Every event at the Fusion Film Festival, the three-day film festival in late February, was introduced by a short video illustrating the dearth of women behind the camera in Hollywood and briefly recapping the history of the fest. Founded thirteen years ago at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Fusion promotes women writers, producers, directors and cinematographers and celebrates collaboration between the sexes. The competition component is only open to NYU students, but over the years, the panels have attracted professional-level talent, including this year’s Fusion Woman of The Year recipient, cinematographer Reed Morano, whose insights on the industry you can read more about here.
Here are 10 of the best filmmaking tips we learned during the festival:
1. When pitching, lead with the personal and the personality.
A highlight of every year’s festival is the “Docs In The Works” pitch competition, where five lucky finalists are invited to present a clip from an unfinished documentary, explain the project and answer questions from a group of industry professionals. All of the finalists had compelling projects, but the judges consistently remarked that what grabbed them was often either the filmmaker’s personal connection to the story (one young woman was making a film about a particular province in China where she had spent many childhood summers) or the personality of someone featured in footage from the doc. The winning pitch, an ambitious project to be shot over five years and focusing on new scientific innovations in the field of energy research, smartly focused on the lead scientist in the field, letting his enthusiasm draw the audience in, rather than drowning the story in technical language. The topic of a documentary might not be people. But films need characters to guide us into them.
2. It’s all in the details.
There were audible shrieks during the screening of a clip from “American Psycho” at the Women In Horror panel. Apparently, not everyone had seen the film or read the book, and some were shocked to see Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) kill a prostitute by throwing a chainsaw down a stairwell. It’s a disturbing image, and not necessarily even scientifically accurate. If you throw a working chainsaw down a shaft, won’t its motor cause it to spin uncontrollably in one direction or another? This was among the many specific and, yes, technical questions director Mary Harron discussed with her cinematographer and other collaborators while adapting and shooting Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. She wanted the film to feel real, if heightened. The fear and evil both come from the actual world around us; there’s nothing supernatural there, said Harron. So would a chainsaw falling down multiple stories fall in a straight line? Probably not. But did she make sure to shoot it in a stylized but believable way? Absolutely. Believing the parts allows the audience to believe a perhaps incredible whole.
This rule also applied to “Pet Sematary,” directed by Mary Lambert. During the pivotal sequence when the little boy wanders onto the road, the parents had to be just far enough away to not reach him in time, but close enough that the audience thought they might. The truck driver had to gradually increase his speed in a realistic way, without coming across as immediately reckless. It’s a balancing act, mostly performed in the editing room, and Lambert said she sometimes still felt she hadn’t gotten it quite right. Seems even masters agonize over details.
3. Horror is not just about blood.
“I’ve read five hundred serial killer scripts,” said Harron, “and they’re all really bad.” Serial killers, despite being more abundant on TV than ever, don’t actually make particularly interesting subject matter in and of themselves, according to Harron. Instead, she said a “killer” script should be about something more than just violence and bloodshed. Katt Shea, who directed and helped write 1992’s “Poison Ivy” and now teaches acting in LA, said she worked with stars Drew Barrymore and Sara Gilbert on “their chief motivating factors and how they went about getting love.” Drawing out a good performance means giving actors something to work on besides this character likes killing because X. Mary Lambert took the conversation one step further, suggesting “mainstream culture has no conversation about spirituality…Horror is about the unknown.”
4. Women and horror make a perfect match.
Over 50% of the horror-watching audience is female. Again. Over 50% of the horror-watching audience is female. Women see horror movies, and they direct them very well, too. Mary Lambert has a theory as to why: “Women have stronger stomachs. We change diapers. We’re sympathetic victims and killers and characters. If you can understand that, you’ll be a good director.” As an example, she cited the recent hit “The Babadook.”
5. Work every connection you have — at every level.
Again and again at the festival there were anecdotes of screenplays that only got made because somebody knew somebody and tales of series made for nothing because the creators knew a bunch of friends willing to work for free. It’s easy to think this only applied to people who haven’t “made it” yet; it’s not like Spielberg has to call in favors to get an agent to read his latest script. But actually, yes, professional studio gigs are sometimes given to the person with the right connections. How did Mary Lambert come to direct “Pet Sematary?” She knew The Ramones. Stephen King liked The Ramones. Lambert told King that if he let her direct the adaptation of his novel, she would get Dee Dee Ramone to write a song for the film. Two classics for the price of one. So, sometimes at least, it really is all about who you know.
