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Fast, Cheap and Never Easy: How These Sundance Filmmakers Beat the Odds

Fast, Cheap and Never Easy: How These Sundance Filmmakers Beat the Odds

Making an indie film is hard. Holding tight to your vision and pushing boundaries often comes with it a lack of funds, a lack of time, a lack of manpower and a lack of believers.

We asked the filmmakers premiering films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to name the biggest challenge they faced in getting their films made. The most common response, “You only want one!?”

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

“I had to cut 35 pages a week before shooting to be able to afford to make the film, but it was a blessing in disguise. Also, while shooting I had a ten month old baby, who kept me very grounded and reminded me often it was just a movie.” – Elizabeth Wood, “White Girl”

“The greatest challenge was finding a creative path that was cinematically powerful and stylized while constructing a narrative world that was respectful of people and communities affected by gun violence in real life. The goal was not only to make something that did not shy away from this very dark landscape we find ourselves in today, but to dive as deep as we could.” – Tim Sutton, Dark Knight

“Rain and cats provided some fairly stressful moments on the shoot. The rain basically followed us everywhere in Ireland, which was particularly disappointing for me as I had a notion of avoiding grey in the film. Ironically we had booked a rain machine to shoot the graveyard scene and that day the sun was splitting the stones. Cats are, as I’d been told many times, basically untrainable.” – Rebecca Daly, “Mammal”

“This is a personal film, it’s loosely based on my actual mother passing away from cancer in 2009, so I’d say it was a challenge at first to wrap my head around talking about her and this story as a commodity. Does that make sense? I mean, this movie is not a documentary — a lot has been changed or morphed or expounded upon — but it is still, at its core, about my mother. When I first wrote the script, it was pretty emotional and felt very personal. But then as I started to try and make it, to get financing, to pitch it to production companies, it felt…weird. It felt odd to go from ‘I wanna write something personal about my mom’ to ‘I wanna sell this personal thing about my mom.’ It was a mental hurdle I had to navigate.” – Chris Kelly, “Other People”

“The biggest challenge was finding financing for a script like ‘The Land.’ It’s hard going through meeting after meeting and getting rejected. It’s not a horror film, action flick, and I didn’t have big named actors attached. So, the doubt started to creep in — ‘Should I change this? Should I write this instead?’ Basically, the tough part was sticking to the reason I wrote the story and how I wanted to tell it. So many people didn’t want to make the film in Cleveland. ‘Can you shoot it in Atlanta, Louisiana, LA? Can you make it just a sport movie and have a big competition in China?’ Or my favorite, ‘Your movie is “Fast and Furious,” but on skateboards.’ Though I understand the reasoning behind all the suggestions, it just wasn’t for this particular film. A big challenge is knowing what my film needed in order for me to stand behind it, because it’s easy to get lost in everyone else’s vision for the film. Especially for the first-timers like myself.” – Steven Caple Jr., “The Land”

“One of the lead characters in ‘Lovesong” is a mother played by Riley Keough, and due to timing we ended up casting my two young daughters to play her child at different time periods. Our three-year old daughter Jessie appears earlier in the story and to our great surprise, she had a blast being on set and did great. To this day, Jessie still calls Riley her ‘pretend mom.’ Our older daughter Sky plays the same character three years later in the story. I just assumed since she’s older and she’d watched her sister enjoy being on set, that she’d have a similar experience. But it was completely different for Sky, and she did not enjoy being on set and resisted taking direction from me. After a few takes into our first scene of the day she screamed, ‘Acting is boring! And I don’t want you telling me what to do.’ I had chills running down my spine. No matter how I tried to help her, it was tough going for the rest of the day. I was stumped. Thankfully my wonderful crew and cast, including Jena Malone and Riley Keough, really helped and it became a group effort. As it turned out, she became spontaneous and relaxed once the camera was rolling. She constantly made up her own dialogue, which fortunately was better than what we had written in the script!” – So Yong Kim, “Lovesong”

“One of the biggest challenges was working with a cast of about fifty kids who had never been in a film before. As we worked, I learned each actor’s unique directorial needs, but each relationship required experimentation and trust. It forced me to know the film inside and out. Ultimately, casting a real dance team gives the film a texture that we could not have fabricated.” – Anna Rose Holmer, “The Fits”

We shot in and around where I live in Los Angeles. Parking in my neighborhood is awful so it was difficult at times for cast and crew to find spots near by.  But crew parking really wasn’t the main issue, a number of shots needed to have my Volvo wagon parked in the same spot across the street from my house for continuity purposes. Between street sweep days, insanely competive neighbors vying for parking spots, it was very difficult to keep getting the same spot. Especially sense we shot the movie in 3-4 day shoots over a few months. The toughest shot was when we needed two cars parked back to back. It sounds really simple, but it was stupid difficult to accomplish. To top it all off, my Volvo, which was my character’s car, was totaled when a random car lost control and slammed into it while it was a parked late one night. I discovered my car a couple days later all jacked and messed with bits hanging off. This happened before we were wrapped on the car, we sill had a couple scenes to shoot with it.” – Andre Hyland, “The 4th”

“Time. We shot the movie in 18 days. Came back, started editing immediately. Cut the film for three weeks. Submitted to Sundance. Worked on the film for a few more weeks. And then it was over. It was a whirlwind. It would have been nice to have more time, but part of me feels like it was a blessing to have limited time. It kept me focused and didn’t give me a chance to second guess myself.” – Nicolas Pesce, “The Eyes Of My Mother”

