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

My Big Break: How This Year's Directors Found Their Way To Sundance

The road to Sundance can be long and winding, but it’s rarely ever the same for the many filmmakers who find themselves (and their work) debuting at the annual festival.. We asked directors at this year’s festival what the biggest break has been in their career up to this point, and the wide array of answers highlights just how many different ways independent filmmakers get their movies made and their talents discovered. 

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

“I was an advertising copywriter heading the McDonald’s restaurants’ account in Quebec. I had decided to leave my job to become a film director. The agency hadn’t told the client and a big television campaign was coming up for McDonald’s. When I explained to the client that I was resigning to become a director and that I therefore could not write this new campaign, the McDonald’s marketing director came back to me the next day and said that if I stayed long enough to write this campaign, I would be offered to direct it as well. Guess what, I did not refuse!” -Jean-Francois Pouliot, “Snowtime!”
“Meeting Josh Mond. I was asked to help him edit his feature film debut, ‘James White,’ while they looked for a full time editor. It was only supposed to be for a few days, but it ended up going for a few weeks. We hit it off immediately. He quickly became a mentor to me. One day he asked if I had a movie I was trying to make. I said yes. He plotted out a plan for the film on a legal pad (I still have the pad), and we were off. At Sundance last year, he said to me, ‘In a year from now, you will have made a movie, and we’ll be sitting here with YOUR movie.’ He was right. He welcomed me into his world, and helped me put this movie together, and I will be forever grateful.” -Nicolas Pesce, “The Eyes Of My Mother

“Weirdly, acting in B-horror movies. I started acting when I was like 13 and the only parts I could get were in those kinds of films. It’s that road that led me to ‘Valley of the Sasquatch,’ which is where I met my future producers, Brent Stiefel and Sean Burke.” -Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, “As You Are”
“I think my big break was working on Seth Gordon’s ‘King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.’ I had various roles on the film and it allowed me to get my hands dirty in lots of different areas. Shooting, editing, motion graphics, song composition — Seth and Ed Cunningham, our producer, were crazy enough to let me try lots of things. And because of that, to this day it’s probably the best time I’ve ever had making a movie. From start to finish, my job lasted almost three years and it is what I consider to be my own version of film school and the start of my career. I met many people who I still love working with today and it ignited a passion in me for storytelling in the nonfiction genre.” -Clay Tweel, “Gleason”
“My biggest break was sitting on my ass and writing night after night until I had a script that got people excited. And then it’s not a miracle that people like Christine Vachon wanna meet with you, because you already did your work.” -Elizabeth Wood, “White Girl”

“My big break on this project was getting through to Morgan Spurlock. He’s been a great champion of ‘The Eagle Huntress,’ and a fantastic mentor to me. I sent him my extended trailer and mailed him a physical presentation. He was good enough to take a look and he called me from the road asking, ‘Me and my team want in, how can we help?’ It was a good day because I wasn’t alone anymore.” -Otto Bell, “The Eagle Huntress”
“In 1995 Terry Gilliam was making ’12 Monkeys’ in Philadelphia and conducted a search for local film students who could document the making of the movie. We were very lucky to get the gig (and the whopping $1,500 stipend for Hi-8 stock that went along with it). Much to Gilliam’s surprise we proceeded to dog him and the production for the next year — from pre-production all the way through post in London and through marketing and test screenings.” -Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, “The Bad Kids”
“A short film called ‘A Different Tree’ I did while at USC. It won many festivals, sold to HBO, and led me to industry meetings. I would say this short film picked up the momentum towards a career, but to be honest I don’t feel like I caught the big break just yet.” -Steven Caple Jr., “The Land”
“I had the great fortune of being awarded the inaugural Nora Ephron prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival for my first feature, ‘Farah Goes Bang.’ More so than a ‘break,’ it gave me the confidence to believe that I could do this, that I should do this, to honor the legacy that trailblazers like Nora set forward for female filmmakers.”-Meera Menon, “Equity”

“Probably being hired as a writer at ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I mean, EVERYONE knows ‘SNL.’ It’s such an institution, that to get to hired there was a) a dream come true, and b) definitely super helpful for my career. It has opened a lot of doors, and I’ve also just learned so much there. Each week, you get to write new material in a matter of hours, and then you’re also in charge of producing your sketch(es) throughout the week, so you really get to oversee your work from start to finish and communicate directly without a thousand different departments. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very fulfilling and exciting.” -Chris Kelly, “Other People
“In 1996 I was invited to the Sundance Director’s Lab as an actor. It was my first exposure to real filmmaking, and to people who were actively working in the film and television industry. I met several people there who would play huge roles in helping my career as an actor move forward.” -Clea DuVall, “The Intervention
“I’d say my big break was when my first script ‘Restless’ was picked up for production by Imagine and Gus Van Sant came on to direct. I was living in a basement in West Hollywood trying to navigate the ups and downs of an acting career when I got the news. It allowed me to get in the rooms and establish myself as a screenwriter and later as a director. I continue to be incredibly grateful to everyone who took a chance on me back then.” -Jason Lew, “The Free World