6. Do what you gotta do. And do it the best you possibly can.
The wisdom of Doris Casap could fill many an article, perhaps a book. The Senior VP of Film Programming at HBO made it to the top of her industry by working harder and wanting it more and being smarter and volunteering to help the homeless (really). Her motto for dealing with conflict, uncomfortable situations and rejection is “don’t take it personally.” Her advice for writing a stand-out screenplay was, refreshingly, to just make it a really great screenplay. And no extra words.
The mother of two children, Casap said she frequently negotiates multi-million dollar deals and visits almost every major film festival in the country and internationally. She’s able to juggle it all, she said, by both expecting and providing flexibility. She said she works from home on Fridays, but is willing and able to answer emails at all hours. Her advice was “don’t draw a line” between personal and professional hours. You’re always on call.
READ MORE: There Aren’t Enough Women Cinematographers and That Needs to Change
7. The internet is your friend and your employer.
Forget the Golden Age of Television and turn to the Wild West of the internet. Anyone can produce and post high-quality entertainment for very little money, to be viewed for nothing at all. At the “Women On The Web” panel, the creators of “In Between Men,” “Be Here Now-Ish” and “Monday Brunch” as well as children’s entertainment filmmaker and writer Jennifer Treuting, the Internet was not just a place to find and share interesting content, but also a full-scale industry. There are investors looking to develop the next great web series, actors looking to come in for the flexible schedules internet storytelling allows for, and even festivals specifically dedicated to internet films and series. Managing a fundraising campaign, finding subscribers and replying to fans can eat up a lot of time, but it’s worth it to get more shares and views and to build a strong brand. It’s part of the job, actually. The beauty of the web is you are your own distributor. The though part is you are your own distributor. Time to learn that job.
8. Keep learning.
Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of “Gilmore Girls”) and Janet Tamrao (creator “Rizzoli and Isles”) had a lot to say on the subject of showrunning. Both show showrunners characterized their process as “Sorkin-esque,” meaning that while they use their writing staff to break stories (a vitally important part of TV writing), ultimately they take a final pass at each and every script. This was especially true for Sherman-Palladino, who said she, and sometimes her husband, ended up writing the majority of what got shot on “Gilmore Girls.” Both women cautioned, though, that young writers should never feel discouraged if their work is re-worked by a boss or even a network exec. Everything is a learning opportunity and every draft is a chance to make something better. Bad writers aren’t re-written; bad writers are fired. Good writers are re-written, and even better ones look at the re-writes and learn from them.
9. Inspiration is everywhere.
Devoted fans of “Gilmore Girls” probably already know the show’s less-than-provident origins: Sherman-Palladino pitched it at the last second at the end of a meeting, a kind of Hail Mary pass when the pitches she had presented had fallen on mostly deaf ears. She knew she wanted to tell a mother-daughter-friendship story, but that was it. And that’s what the studio wanted to make. What to do?
Buy wallpaper, obviously. Sherman-Palladino had already scheduled a trip to the Mark Twain house to look for decorating tips for her new house. Along the way, she stopped in a small town in Connecticut where everyone knew each other’s business and thought it might make an interesting setting fora show. Hence Stars Hollow. She and her husband spent the night at a charming inn. Hence the Independence. Deciding that the “parents” of the show would live in Hartford, Sherman-Palladino asked what a well-to-do older man might most commonly do in Hartford. Insurance, apparently. Hence Richard Gilmore. Inspiration is all around. Take ideas from what you see. Heck, copy what you see verbatim. That’s what Amy Sherman-Palladino did for “Gilmore Girls,” and, actually, how she decorated her house too.
10. Join the Film Fatales or find great collaborators on your own.
Founded by filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff (“I Believe In Unicorns”) in New York (now with a dozen chapters around the country), the Film Fatales is a collective of female feature film directors who meet monthly to discuss upcoming projects. They also work on each other’s shoots and give feedback at every stage of development. Their clips were some of the most interesting of the weekend, and some of the most distinctive. In most cases, adding more people to a project has a watering-down effect. Investors, backers, collaborators, co-producers…everyone has an opinion, and while some might be right, it’s hard to stay true to an original idea where there’s a million dollars of someone else’s money on the line.
The Film Fatales are like an anti-studio: they exist to help foster an individual’s vision and passion for a project. They trade stories, skills and contacts, but there is no governing board or stamp of approval. It’s not a company, it’s a collective. More than that, it’s a model for how work-sharing groups should function. Start meetings by saying what you’re excited about. Everybody gets a chance to check in. Without pushing an agenda, create an “up” atmosphere, in this case, up with women. And definitely have snacks.