“The biggest challenge I faced was making a film about a culture that is not my own — it’s about Bedouins living in the Israeli dessert. Their traditions, beliefs, customs and language all were very different from mine. While understanding that this is something I could never bypass or ignore — and by this I mean that this film will always be of an outsider — still, I wanted to give it my best shot to have it feel as if it was an internal voice. I spent years getting to know girls and women who went through experiences portrayed in my film, and rewrote the script again and again, until I felt like it was accurately enough giving a voice to their ways of thinking and of seeing the world.” – Elite Zexer, “Sand Storm”

“‘Spa Night’ explores how each member of a Korean-American immigrant family balances personal desire with tradition and responsibility. I always knew that the success of the film hinged on its sense of authenticity. In order to make the story resonate with audiences, I had to portray the struggle of this Korean-American family with as much honesty as possible. This meant finding fluent Korean speaking actors, shooting on location in Koreatown, and exploring difficult and emotional subject matter. Each one of these was a challenge. It would’ve been very easy to cut corners, but the cast and crew understood and supported my vision for this film.” – Andrew Ahn, “Spa Night”

“Dealing with the elements. We shot August 2014 which is usually the hottest month in the Netherlands, but that year it had the most rain fall in 100 years. So it kind of felt like ‘Lost in La Mancha’ at times where streets were flooded, shoots were postponed etc.” – Arne Toonen, “Little Gangster”

“We shot in the California desert in May, which was a fairly daunting experience in itself. By the end of the first day, I was more sunburned than I could’ve ever imagined. By the end of the shoot, I looked like Mother from ‘Psycho.'” – Mickey Keating, “Carnage Park”

“I was six months pregnant when we were shooting the film and I went into labor the day we picture locked. Three weeks after I gave birth we had to go back into the editing room to work on the score and finish VFX, color and sound. Traveling to New York alone with a newborn to finish the film was incredibly challenging. It made directing pregnant feel easy in comparison. I think this will also make my next film feel like a cake-walk.” – Sian Heder, “Tallulah”
“Having to prioritize and ration the prosthetic genitals, so that we didn’t run out of them before the end of the shoot. This film was tight on time, money, and then consequently prosthetic genitalia. Beyond that my biggest challenge was to remain optimistic that the legendary Michael St Michaels, who plays Ronnie, would remember his lines when he opened his mouth. He won’t mind me saying that. Or will he?” – Jim Hosking, “The Greasy Strangler”

“The biggest overall challenge for me was maintaining a healthy mental attitude. Directing a movie is no joke. I feel like each stage that led to the completion of this film had its own unique challenge. I had to get used to the idea that, even though I was in charge, I was not in control. From budgeting challenges, to actors dropping out, to weather, there was very little I could do to prevent, change, or plan for anything and everything that happened on a day to day basis. Accepting that fact and trusting that, no matter what, everything was going to be okay — even if ‘okay’ didn’t look like exactly what I imagined- was a daily challenge.” – Clea DuVall, “The Intervention” 
“To be the director and the actor was a big challenge for me, because I was in charge of giving life to this character, but also to direct the film as a whole. That was the reason of why I had to have a co-director, because I needed a person to direct when I was acting, and to be able to submerge into this character. It was so complicated and profound at the same time.” – Manolo Cruz, “Between Sea and Land”

“I think one of the main challenges was at the very start when I was trying sell the idea of this Farsi language, offbeat, psychological thriller/horror set in 80s Tehran. And I was adamant to make the film in Farsi for the sake of authenticity. Some of my friends were telling me to give up the idea of making this as my first feature. Many producers were initially interested after reading the script (obviously in English) but then when it came to the whole language debate, they didn’t want to take the risk. Only Wigwam Films didn’t flinch — they were actually supportive of this choice from day one as they agreed it’s best for the film.” -Babak Anvari, “Under the Shadow”

“Finding a producer who shares my vision. ‘Wild’ is not only a movie about a woman who decides on a life without a safety net the whole movie doesn’t have a safety net. You don’t know where it’s taking you. There is no other movie you can compare it to, plus we were shooting with a wild animal. So, having producer Bettina Brokemper on board who was taking all these risks and  right next to me while pitching things like, ‘then the girl lives with the wolf in her apartment having breakfast, doing normal couple stuff,’ was important.” – Nicolette Krebitz, “Wild”

“The green light was the biggest challenge. Getting backers for a first feature is a hell of a thing. It’s provocative material, and in order to get the right combination of cast and financing to go out an shoot this thing, we had to convince seasoned talent that I was real deal — that I wasn’t going to go out and shoot a cheap looking exploitation film that would embarrass them.” – JT Mollner, “Outlaws and Angels”

“We had a very short shooting schedule. We favored long takes and evolving master shots over coverage. This required painstaking choreography between actors and camera. Fortunately, I had a fair amount of pre-production rehearsal time with our two leads, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, and they also arrived off-book. That level of preparation allowed us to nail down more complicated blocking in less time than it might normally take.” – Richard Tanne, “Southside With You”

“Like most low budget films we had very few shooting days. We had lots of locations and that made for a ton of company moves. This further restricted our time on set. I prioritized performance time over setups so all these factors probably pushed the lighting and camera departments (that were understaffed) to their limit. They had very little time to light and set up shots. I asked a lot of them and they did a great job. I think the subject matter was also very disturbing which can wear down actors and crew, but everyone was dedicated and overcame the difficulties really well.” -Andrew Neel, “Goat”

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