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13 Lessons From Making a Film Festival Breakout: AFI FEST Directors Share Their Tips

Going into a film with the right mindset can make all the difference.

Nicolas Pesce’s “The Eyes of My Mother”

For many people, filmmaking is a process of ongoing education.  The filmmakers who succeed are often the ones willing to learn from their mistakes and taking advice. IndieWire recently checked in with the up-and-coming indie directors behind the exciting films playing in the “New Auteurs” and “American Independent” categories at this year’s AFI FEST to find out what they learned while making their festival breakout.

READ MORE: AFI FEST 2016 – What Cameras Were Used to Shoot This Year’s Films

Kris Avedisian, “Donald Cried”:  There was a time while shooting that I got lost in the process. I started to see the movie take shape but it was in a very deformed state. There are times when you have to make decisions, changes and adjust because of what you’re seeing. But it could be hard to know sometimes if I was only reacting to seeing scenes out of order, or if the movie was just not meeting expectations. Then before I knew it the whole movie seemed broken. Our sound guy at the time, Micah Bloomberg, told me to just, “trust the script.” Simple advice, and probably obvious for most, but at that moment it really helped calm my anxieties and ground me. There was a time while shooting that I got lost in the process.

Dash Shaw, “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea”: I was about to record the voice actors in the movie, and we have a great, all-star cast (Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, etc.) and so, justifiably, I was very nervous and scared. I called Craig Zobel, my producer, who is also a director, and I told him I was terrified and he said, “Now you feel how every director has ever felt,” That was good to hear. I hadn’t gone to film school, and most directors in interviews seem (annoyingly) super-confident. So knowing that it’s a common feeling helped me immensely.

"My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea"

“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”

Nicolas Pesce, “The Eyes Of My Mother:” Preparation is key. The more prepared you are, the easier the shoot is. We shot this movie in 18 days, so we had hardly any time at all. But the entire crew meticulously planned everything, and it made the entire process so much smoother.

Sarah Adina Smith, “Buster’s Mal Heart:” I learned to have faith. I’m not really comfortable with that word, so it’s hard for me to admit it. For me, the word “faith” feels resigned in some way. As if, to have faith one must cease to be skeptical or cease to try. It also seems to imply an ardent belief in a power (or system) greater than yourself. The story of “Buster” is very much a struggle against that power and a screaming into the void, which is the position I’m most comfortable taking.

READ MORE: AFI FEST 2016 – 14 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at the Festival

Felipe Guerrero, “Oscuro animal:” What I learned while making my film was to be as loose as possible at shooting time, to maintain the possibility of adapting and changing the course of the story I’d written and had in front of me in the form of the script. The ability to be constantly inventing, to be as much as possible in “a state of creative alert” in order to bring in ideas or images, to bend the rigidity of the script on paper as a guide. In terms of this, my work as an editor has been very useful in that it has made me capable of foreseeing possibilities for taking a new heading, a new course.

'Oscuro animal'

‘Oscuro animal’


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Houda Benyamina, “Divines:” I think the most important lesson I learned was about sound. Indeed, at the post-production stage, I realized how sound could add sensory, emotional, dramatic, but also thematic dimensions to the picture. Working on the sound, I could even reach the audience’s subconscious and get to a kind of a nonverbal dimension. And it was something quite new to me. For instance, I gave to the sound editor Pierre Bariaud sounds NASA had recorded in space. I am fascinated by the cosmos. As my movie has a strong sacred dimension, I felt like working on this dynamic. At this stage it was only a theoretical proposal, though; I had intellectualized it. And my sound editor, in collaboration with editor Loic Lallemand, succeeded in turning my theoretical desires into something concrete, favoring the senses over the intellect.

Logan Sandler, “Live Cargo”: The best piece of advice I received was to not stop working until you’ve undoubtedly found the most perfect version of your film. That can be a daunting task for any filmmaker, as there is always a multitude of voices around us — pressuring one to take an easier or faster route. The easiest thing we can do is give in, and settle on a decision. With film, you should never compromise on what you feel is right. Acting off intuition, along with trusting and believing in yourself is the only way one can get to their complete vision. If it doesn’t feel right, then it is not.

With that, each film is an uphill battle — a marathon for everyone involved. There’s always something that can be improved and perfected. You have to truly embrace this never-ending process in order to act upon your intuition with honesty to create the final product. In terms of shaping the film, I found this advice to be very relevant in the post-production phases of editing, sound design, and the composing of our score. You can never be afraid to keep trying things out. I tend to spend a lot of time in the editing suite. When you are in post-production, you have the opportunity to listen to what the footage wants to be and then create the succession of images and sounds that should be on the screen to tell your story. Often times in my experience, the film has evolved into something much different than what was on the page. It’s up to you to know if it is true to your vision or not.

Logan Sandler

Logan Sandler

Live Cargo

Josh Locy, “Hunter Gatherer”: The best advice I received was to prepare mentally for each day. What is the goal of that day and what is the best way to accomplish it? Who is there and how can they help reach those goals? Filmmaking can be a storm of shit flying in every direction, and having a clear mind is the only way to exist in the midst of those shit storms.

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Anita Rocha da Silveira, “Kill me please”: It’s important to have fun on the movie set. When you arrive at the set you have to put all the problems and frustrations behind and just try to get the most of that experience and create a [positive] environment. I think that when the cast and crew are relaxed and enjoying themselves everything goes easier.

Tim Sutton, “Dark Night”: I learned not to give up on or alter certain scenes because of fatigue or my default tendency toward impressionism. Alexandra Byer, my producer, and Helene Louvart, my DP, are both tireless perfectionists and pushed me to be more clear in the execution. They were both invaluable collaborators.

Maud Alpi, “Still Life”: While we were finishing the writing, friends advised us not to negotiate with our own emotions and ideas.

"Hunter Gatherer"

“Hunter Gatherer”

Asaph Polonsky, “One Week and a Day”: When were shooting the scene that terrified me the most, we played the song by Tamar Aphek, titled “Taking Over” in order to get the cast and the crew into the situation. But after a few takes with the song, we stopped the music so we could record sound. After two bad takes, the sound mixer, Eli Bain, whispered to me: “Don’t worry about the sound, the song seems to help everyone.” I learned to remember what’s the most important thing and focus on it in order to achieve it. We played the music throughout the entire shoot of the scene and shaped with it one of the most important and trickiest scenes in the film.

Mbithi Masya, “Kati Kati:” I think the greatest thing I learned was to listen to everyone. My producers, my cast, my crew — everyone. The collective knowledge and experience on a film set is a resource I will always appreciate.

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