“I self-financed the initial trip to China and the production. When I returned to the states, I took day jobs and edited the film during my spare time. As a first time filmmaker and a one-woman band, fundraising was slow and difficult. When I received the first grant from the Sundance Institute, it was a huge break that started opening other doors for me as well.” -Nanfu Wang, “Hooligan Sparrow”
“While it isn’t directly related to writing or directing, my time as the receptionist at Bad Robot started a long phase of learning, opportunity, and relationship building that’s become so ridiculously important to me.” -JD Dillard, “Sleight”
“I never really felt like I had a big break, but if I had to pick something I would say it was convincing someone at Universal that making ‘House Of 1000 Corpses’ was a good idea. I still can’t believe they made that movie. Of course they never released the film, but still the real important part is getting it made. So I guess the real big break part was Lions Gate buying the film and releasing it and then making a sequel. If not for that who knows?” -Rob Zombie, “31”
“When I was 22, I made my first feature called ‘Ritual,’ which we shot over the course of six weekends for around $25,000. It’s a minimalist horror film, set almost entirely in a motel room, but was bought and released by Lionsgate. From there, I was able to continue to find ways to keep making films and here we are!” -Mickey Keating, “Carnage Park” 
“I’d failed miserably trying to get into medical school, and after journalism school I lucked out and stumbled into an entertainment journalism role at a local TV station. That changed everything. Working with pictures and meeting interesting people was a dream.”-David Farrier, co-director “Tickled”

“I am always so grateful that I was hired to co-direct and produce a short companion film to ‘NY Export: Opus Jazz with Matt Wolf’ called ‘A Ballet in Sneakers.’ I fell in love with dance on film and continued to collaborate with producer Ellen Bar, most recently producing Jody Lee Lipes’s ‘Ballet 422’ together. Regular exposure to the choreographic process helped me articulate my directorial sensibility and focus on narrative expression through movement.” -Anna Rose Holmer, “The Fits
“My big break was probably having my first short film, ‘Mother,’ go to the Cannes Film Festival. Although it’s hard to call that a big break, because it took so long after that to get the feature made. But it got the attention of lit agents and started my writing career. I’d say the other break that helped elevate my status in Hollywood was writing on ‘Orange is the New Black.’ The tone of the show and Jenji Kohan’s vision was very in line with my own sensibilities and I think it helped people see where the combination of my humor and sense of drama lived.” -Sian Heder, “Tallulah
“I was the Boom Operator on the television show ‘Girls’ and I informally suggested the idea for ’Suited’ to Executive Producers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. They liked it and offered up their own money for a 10 minute example of what the piece would feel like. They ultimately brought that 10 minute piece to HBO and got the project funded. I am forever grateful.”-Jason Benjamin, “Suited”

“When I got an out-of-the-blue email from the Rolling Stones inquiring about my availability. I had no idea what they wanted. I had spent nearly six years of my life devoted to my doc about Scott Walker. I was burned out and broke and would have said yes to anything. Lucky for me it was the ‘Exile on Main Street’ film. Even luckier was that it was produced by the wonderful John Battsek and Passion Pictures who are the producers of ‘We Are X,’ our third film together.” -Stephen Kijak, “We Are X”
“The Sundance Institute Documentary Fund seeing the potential in our half-made film and finding us extra funds, time and space (and a great editor!) to finish it.” -Robert Cannan, “The Lovers and the Despot”

“Getting upstaged by my ex-producer at the 2010 Oscars and not getting to deliver a word of my acceptance speech would have to be the moment for me. The Documentary Short Subject category is usually a time for many to take a break from paying attention to the program, but when she Kanye’d me right there on national television, folks were spitting out their nachos in shock and then everyone knew who I was after that.” -Roger Ross Williams, “Life, Animated”

“My path as a director has been strange. I directed the documentary ‘Darkon’ with Luke Meyer and that won the audience award at SXSW in 2006. That sort of got me and my company into the business proper. My first fictional film was ‘King Kelly.’ A lot of like-minded producers, directors and agents started calling me. Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa from Killer Films loved ‘King Kelly’ and they really got behind me. That led me to ‘Goat.'” -Andrew Neel, “Goat”

“This! ‘Spa Night’ in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival!” –Andrew Ahn, “Spa Night”

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