselves from making those choices in a vacuum, on set, with the pressure on. I’m so thankful we did.
Bronwyn Cornelius (Producer of Clemency): I must say, overall we had a fantastic shoot, and an incredible cast and crew. As such, I would have to say the greatest production challenge was keeping everybody feeling joyful, upbeat, and positive day after day, as we were dealing with heavy subject matter, as well as filming within the walls of an actual jail, which could make things feel particularly intense. On a couple days, when we were shooting in an execution chamber, we even chose to get a "set therapist" as an extra support for cast and crew. It was important to us that everyone felt taken care of, and that they knew we understood and appreciated the heaviness of the story and what we were asking of our team.
Charlie Scully (Producer of The Sound of Silence): Raising the money was the biggest challenge. Michael, the director, and Ben wrote an amazing script and Michael always had such a clear vision for the film that getting the cast was what we decided to do first. When it came to getting the money, it took a little more time and we just used as many connections and leads we could to get it fully financed. It was truly a collective effort and one that luckily ended up working out.
Chester Algernal Gordon (Producer of Fran This Summer): The greatest production challenge we had to face is making sure our trans actress was comfortable and making sure she wasn’t misgendered. I think it is important for everyone on set be enabled to do their very best and be at the top of their performance level. In order to do this, the environment must feel safe with open communication.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: (The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind): There was a lack of equipment in Malawi that we had to overcome. On top of that, the camera trucks from Johannesburg arrived a full week overdue, having crossed many borders, and we’d already started shooting. We didn’t even have a tripod for the camera for the first couple of days. As we progressed, we used a scaffold tower instead of the usual cherry picker or cranes. It definitely forced us to be inventive to get the shots we wanted.
Dan Madison Savage (Director and Writer of Them That Follow): Snake handlers are, I believe, a misunderstood community, and I wanted to learn more about the people who fill the pews of these churches. In the film, we feature seven characters—each with a unique relationship to their faith and each responding to crisis in their own way. Our script was full, to say the least. I knew we couldn’t accomplish everything in it; the producers also reminded me of this daily. Priorities needed to be set, or they’d be set for us—not by anyone in particular, but by the clock that counts down the hours until the day wraps, and the days until the movie wraps. We took a deep breath and cut 12 pages. It wasn’t easy. Truthfully, it was painful losing scenes I’d waited years to bring to life. But cutting the pages allowed us to shoot a movie—to tell the story we intended—rather than shoot a schedule. Our days were still tight, but focused, and I left production knowing that we had everything we needed.
David Wnendt (Director of The Sunlit Night): Bridging the cultural divide between the cast and crew from three different countries...I didn't think that would be a big deal before getting into this production, but I was wrong.
Debra Eisenstadt (Director, Writer, and Producer of Imaginary Order): The biggest challenge making this film was making this film. It took many years for the stars to align. From finishing the script, casting the film, finding locations, finding the money, shooting 200 scenes in 15 days, editing and overseeing the post production etc… multi-tasking to this degree really tests one’s own sanity. Having the film premiere at Sundance has been a really great way to overcome it.
Elegance Bratton (Producer of Fran This Summer): The greatest challenge we faced is making sure our trans lead actress felt secure and safe. This film required an incredible amount of vulnerability for her in that she had to draw upon the emotional truth of her transition for all to see. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Zenobia and our director Mary Evangelista. Their clarity of vision and robust empathy allowed for a result that will help advance the way trans women of color are seen both on screen and in the real world.
Emelie Mahdavian & Su Kim (Producers of Midnight Traveler): The first major hurdle was handling how to hand off the footage that the Fazili family was shooting while on the run and moving through different countries. In most cases, Emelie arranged contacts in each country who would meet them, copy the footage off their SD cards onto a hard drive, and mail the footage to me in the US. In Hungary, they actually sent the footage out using mobile data that we topped up remotely because they were unable to leave the camp where they were being held. The next big challenge we faced was in post. Mobile phones do not produce stable frame rates when the battery begins to run low. Consequently, when we went into post-production, we had to develop a strategy for handling the nearly fifty frame rates in the project. Producer Su Kim worked closely with Technicolor to strategize the workflow, and with careful planning, the many frame rates and frame sizes made it through the conform and online edit smoothly. We definitely needed the extra time and careful preparation for that to have worked, however.
Eric Lin (Director of Photography on The Sound of Silence): I think the main challenge was to deliver the scope that was written into the script within the limited schedule we had. There were quite a few locations scripted. Scheduling a feature to get the maximum amount of time to shoot with so many locations is an art in and of itself and we had a great 1st AD, Eric LaFranchi, who I worked with closely to give us the best shot at capturing the scenes properly. We had a few days with company moves, which always eat up your shooting time. On a few occasions during those company moves, we were able to send an advance G&E team to prep the next location with gear so that once the company wrapped the first location of the day, the gaffer (Jason Beasley), the key grip (Dave Greenplate), and I were able to jump over and start lighting right away. It helped us to keep working while waiting for the rest of the company to arrive.
