Before the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, we sent out a questionnaire to the filmmakers with films screening at the festival asking a series of questions about the process of making their film. We’ve gathered the most fascinating answers to the always eye-opening “biggest challenge” question.
Uniformly, the filmmakers detailed trouble finding financing, a common obstacle in independent film. Many documentarians also said the editing process was particularly difficult. The editing room seemed to have a habit of posing seemingly unanswerable questions like “when do you know it’s done?”
Here’s a selection of the filmmaker’s responses (slightly edited, in some cases, for length):
Andrew Renzi (“Franny”): Post-production was challenging on this film. Franny’s physicality changes throughout the film, and to achieve that, we shot the film in two installments, separated by about six months. That made the editorial process difficult, because we were cutting an incomplete film for half a year. So, when we finally shot the second installment, it felt almost as though we were starting over in the edit room, which was pretty exhausting.
Sean Mewshaw (“Tumbledown”): The challenge that took the longest was overcoming the stigma of the first-time feature director. Everyone was always enamored of Desi’s script, but no matter the short films I’d made with established actors, or my experience on the sets of big feature films, it involved years of persistence, endless carefully calibrated letters, building an intricate lookbook, blazing with confidence in meetings where I was over my head, shooting a fully-produced scene from the film, plus truckloads of luck to convince all the gatekeepers to risk letting me step onto the playing field, then attack the creative challenges.
Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi (“Among the Believers”): This film took six years to make under touch-and-go circumstances at many points. Throughout, we faced numerous dangers, from being tracked by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies such as the ISI, to having our phones tapped, to receiving thinly-veiled – and at times more overt – threats.
Zachary Treitz (“Men Go To Battle”): The hardest part, overall, is staying in love and fully engaged with the movie over the years it took to make. We shot off and on for over a year, which is enough time for the project and the people working on it to change. Maintaining the original spark of the project while allowing it to grow and adapt required commitment I did not have before. With it being finished it feels inevitable, but there were so many places it could have and did go wrong.
Steve Hoover (“Crocodile Gennadiy”): In 2014, our crew was attacked by a Pro-Russian mob while we were filming in Ukraine. We stopped by a peaceful rally to get footage, joining the press that was covering the event. We were singled out for speaking English and quickly became the center of attention. Knowing it was time to leave, we casually tried to make our way to the van. After a swarm of insults, some provocateurs escalated their aggression by grabbing one of our crew. Our translator yelled for us to run, which ignited the crowd, causing them pursue us. We made it into the van after a long dash, but found ourselves surrounded by the crowd that had somehow procured weapons, which were being used to destroy the van. After an unrecallable amount of time, our driver managed to break through the mob, but not without being followed by a car full of assailants. Our driver was slick and managed to evade the car(s), all the while driving on rims and muscling through the aftereffects of tear gas. We eventually made our way out of the country. The conflict in Ukraine continued to intensify, making it too dangerous for our crew to feel good about returning for additional filming. A less harrowing challenge, is that I don’t speak Russian, so I felt like I had one hand tied behind my back with this project.
Patrick O’Brien (“TransFatty Lives”): You mean, besides having ALS? Besides having my hard drives stolen? Besides missing footage, no money, and collaborators who came and went, making “TransFatty Lives” was a cakewalk.
Chris Modoono (“Tenured”): This feature grew out of a short that premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Several key moments in the film were scenes we reshot from the short. So, it was important to me as a director to make sure we weren’t just trying to copy what we had done in the past, since both Ethan’s character and the story as a whole had evolved. Our shooting schedule was 12 days. For a feature film, 12 days is insane. Also, we shot in Los Angeles during a heat wave last year. It was 110 degrees on set every day, and we had to walk uphill both ways carrying bricks that we used to build the school we shot in.
Zachary Sluser (“The Driftless Area”): Having the patience and perseverance to weather the long road to financing. The flexibility and presence of mind to recognize when something that’s been envisioned for years should change into whatever best serves the film in the moment. Tom Drury’s process and openness to revising his novels or our screenplay inspired my approach to the challenges and compromises of production. To know when something was worth fighting for and when perhaps an equally good but different road lay before us.
Jeanie Finlay (“Orion: The Man Who Would Be King”): Sadly, some of the characters in the film are no longer with us, so bringing their story to life through pure archive testimony was a huge challenge. Hopefully we got there in the end, I feel like I know some of them so well but will never have the chance to meet them in real life.
