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“It Felt Like Climbing Mount Everest”: Debuting Filmmakers at Sundance on How They Made Their First Features

The Sound of Silence

You’re making another short? Why not just make your first feature? You’re already making your feature? Maybe you should make some shorts first. Oh, you’re making a feature? Good luck funding it; good luck casting it; you should be sure it’s genius before embarking on that next three years of your life….

If you suffer from these neuroses-inducing comments, as well as doubts around stamina, sustainability and creativity, you might be a first-time feature filmmaker. Anyone who’s making movies, or trying to, knows there are mountains worth of judgements, opinions and advice that come with the craft. I’ve found a lot of these comments and questions encircling multiple conversations lately, and this year at Sundance they were often heard at cocktail hours, after parties and in long waiting lines. At the 2019 festival, the film community turned out, as they always do, to see the beautiful films in the program, but also to mine for the answers to their own artistic journeys. As a filmmaker, I know I did, seven years and counting.

As the third part of a Sundance interview series focusing on the brass tacks of filmmaking — in 2017 I wrote on the “secrets” of short filmmakers, and last year on producing — this year I wanted to turn focus to first-time features. I spoke to six of the most striking filmmakers who debuted their films Sundance about how they made their feature debuts happen. I chose fundamental questions over the glamorous ones, hoping to uncover the specific ways they not only made something but something with quality. I’m grateful to each filmmaker for their responses and for taking the time in whirlwind of their exciting debuts. They share incredibly useful insight into the craft of feature-making, and doing it for the first time.

Here’s who lended their wisdom:

Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Luebbe, Greener Grass
Minhal Baig, Hala
(note this isn’t Baig’s first feature, but we agreed it’s her big debut and she’s awesome so we wanted to include her.)
Tayarisha Poe, Selah & The Spades
Pippa Bianco, Share
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, The Mustang
Michael Tyburski, The Sound of Silence

Filmmaker: The big debate is when a filmmaker should graduate to making a feature. How many shorts did you make before the feature, and then when did you decide it was time to “graduate” and why?

Tyburski: I’ve been making short films since I was 14, but the motivating factor has always been to make a feature. The scope and amount of coverage to think about with a feature was always a bit intimidating to me and something I obsessed about almost every day while preparing to make my own. To do it the way I intended, I knew it would take a great deal of time and effort to pull together the resources and collaborators, so I suppose I had a lot of time to think about it and get mentally prepared for the task. I love the short film medium though, and consider it great practice ground. So even once I was actively in development and looking for financing on my feature, I continued to make short form work so that I could stay as sharp as possible in the interim.

DeBoer & Luebbe: We happened to make three short films before we made our first feature. We consider those short films to be our film school. We wrote, EP’d and acted in all three shorts but for the first two, we hired our buddies who were directors we greatly admired to direct them. We learned an invaluable amount from shadowing them and sitting in on the edits of those shorts. We were also fortunate to have them all perform well on the festival circuit and got the opportunity to travel internationally, meeting filmmakers from all over the world and seeing hundreds of incredible shorts. By the time we directed our short film, The Arrival, we felt prepared to do it and the experience confirmed for us that we loved directing and wanted to continue being directors. The decision to direct a feature seemed like a natural next step. And of course, features present their own hosts of challenges but we like to say making a feature was only three times as hard as making a short. Mark Twain has a quote we like that speaks to this, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Clermont-Tonnerre: I directed my first short film in 2012 in New York, Atlantic Avenue. I was 28 years old and beside my acting experience, I didn’t know anything about technical filmmaking. I surrounded myself with [filmmaking friends] who were able to guide me through this process. The first thing I thought about after wrapping the first experience was to do it again! I directed my second short, Rabbit, in Rikers Island in 2013 with the same filmmaker friends. I felt more confident than the first time and more prepared. This is when I really started to consider directing a feature film. It felt like climbing Mt. Everest. Especially since I grew up with film producers as parents, I knew the challenges of a first feature film. I decided to extend my short film subject into a narrative length feature film, switching the rabbit into a wild horse! I wanted to dive into this very specific subject (animal therapy in prison) for additional years. It took me five years to achieve this project until last January when we premiered at Sundance! All those years of self learning and research were a much needed gestative phase for the necessary mental preparation.

Bianco: I feel like it only gets harder to be new at something, so you might as well start enjoying yourself now. But in more words, I hadn’t made many shorts — the idea and opportunity for a longer film came sooner than I thought. I had spent as much time as I could watching and listening and working and reworking, and maybe most importantly, becoming part of a team of wonderful collaborators. I don’t think anyone should be in too much of a hurry to get there before the work is done, but I really don’t think you should wait either — you may never feel you know enough, and what a waste of good films that wouldn’t be if people left off at that feeling. 