The city of New York is a major element in the film and very specific montages of the various neighborhoods were written into the script. During principal photography we snuck in any of the montage pieces we could get nearby existing locations if it featured our main actor, Peter Sarsgaard. In addition, our last day of shooting was designed as a mobile skeleton crew day, in which we zipped around the city in a couple of vans to pick up a few scenes of Peter by himself as well as bits of him in different environments for the montage sections. During principal photography, Michael and the producers also had the foresight to bring on a great DP, Evan Jake Cohen, to shoot 2nd Unit footage all around the city that would provide the scope the script required. He was able to see what we were shooting and the style in which we were shooting so that his footage would fit into the world we were capturing.
Garret Price (Director and Editor of Love, Antosha): My biggest challenge was taking a story that ends in tragedy and turning it into something inspiring. The emotion was always going to be inherent, but I want an audience to forget about how Anton's story ends and be drawn into what this extraordinary artist did and who he effected in the time he had. As I started to dig in to his life through his writings and interviews, I soon realized that the theme of my film was perseverance, and that guided the story I wanted to tell.
Grant Sputore (Director of I Am Mother): Building the robot suit was probably the biggest challenge we faced on this film. Having a piece of costume be credible as a robot was no small task, especially on our budget. The short answer for how we overcame the challenge is we hired the geniuses at Weta Workshop. The long answer is we worked on that robot suit for over a year to get it right.
Henrik Georgsson (Director of The Man Who Played with Fire): We had a lack of footage of the main character (it's a documentary), and so we staged situations with an actor.
Irene Taylor Brodsky (Director of Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements): It was hardest to be a family member and director at the same time. Filmmaking is made up of momentary decisions that change the trajectory of a film forever. I could never function solely as Director, nor solely as Mother (or Daughter). So imagine...after a long day of filming with my family, I would need to put the camera down and, for example, feed my kids some dinner. The way we got along off-camera definitely impacted the way we'd get along on-camera. That's a lot of getting along! I'd bet my DP and soundwoman/Producer felt a similar tension. But ultimately, we all became closer: me and my crew, and me and my family.
Jason Orley (Director and Writer of Big Time Adolescence):There were never enough hours of sunlight (or darkness) to shoot everything we needed, so we had to get creative with how we covered each scene. Most of our shorter scenes were shot in only one or two set-ups. So we really had to make sure we were still creating interesting frames without making it feel like a multi-camera sitcom. Also, since we shot in Upstate New York, there is about a 50/50 chance of rain every day. So we always had to have a back up plan, and we often had to use it.
Joe Berlinger (Director of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile): Finding believable locations proved to be quite difficult on this film because the story of Ted Bundy takes place all around the United States. We were tasked with making northern Kentucky look like Seattle, Utah, Colorado, and Florida (and we shot in the dead of winter). These various prisons, courtrooms, towns, streets, and homes had to reflect their location on the map but also the time period for which we were shooting, which could be anywhere from 1969 to 1986. The whole crew came together to make sure that every aspect of our film was accurate and appropriate, and the locations department is no exception. In the end, I think they did an incredible job with the resources that were at hand.
Julian Cautherley (Producer of Clemency): Finding financing is almost always the greatest challenge for an indie film. Once you have that, everything else is just problem solving and there’s always a way to make it work. Necessity is the mother of invention as they say. When we were looking for financing in 2016/2017, it was a very different world. A female filmmaker with an almost all-black cast with a woman lead in a film about prison and capital punishment is not necessarily everyone’s ideas of a hit ticket movie to finance! But we tried and tired and found the right partner in ACE pictures who were onboard from the moment they read Chinonye’s amazing script. I know this isn’t technically a production challenge but all production challenges you can solve in a few days. Financing, however, takes years.
Justin Chon (Director of Ms. Purple): We had a shot where i wanted to push a hospital bed across the busiest intersection (Wilshire blvd and western) in Koreatown, Los Angeles. No Film School readers will relate when I admit thatwe didn't have money for all permits. How we tackled this problem was rehearsing the event like an Olympic bobsled team. We practiced getting the hospital bed out of the car at a swift pace. The actor jumped on and the lead actor pushed him across the street. The 300mm was integral, as it was placed far away. The shot was obtained without a hitch.