Abigail Disney (“The Armor of Light”): The hardest thing for me in making this film has been disciplining myself on the question of political tolerance. I was working with men and women who, at a personal level, were lovely and kind, but who had spent their lifetimes tearing away at the very political suppositions I hold most dear. Many were the times I wanted to sit people down and lecture them about how wrong they were about their political values—”convert” them, as it were, to my own positions. I had to understand that if I didn’t want to be evangelized from a religious point of view, I was going to have to let go of my own impulses toward political evangelism, and that has been very, very difficult. The hardest thing in the world, I now know, is to hold in your head that it is okay to think that you are right, but not to think so necessarily because everyone who disagrees with you is wrong, or stupid, or duped, or bad.
Eric Weinrib “Roseanne for President!“: I personally watched and transcribed over 300 hours of footage which took me around 1,500 hours. No joke.
Felix Thompson (“King Jack”): The biggest challenge we faced was finding our “Jack.” Everyone else in the cast was going to be built around him. We wanted a boy who was actually 14 or 15 because there is a mix of volatility and vulnerability at that age that is just written on someone’s face. We did a local casting upstate with hundreds of kids, scoured the city and even considered kids as far away as Texas and Maine. But in the end our amazing casting director Avy Kaufman finally found Charlie [Plummer].
Chris McNamara (“Ashby”): Challenges were budget, budget, budget, Mickey Rourke, weather, Mickey Rourke, my Australian accent in North Carolina.
David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall (“Thank You For Playing”): Filming with Ryan and Amy [Green] while they cared for their son Joel was definitely the most challenging aspect for us in making this film, on every personal, professional, and emotional level. We became very close to the Green family during production, and it became incredibly difficult to maintain enough emotional distance to do our jobs while intimately charting Joel’s deteriorating health over the course of production. The Greens gave us all the access we wanted and never asked us to turn our cameras off – so it was up to us to figure out where to the draw the line in documenting Joel’s illness.
Benni Diez (“Stung”): Of course, we had a truckload of visual effects to complete in post-production, so that was tough just in terms of sheer size and numbers. But the real challenge for me was working with experienced actors and creating believable characters with them, because that was a first for me, even on this fairly small scale. But it turned out to be a mind-blowing experience, and reassured me that I want to do this for the rest of my life.
Kevin Kerslake (“As I AM”): The process of making this film reinforced some very negative stereotypes about unsavory characters operating within the music industry, however, it also reinforced my faith in the artist’s capacity to move people towards a higher consciousness.
Reed Morano (“Meadowland”): There were the usual challenges in trying to get a drama with dark subject matter with a female lead financed – I think we all know that it’s not easy. In addition to that, our lead – Olivia [Wilde] – got pregnant so we pushed the shoot – but I wouldn’t say that was a challenge. It was a blessing for so many reasons that were way bigger than any movie. The most unique challenge we had was that I was diagnosed with Stage II Squamous Cell Carcinoma a few months before we were going to shoot the film. In April 2014, we ended up getting financed while I was laid up in bed with a feeding tube, from the radiation and chemo. It all worked out though; I found out I was in remission in June 2014, only a few weeks before we went into hard prep. We began shooting on August 15th and I was strong enough by that point to also DP and operate the camera.
Stephen Fingleton (“The Survivalist”): Completing the sound was much more difficult than on an ordinary film. There is no music score in the film and it’s set in a period when there’s no traffic or airplanes, so the sound is very exposed. Virtually every element of the sound had to completely replaced through foley and design, and mixed in such a way that it felt very real.
Paz Fábrega (“Viiaje”): The hardest part was finishing it. I’m very critical of my own work, so I can’t really edit my films. I had some help, but not someone I could just hand it to, and I got stuck for a few months. Then, when I was starting to work on it again, I lost someone I loved very much and didn’t pick it up again for almost three years. Writing and editing are the most difficult stages for me, and if I’m not in a good place emotionally, I just can’t do it.
Andrew Jenks’ (“dream/killer”): We were hoping to make a film that would help Ryan [Ferguson] get out of prison. Just as we were about done filming, he was released. So we knew that this was going to be a different film. And although the right thing had been done – Ryan being released – I wanted to make sure that people knew this was not going to be a happy ending. Because it isn’t.
Gregory Kohn (“Come Down Molly”): The drug section was the biggest challenge not only aesthetically, but also from a performance perspective. I felt like other movies always got tripping wrong. There’d be spirals of day-glo colors, or ’70s synth music or CGI animations for more modern films. And the acting was usually very over-the-top. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to show friends actually giggling at each other’s ideas. I wanted them to really be laughing or crying at the absurdity of existence, because that’s what it’s like when you’re tripping. It’s a very emotional experience, and I wanted to capture that honestly.
Chris Bell (“Prescription Thugs”): I almost died making this movie. Seriously. You’ll see the hardest part in Act III of the film. I can’t give it away.