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Sundance ShortsLab LA: 12 Filmmaking Lessons from Jonze, Groth, ‘The Pact’ and More

Sundance ShortsLab LA: 12 Filmmaking Lessons from Jonze, Groth, 'The Pact' and More

This weekend’s Sundance ShortsLab LA panels offered a wealth of useful gleanings. Held at Google’s Venice offices, panels included Story Development (director Spike Jonze and longtime editor Eric Zumbrunnen), Collaboration (director Azazel Jacobs, cinematographer PJ Raval, editor Annette Davey, production designer KK Barrett, and moderator Matthew Harrison) and Working with Actors (Joshua Leonard, Nick Offerman, Gina Rodriguez, and moderator Matt Ross).

Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth and programmers Landon Zakheim and Mike Plante also shared info and advice about submitting to the festival, presenting a case study on filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy’s short film “The Pact” and its journey into becoming a feature within a year of playing at Sundance.

Below are 12 key lessions for filmmakers–and anyone planning to collaborate in the medium.


1. Make it for yourself, make it your own. If you don’t connect to it, no one will. Having a distinct personality is better than being generic. As a creative person, you may not have the power of money, but you do have the power to say ‘No.’ When you work in the studio system, be sympathetic and aware of everyone’s agenda, but always remain true to yourself and the core feeling of your story. Also, “work with people who don’t lie,” says Jonze.

2. Films take on a life of their own once they are shot. Don’t be too fixed on anything; have a plan but be willing to go to a “third place” that you hadn’t conceived. The story can evolve immensely in the editing room. Things that seem sacrosanct on the page or during shooting may not work when editing; be prepared to adapt. Be open to anything, and willing to try things.

3.  Stay creatively active, even if you can’t do your dream project now. Create things constantly. Jonze uses Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Synecdoche, New York”) as a great example of how to find inspiration for your story. Kaufman will write about whatever is occupying his mind, whatever he is thinking or obsessing about. Don’t battle where your head is; use it and write about where you are in the moment. Otherwise you are wasting energy by fighting what’s in your head.


4. What collaboration means: Finding people that do things better than you can do without them; the surprise of filmmaking comes from collaborating with people you trust. It is a highly collaborative medium; allow yourself to be humbled by that and trust people with their area of expertise. As a director, your talent is in recognizing other peoples’ talents. Have each others’ backs, question and push each other. Collaboration takes practice, and it requires egos to let go. Those who refuse to collaborate often produce flat work. The best directors with the clearest visions are often those who are most open to collaboration and who encourage their team to be creative. Everyone involved on your project should be making the same thing. If everyone is making something different, it will show in the final product.

5. No money in short films, so why make them? Some ideas don’t require a longer format, but don’t think “short” films are lesser than “feature” films. Short filmmaking allows for freedom, experimentation, and helps keep the creative juices flowing. You don’t need permission, and you don’t need to follow rules; this is where you can and should continue to experiment and learn. Don’t wait until you can make your feature; filmmakers need to be making films, period.

6. Technology. Technology is more accessible, but there are many people making films who have nothing to say. Projects shouldn’t be chosen based on equipment, and each genre requires something different. Sound is still a major issue; good sound can do more to immerse an audience into your film faster than any visual element. Technology can breed sloppiness, and the standards have gone down. It’s still about what you do, not the format. The tools should serve you, and story should always be the primary focus.


7. Be worthy of their trust. “In the van from the airport to set, you can find out every lie you’ve been told by talking to transport,” Offerman says. And as a director, if your actors don’t trust you, you’re screwed.

8. Figure out who your actors are and what kind of direction they need; determine how you can be helpful for them, but also how to get what you need. Learn to communicate, give actable directives, and don’t treat your actors like “dangerous retarded children,” because while they can be dangerous (if they are stars and want to get your fired), what you are asking of them is to be extremely open and vulnerable in front of an entire crew, and you need to be empathetic to that. Rodriguez says, “Give actors empathy and they will give you their heart, if they trust that you aren’t going to drop it.” The more they feel respected and part of the collaboration, the better results you’ll get. Don’t ever negate what your actors are doing, you need them to feel safe and remain open; learn the art to getting what you want while making them think it was their own idea. Once you are in the editing room, you can do whatever you want anyway.

9. Be a confident director. And don’t be an asshole. Actors will be more receptive to being pushed, more willing to go the distance, if they trust you and your vision. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your actors will know. Yelling and screaming doesn’t work, it only encourages resistance. Offerman says he’s worked with directors that “consider themselves high-octane badass,” but he has nothing positive to say about them or the experience. The biggest common denominator among top directors in their ability to inspire; they are masters of getting people to do what they want. Inspire your cast and crew to be your allies.

10. Have a vision, do your homework. Directors fall into two categories, according to Offerman. There’s the “great custodians,” who are economical and on time. The others are inspired and have a vision – and this is the category you have to fall into if you want to make an indie film. You need to have done your homework and have a vision if you expect actors to follow you, and a crew that is willing to work for peanuts. Thank and appreciate everyone on your set.

11. Know that there is no difference between male and female directors. The panel of actors unanimously agree on this, but they also acknowledge there is a “horrible double standard” toward female directors, and vast gender inequality throughout the industry. You must always choose collaborators wisely, and avoid chauvinists. Women need to be especially guarded in the industry, particularly when dealing with men in power positions.

12. Advice from programmers on making your short film. Use the resources you have to tell your story well. Don’t overreach; it’s obvious when you do. Be tight and economical. Don’t be too precious, and don’t waste a singe shot. If something doesn’t need to be longer, keep it short. But make it the best it can be. If you’ve had a film accepted into Sundance before, don’t assume you’ll get in again. It has to be better every time. There are films that got in ten years ago that probably wouldn’t get in now; submissions numbers continue to rise. However, the number of stand-out amazing films has not increased.

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