Ken Rosenberg (Director and Producer of Bedlam) and Peter Miller (Producer of Bedlam): The greatest challenge (and opportunity) was in gaining access to the lives of our subjects, to whom we are are enormously grateful for sharing their stories.
Kim Longinotto (Director of Shooting the Mafia): This was the hardest film I have ever tried to make. The challenge was weaving archive of a variety of genres: classic Italian fiction film, on the spot reportage, TV news, our subject's own home movies, and the footage of her I had, filmed into a coherent whole. This film was made as a team: archivist Clare Stronge organized rights and accessing footage and Cristina Rajola visited Italian TV stations and trawled through hundreds of hours of video & film from many other sources. They were both so persistent and dedicated. The film was made with Ollie Huddleston, the editor. It was a joint effortfrom the start (all archive films are surely about editing).
Lucas Gath (Co-Director and Director of Photography of Ghost Fleet VR): On our first shoot day, our very unique rig fell off a fish cart and two of the four lenses got smashed. Being a custom rig, we couldn't just replace it. So we had to call the manufacturer who shipped two lenses from China. We were also shooting a feature documentary on the issue (also called GHOST FLEET). We had to be smart on when to use each camera, and which moment was important for each of the two stories. Fortunately, we had an amazing team that gave us the freedom to work in more than one place at any given time.
Luke Lorentzen (Director, Producer, Editor, and Director of Photography on Midnight Family): I was a one man crew, but I needed two cameras to roll simultaneously to capture my story. One FS7 was mounted on the hood of the ambulance filming the drivers, while I shot in the back of the ambulance with another FS7. Juggling these two rigs at once was overwhelming and took weeks to properly figure out. The schedule I needed to follow was also very difficult. I was filming from about 3:00 in the afternoon through 6:00 in the morning for weeks on end.
Lulu Wang (Director and Writer of The Farewell): This film required some very tricky balancing acts since I was directing in both English and Chinese with actors, producers, and crew all speaking only one language or the other. Also, non-actors were cast alongside professional actors and many scenes required us to squeeze a large ensemble cast into a small space. All of this required extra communication and careful blocking, so ultimately, the greatest challenge to all of this was the lack of time. We were also shooting six day weeks so mental exhaustion and fatigue were also very challenging. My DP Anna Franquesa Solano and I shotlisted and pre-blocked as much as we possibly could in order to make our days.
Martha Stephens (Director of To the Stars): We had the task of crafting an authentic period piece with limited means in a short period of time in rural Oklahoma. We came to set everyday determined to make our days and had already decided which setups would get the axe if we were running low on time. My DP and I knew the scenes, we knew our shotlist, and we Hail Mary’d our way through to the bitter end.
Matt Porwoll (Director of Photography on Tigerland): There were many production challenges for a film of this scale, as always happens on documentaries. But from a cinematography standpoint, I felt our greatest challenge was preparing for the harsh climates we were shooting in. We were shooting in Far East Russia in February, with temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celsius. We had to be extra careful with the cameras and lenses to keep them from fogging/freezing in the extreme shifts in temperature and humidity when going inside to outside. In India (only one month later), we had the opposite challenge of intense heat (upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit) and dust. We had to extensively clean the cameras and lenses at the end of each day and be careful to not overheat the cameras when out under the harsh sun. For all of these reasons, the Canon C300 MKIIs were the best possible choice. At the end of the day, we didn’t have a single issue with the cameras during the span of production.
Michael Lloyd Green (Writer and Co-Producer of I Am Mother): It's no secret that a filmmaker's biggest obstacles in a production are ever-dwindling supplies of money and time. As an on-set writer and co-producer, I found it vital to remain flexible and open-minded to the evolving landscape of the production while maintaining a firm grasp on the essential, often assessing in minutes (alongside the film's director and producers) what could go, what could change, and what had to stay to maintain the over-arching vision for the project. And then it's on you, the writer, to revise and to do so under the gun. For writers who love their words, these are the times to not be precious.
Michael Prall (Producer of The Sound of Silence): Filming in New York City, for all of its benefits and the richness it brings to the project, can be a major difficulty. For a story all about the sounds of the city, it was ironic to be challenged by the actual ambient sounds!
Minhal Baig (Director of Hala): Our schedule was the biggest production challenge. We were shooting at least five or six pages a day. There were a few days where it was less than that, but most days it was at least five. One day, we had 17 costume changes for our lead actress, Geraldine, just to give you some perspective. All of the school scenes were shot at my old high school, during operating hours. They did not shut down anything for us. We had to shoot under some strict limitations; our classrooms were not available to us on certain days. We were always fearful of losing the light. Sometimes entire scenes had to be shot within two hours, or we had to shoot away from the windows because we couldn’t begin filming until later in the day. That said, we had a very experienced crew in Chicago that were used to shooting television, so we moved pretty quickly. We made all of our days/windows because we couldn’t begin filming until later in the day. That said, we had a very experienced crew in Chicago that were used to shooting television, so we moved pretty quickly. We made all of our days.
