Directors Share The Best Piece of Advice They Received at The Sundance Labs

The directing fellows from this year's lab share with IndieWire some filmmaking secrets from some of the best teachers in the world.
Joan Tweksbury and Boots Riley
Joan Tweksbury and Boots Riley
© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Eva Vives

Following in the footsteps of alums like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Ryan Coogler, eight up-and-coming directors just completed the Sundance Directors Lab. For four weeks these directing fellows worked with actors and production crews to shoot and edit key scenes from their screenplays. Throughout the process they were mentored, working one-on-one with creatives advisors as they made key discoveries about their scripts, collaborated with actors and found a visual storytelling language for their films.

PHOTO GALLERY: Sundance Lab Throwback — Tarantino, PT Anderson, Cary Fukunaga, Ryan Coogler and Others Workshop Their First Features

Sundance’s creative advisors include an impressive list of great filmmakers and teachers, including Robert Redford himself, who return to Park City to mentor the new class of directors. We recently asked this year’s fellows what was the best piece of advice they received and who gave it to them.

Annie Silverstein & Joan Darling
Annie Silverstein & Joan DarlingAnnie Silverstein

Annie Silverstein:

“In working with actors, while you are exploring things it’s perfectly fine if they have a question to say, ‘I don’t know the answer yet.’ But there must be a “yet” at the end of that sentence. You don’t have to know everything or act like you know everything. You can find your answers through the process and exploration. But ultimately you do have to make strong choices.”  – Joan Darling

Boots Riley:

“Tell your actor to dig in his ear and get a piece of earwax between his thumb and his forefinger. Then tell him it’s a booger and to roll it around in his fingers while he’s saying his lines.”- David Gordon Green

“You don’t have to do shot/reverse shot. Do whatever you want.” -Ira Sachs

“That’s nice. But it’s bullshit.” -Joan Tookesbury

“Fix it in prep.” -Catherine Hardwicke

“If you’re not careful, you can easily be making Gone With The Wind in the morning and Dukes Of Hazard by 5pm.” -Rodrigo Prieto

“Hey. Have fun.” -Gyula Gazdag

READ MORE: Inside The Sundance Directors Lab: Why It’s So Valuable To Workshop Scenes

Creative advisor Catherine Hardwicke checks in with Directing fellow Pippa Bianco and DP Ava Berkofsky before their rehearsal.
Creative advisor Catherine Hardwicke checks in with Directing fellow Pippa Bianco and DP Ava Berkofsky before their rehearsal.© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Ilyse McKimmie

César Cervantes: “I’ve always had a hard time managing my anger, but after my fall out, editor Nancy Richardson really set things straight for me. She told me that self-destructive behavior is brought upon by the feeling of lacking control. But self-destruction is itself a form of control, since you get to choose how you want to go down. You can dig yourself into a hole pretty quickly as there’s no end to that side of the spectrum, but getting back out takes a lot of time and is a lot harder. Not sure if it really applies to film making, but it’s made making this film a lot easier for me since.”

Sandhya Suri:

“Dylan Tichenor told me to remember 3 simple things at all time:

  1. Contrast: things need to keep changing within a scene, within your movie.
  2. Point of view: understand your point of view at all times and you will understand the right way to ‘cover’ your scene.”
  3. Mystery: it’s key. Remember that!”
Creative Advisor Richard Jenkins consults with Directing Fellow Annie Silverstein on the set of "Bull."
Creative Advisor Richard Jenkins consults with Directing Fellow Annie Silverstein on the set of “Bull.”© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Margery Kimbrough

Eva Vives

“Richard Jenkins was very helpful to me with actors. One day we were shooting a scene and one of my actors was having a hard time motivating a certain action. I explained the motivation as well as I could (I wrote the damn thing) but I could tell it wasn’t working for him… We were going around in circles a bit and frustration was mounting. Richard had been watching and listening and finally asked if he could step in. Of course, I said yes. And he basically told the actor that it was his job to figure out his motivation and make it work, if my answer didn’t suit him. It was very liberating for both me and the actor. And the scene got better because of it.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Behind the Scenes at the 2016 Sundance Directors Lab 

Annie Silverstein:

“I had several scenes I felt uncertain about, and one was how to shoot a dinner scene, or five people sitting around a table talking. Sounds simple, but I’d never done it before and it made me nervous. I wanted it to feel naturalistic, conversational, and not staged. Everyone is seated but I wanted it to be kinetic–the tension had to build, and eventually explode. I’ll remember three things that were said to me in the process I’ll continue to use:

  1. Identify the main ‘powerlines’ (Gyula Gazdag’s expression) between characters in this scene during your preparation. Make sure you capture them.
  2. Move around in your rehearsal. Where do you want to stand to watch the scene unfold? That is where you should put the camera (Joan Tewkesbury).
  3. Remind actors to take small bites so they’re not full by the third take.”

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