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Attention, Filmmakers: If You Want to Get Your Film Into Sundance, Here Are Some Tips from this Year’s Class

Attention, Filmmakers: If You Want to Get Your Film Into Sundance, Here Are Some Tips from this Year’s Class

Chance are, the unleashing of over 100 new independent projects at this year’s Sundance Film Festival has lit a fire under aspiring filmmakers. But before you start laying plans for Sundance 2017 and beyond, here’s some advice from the directors who just lived their Park City dreams.

READ MORE: My Big Break: How This Year’s Directors Found Their Way To Sundance

“The biggest piece of advice I can offer filmmakers, especially directors, is to maximize the use of prep time. So many of the challenges directors face during principle can be mitigated during prep. Make prep a communal and collaborative effort by insuring every single person involved knows exactly what is expected of them AND knows how they will approach and meet those expectations.” -Nate Parker, “The Birth of a Nation”

“Be as prepared as possible. Pre-production is the only time when you won’t feel like a clock is ticking. Once principle starts, things will get nuts and you will feel like you don’t have one second to think. But with that being said, be ready to change course at any given moment if you are sinking in a time suck. Don’t spend all day trying to get the perfect shot and sacrifice proper coverage. Once you get into editing, you will suddenly realize that time wasting shot hurt the film more than helped it.” -Rob Zombie, “31”

“Learn how to act. Don’t just read a couple books on it, take a class, become a student of the craft. I dedicated 15 years of my life to the study and pursuit of acting and it was a huge asset to the experience. Your actors are the conduits for your story, not just props. They are some of the most intuitive and sensitive people on the planet and they will immediately be able to tell if you have the tools to guide them through the process. If they smell that you don’t have a firm grasp on their craft, you’ll lose their trust, and they won’t lean on you to push them to be great. You run the risk of them going into ‘protect my performance mode,’ which will strip out a lot of the risks that make exceptional acting possible. If you were opening an auto body repair shop, you would probably want to know how to fix a car. Actors are the mechanics of your story.” -Jason Lew, “The Free World”

“Don’t be afraid of your actors, let them bring everything they can to the character and work from there.” -Rebecca Daly, “Mammal”

“Concentrate on acting. That starts with having a good casting director. I think most first time filmmakers make-it-or-break-it on having a few good actors in their film. If you don’t have good actors, you can direct until you are blue in the face and it probably won’t matter very much. We all want fancy shots, but when you have to choose between elaborate set-ups and time for an actor to work I choose the latter. Regardless of how good a concept is or how seductive the imagery is, if the acting isn’t good, the movie isn’t good. -Andrew Neel, “Goat”

“If you’re making your first movie, you might as well try to make it weird. It’s the only time you won’t have to worry too much about expectations.” -Bernardo Britto, “Jacqueline (Argentine)”

“If you’re doing something that feels scary, then that’s probably a good thing. The world doesn’t need any more safe films. If you wake up in terror with an unshakable feeling that you’re certain to fail miserably, then A) that means you actually care deeply and so you have a puncher’s chance of pulling it all together and B) you might actually be doing something innovative or interesting. Watch movies, love cinema, do new things and keep pushing. And don’t be an asshole, because you need all the help you can get.” -Robert Greene, “Kate Plays Christine”
“Embrace the accidents, embrace the flaws, work from the heart. There is no knowing what kind of filmmaker you are until you get behind a camera and start making films, and that can often be a messy process. I think it’s important to be relentless with what you want out of your movie, but it’s sometimes too easy to turn that anguish in on yourself. Also, find healthy ways to maintain energy through the marathon of the process. I developed a serious relationship to Diet Coke and Doritos early on that I deeply regret.” -Meera Menon, “Equity”

“Make sure you have a good time. Making movies is stressful. And they don’t tell you that until you’re in the thick of it. The more fun you can have the better. If you can, make movies with your friends.” -Nicolas Pesce, “The Eyes Of My Mother”

“Just don’t think about how much work this is going to be, and try not to find out either. If anyone actually knew in advance how hard it is, nobody sane would ever do it. Also, don’t listen to ‘industry pros’ who insist you need to color inside the lines. For mentoring and connections, you need to find the ‘industry pros’ that are still excited about discovering new voices and new modes of filmmaking; they’re totally out there and they will be your biggest allies. But more important than either of those two things is to cultivate your own community of peers and collaborators, friends who will help you aggregate enthusiasms and cultivate your worldview and watch your terrible rough cuts and hold a camera for you every once in a while.” -Penny Lane, “NUTS!”