Mirrah Foulkes (Director of Judy and Punch): Trying to make our days without too much compromise. We had to plan meticulously and hit the ground running, and every day felt like a race against the clock.
Myf Hopkins (Producer of The Last Tree): Most challenging was filming part of our UK-based low budget film in Nigeria, as I'd never worked there before. We overcame this by seeking advice from Nigerian friends who knew the film industry there and found a great company to facilitate our production.
Penny Lane (Director of Hail Satan?): I have been making nonfiction films for well over a decade now, and yet it is the case that with Hail Satan? I was doing many things for the very first time that, for most people, are just... super elementary Doc 101 stuff: negotiating access to people and places, starting to film without knowing at all what "the story" was going to be, shooting and editing concurrently, making a movie about living people who would actually see the movie one day, actually going out and shooting events unfolding in the world (not just in a studio)... this was kind of more or less ALL NEW to me, so... while I'm not sure that counts as one "production challenge," me having to learn how to do all those things is the honest answer.
Rashaad Ernesto Green (Director of Premature): A limited budget in New York doesn't go very far. Many of our production woes were due to budgetary constraints. We just kept focused on telling the story in front of us and making decisions based on that story.
Richard Ladkani (Director and Director of Photography on Sea of Shadows): The greatest challenge was to get the full story told without getting targeted by the Mexican or Chinese cartels. Managing the daily risks for myself and the crew took a big effort. We wanted to be at the frontlines and uncover the truth, but the risks had to stay manageable. This was extremely difficult and cost a lot of energy. Our heroes in the film inspired us to keep going though. They exposed themselves to huge challenges every day and gave us the energy and stamina to take this film all the way.
Ross Kauffman (Director, Producer, and Co-Cinematographer on Tigerland): Most difficult was shooting in extreme cold and heat. -20 degrees in Far East Russia, and 100 degress in India. Also getting tigers on film.
Ruben Impens (Director of Photography on Dirty God and Mustang): For Dirty God: being kicked out of a location in Morocco after half a day shooting, with a tight budget...and finding the courage to redo it. For Mustang: shooting with horses was a big challenge. It was first time for me but now I'm totally intrigued by these animals.
Sacha Polak (Director of Dirty God): It was a challenge having a four-country co-production. Most of the interiors of this film are shot in the Netherlands for financial reasons. There were no chronological scenes. Everything was shot completely out of order. This was sometimes boring because we would spend a day just shooting walks from one door to the next at the estate! Another thing was getting kicked out of a club in Marrakesh. We shed some tears and lost a day of shooting.
Samantha Buck & Marie Schlingmann (Co-Directors and Co-Writers of Sister Aimee): We had an ambitious vision for the film: a period piece, a road trip, built sets that invoke old Hollywood, choreography, music, violence, a large ensemble of actors. On our level, we knew it was going to be a challenge for every single department, including ours. There wasn’t really one solution, but one thing we found incredibly helpful was the fact that we brought heads of departments into the process incredibly early, before there was even money. Our production designer and cinematographer, for example, read the first draft of the script. We were already discussing possibilities and limitations with them; their voices were present in the rewrites, so that when push came to shove and everything had to be done quickly and inexpensively, they knew what to do. It was already their vision too. Also, a great first AD who was both pragmatic and understood our vision and felt protective of it, helped us make our days and negotiate all kinds of pitfalls.
Shola Amoo (Director of The Last Tree): Our film takes place in three distinctly different environments and time frames. The challenge was to uphold the uniqueness of each space whilst also building an aesthetic connection between them. The key to this was shaping our interpretations of these spaces through the perspective of our protagonist and designing the shoot both visually and sonically around that central idea to create a personal and immersive experience.
Tayarisha Poe (Director and Writer of Selah and the Spades): There was never enough time, but you had no choice but to make the time that you had work for what the story needed. it took a lot of positivity, willingness to experiment, and trust in one another, but we made it work! Every single day and overnight. I'm extremely proud of this team for that.
Tim Mason (Director and Co-Writer of Work in Progress): No surprise, but time and money. We were moving at a breakneck speed with a skeleton crew but because we had such a talented and dedicated cast and crew, it all worked. Pre-planning, organization, and having everyone on the same page: that's what made it actually doable.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Director and Producer of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am): Our biggest problem was that there was too much good material. Toni Morrison's life deserves a 10 hour mini-series! It was a struggle to cut it all down.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
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