“I see a lot of filmmakers doing multiple jobs with little or no pay to get their movies made. We all do that for these labors of love, but it’s not a realistic or long-term business model. To expect passionate, dedicated and talented filmmakers to work for nothing is an unfair and unhelpful assumption. First-time filmmakers should remember that. It’s also helpful for people to know that even the most successful documentary filmmakers still struggle. There are very few people I know, if any, who just go off and make their film in a cave in the dark and go on to have a successful exhibition without significant help. Reach out to other filmmakers for advice, we’re a really collaborative community.” -Dawn Porter, “Trapped”

“Make sure you know what you’re doing, you know what you want, and you’ve had the practice. This is important, because you may only get one shot. Meticulously shot list and never, ever, compromise your vision. Take advice or feedback that enhances your vision, but never forget that, for better to for worse, a film is meant to serve a singular vision, and everyone involved must serve that vision. If it bombs, you’ll get all the blame, and if it is a hit, you’ll get a ton of the credit. Finish your first feature knowing you did everything you could to make exactly the film you wanted to make. And then, if it’s a flop, you’ll still have no regrets.” -JT Mollner, “Outlaws and Angels”

“Don’t overshoot! I shot everything that moved for my first two films and was swimming in a sea of footage. Start by knowing what story you want to tell and how you want to tell it and then focus on the work ahead of you.” -Roger Ross Williams, “Life, Animated”

“Here are my beliefs/suggestions: Do not compromise the number of shooting days, even if it means reducing the scope of your ambition in other areas. Rehearse everything before principal photography commences. Be suspicious of scenes in which two people are sitting still and talking. Don’t invite your friends to test screenings, invite people who are indifferent to the film’s success, and also resist the urge to say anything at these screenings. Always push your luck just a little bit, i.e. ask for things that are unreasonable but only slightly so.” -Kerem Sanga, “First Girl I Loved”

“Keep the project small. It’s the first feature and if you can make a simple story complex, then do it. It was tough making a movie with so many moving pieces with such little time and money. Find the heart of the story and drop any excess weight.”-Steven Caple Jr, “The Land”
“First, discover an angle that feels genuinely under-explored. Wherever possible try to secure exclusive access to tell that story. Try to shoot something that demonstrates why you believe so deeply in this subject. Lastly, as your project matures, don’t be afraid to onboard people who know more than you. There’s no heroism in trying to do everything yourself.” -Otto Bell, “The Eagle Huntress”

“I once had an art teacher who said that ‘original thought is dead.’ At the time I loved that because he didn’t make us footnote any of our papers, but now I see it as a comforting thought to release myself from the pressure of creating something completely unique all the time. So my advice would be to look at the work you admire and try your best to emulate it until you figure out your own preferences and techniques for storytelling.” Clay Tweel, “Gleason”

“The advice we would give is that as an indie filmmaker you have to be prepared to re-invent yourself over and over again. One success doesn’t make you immune to the painful process of rising again from the ashes. And embracing that fact — if one can do so without hindsight! — could sidestep a lot of pain.” -Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, “The Bad Kids”

“Be adaptable. You’re not going to get everything you want, and you’re absolutely going to fuck up. Don’t beat yourself up about it — learn from your mistakes, and move on. Pick your battles. You will encounter many. Be prepared to work harder than you ever have in your life, and prepare to feel unpopular, frustrated and alone. You will likely see the worst version of yourself emerge on set. Get what you need (within reason) and apologize later, if necessary. If you have any reservations about being able to lose sleep, lose money, lose out on love…if you feel that you might be unable to complete your film (provided that you are not momentarily happy with it), if you’re against intermittent criticism, if you feel like you care more about your own personal vanity than about the state of your finished movie, then don’t try to make a film. There are much easier things to do. Your first movie is going to devour your life. Be prepared to be consumed.” -Tahir Jetter, “How To Tell You’re A Douchebag”

“Don’t give up. It took me a lot of years to get the film financed and a lot of people told me that it wasn’t possible at the budget level we were at. My advice would be this — YOU are the main engine behind getting your film made. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. If you stop pushing the ball up the hill, it will go away. I started to feel like I was crazy after awhile, but I knew how badly I wanted to tell this story so I kept hammering away at it. We found the right financiers who believed in the project and a lot of years of work came together very quickly. I would also advise first-time filmmakers to rewrite the hell out of their scripts. Give it to every great writer you know and take their notes. Any problem in your script is going to be a bigger problem in your movie. Make sure your script is airtight before you start shooting.” -Sian Heder, “Tallulah”
“Make sure you tell the story right, don’t over explain it. The audience is smart enough to make their own story bridges.” -Jean-Francois Pouliot, “Snowtime!”

“Read and make. Read and make. Then read and make some more. Reading frames your work — gives contexts to what you’re making, how other people have done it better, and just fills your brain with more things. Making on the other hand, whether it be writing or shooting, hones a skill. I had to read a lot and write a lot before my work stopped feeling derivative of the people I looked up to. That cycle helped me find my own voice.” -JD Dillard, “Sleight”
“Watch as many films as you possibly can. And then watch more. The best way to craft a film is to learn from films that were made before yours.” -Mickey Keating, “Carnage Park”

“Be acutely aware of the things that are not important, or are pretending to be inconsequential. Because these are the very things that will decide that nuances of your film. The film is made by its shadows.”-Q, “Brahman Naman”

“Practice acceptance. Manage expectations. Hire people who know more than you do and let them do their jobs. Know going in that nothing is going to happen exactly as you hope/dream/think it will. Make peace with that. Be open to the magic that comes with the unexpected. You will feel lonely, when you do, reach out to another director —you will feel less lonely after you do. Be grateful. Be nice. Say thank you. It’s going to be okay.” -Clea DuVall, “The Intervention”

“Don’t stress about obeying the law. The illegal moments usually lead to the best images.” -Matt Johnson, “Operation Avalanche”

“There are two types of first-timers. Those who take years and years to make that first feature, and those who make that first feature very quick and wild and then just go on to make the next. I was the second type, and I’ve never regret it. But I’ve seen people who’ve done it differently, and because of that they made a very mature first feature. So there are no rules. If you want to make someting fast and dirty: great…it can lead to better things. But if you have the perfect first feature in your head, and it will just take longer to finance it, get it together, then that is valid too.” -Felix van Groeningen, “Belgica”

“Pick up a camera and go shoot. With today’s technology, even a smart phone can shoot a feature film. Finish the film whether or not you have the money. There were many times when I had to convince myself that I would finish the film and that it would be successful despite the fact that I was striking out with all of the festivals and grant applications. Hard work can pay off. Finally, making your first film will be hard, but it’s a once in a lifetime experience because you’ll never make a second first film. Try to keep that in mind.” -Nanfu Wang, “Hooligan Sparrow”

“No one can make this film but you. You have to feel the urgency and the drive that you and only you must make this unique expression. And luckily the means of production are incredibly accessible right now in a way like never before. You can make a movie on your iPhone, BUT you wouldn’t walk into the Boston Philharmonic and ask to be first chair violin on your first day working with the instrument. That would be ludicrous. It is the same with film, with storytelling. It is a decades-long process at least until you get to be any good at it. So work with those two things in mind. Make as much work as you can as fast as you can right now. But know that it is a lifetime of dedication to master what you are doing.” -Josh Fox, “How to Let Go of the World and Love All The Things Climate Can’t Change”

“You have to be diligent and persistent. Many people will tell you ‘no’ but it just takes one ‘yes’ for your first film to gain momentum. Believe that you will get that one ‘yes.’ At the same time learn your craft and expand your knowledge of cinema.” -So Yong Kim, “Lovesong”

READ MORE: Sundance Documentaries Climb The Mountain (Sometimes Literally)

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