Hala

Baig: In 2015, I made a short film called Hala. I rearranged the story so that the family dynamic, which had previously been in the backdrop, came to the forefront in the feature-length screenplay. It took several years for us to secure financing, so in the meantime, I made two other short films, both of which I shot with a crew on weekends. After Sophie is about a documentary filmmaker who investigates a teenage girl’s troubling death and Pretext is about a woman who confronts her sexual assailant. I also shot a few music videos, my favorite of which was for a track by Little Dragon. When I learned our movie was greenlit, I was on the set of American Horror Story, shadowing a director through the Ryan Murphy HALF Foundation. By that point, I felt confident that I could direct Hala. I’d made the proof-of-concept, rewritten the script, experimented with short films/music videos and I had enough set experience. It was really important that by the time I arrived on set, that I felt comfortable managing a crew. I also felt like I had lived enough life and had been with the script long enough that I was ready to make the feature length film.

Filmmaker: Where did you find funding? If you can’t say directly, what are paths to feature funding other filmmakers should know about?

DeBoer & Luebbe: Greener Grass has a sole investor who decided to fund the feature based on the success of the short film. We’re confident we wouldn’t have this feature under our belt had we not made short films to be a tangible example of our style and voice. 

Bianco: In our case, it was A24 who made the film. I’d looked at the paths that the films and filmmakers I love took into the world to tried to see where I might fit into it. I decided to make a short of the same subject matter as my feature first, and looked for institutional support and community where I could (festivals, residencies, labs — there are lots of good ones). I feel that if you look at the beginnings of the films you specifically love and that speak to the kind of work you want to make, they’ll guide you.

Baig: Endeavor Content financed Hala. There’s a lot of different ways to get your feature financed, but I think the most challenging part of the process is getting your script in front of folks and having them get on board with your vision. I recommend Cinereach and the San Francisco Film Society grants (Rainin and Westridge are two) for independent filmmakers looking for financing in various stages of their filmmaking process. Obviously, having your script developed at Sundance Labs in some capacity, whether it’s the Screenwriting or Creative producing lab, gives you exposure to producers and financiers. The key to financing is bringing a producer on board who has a rolodex of relationships, including a good working relationship with the independent departments at talent agencies (who are becoming increasingly involved at an earlier stage with independent films.)

Filmmaker: Making a film, especially a first feature, I imagine you hear a lot of “No,” and some “Yes.” What were the negatives you had to overcome, and the positives that helped you make the film happen?

Poe: Everyone you talk to has an image in their head of what the story you’re telling should look like, feel like, sound like…so a lot of the “No” we received were blessings in disguise. It felt better to make the film with folks who trusted in the idea of it, even if it didn’t make total sense to them at that time. I do think that it’s unsurprisingly difficult to fund a feature in the US that is about non-white people but doesn’t center on whiteness. There is something that many gatekeepers we encountered seem to find radical about that. Don’t give into that pressure if you feel it and it goes against your gut.

Tyburski: This film took a long time to get off the ground — several years of writing and then subsequent development. In my experience in trying to get this film made, it wasn’t so much “No” per se, as much as it was something to the effect of, “We love the script, but come back to us when you’re a little further along with financing” etc. It was great to have the vision resonate with those parties, but frustrating at the same time, as finding that first bit of committed financing can be a tricky business. It was challenging to find any one entity that wanted to go all in on a slightly unusual concept. It took close to two years to find the resources we needed to make the movie. The upside in the long process to get it made was that it gave me more time to work on the script and prepare for the shoot. I was fortunate that some folks at Anonymous Content read the script early on and really responded to it. They became my managers during the process, and helped me get the script to Peter Sarsgaard, which finally gave us some more momentum to help raise the capital.

Bianco: You know, I was really fortunate to be working with people who believed in each other and what we were doing, so I didn’t hear a lot of “No’s.” I did hear some, “It’s not normal; it’s really hard; there isn’t enough time/money/energy.” Probably the more serious “No’s” to fight off were my own, and came in the form of my own exhaustion. It’s an odd balancing act because I believe it’s your job as a director to be uncompromising, or unafraid of difficult conversations and confrontation when it has to happen — you owe everyone that integrity. But if there’s never compromise, it never happens. And sometimes something that looks like compromise is actually just a weakness in the original idea being exposed, or comes with some cool opportunities to do something more nuanced and less expected (better) than your first instinct. It can be the most alive, beautiful part of it. Some of the “No’s” were some of the positives that helped make the film happen? Like our biggest and hardest “No” was immigration telling us that our brilliant lead, Rhianne Barreto, wouldn’t be allowed into the US to film. That was a case where we had to fight: I knew there was no one else I wanted to make the film with; we all knew no one should lose their job because of where their parents were born. But unfortunately even with multiple appeals, she wasn’t getting a visa. We had to compromise, so we moved the film to Canada so we wouldn’t lose Rhi. And that was an incredibly fruitful experience for us that deeply enriched the film (as much as she deserved to be spared that stress). 

Clermont-Tonnerre: When I was an actress, I went to a lot of auditions. Hope and disappointment are part of an actor’s life. Much more disappointment than hope in my case! This experience gave me the strength and tenacity to overcome numerous “No’s.” Miraculously, everyone involved in the creative aspects of The Mustang said, “Yes” for a very personal or passionate reason. This was the heartbeat of the adventure.  We all wanted to fight for it, tooth and nail. On the financial side, we had a positive answer from Focus Features after a lot of rejection, so we couldn’t believe it. The Mustang had finally found its home, and among many prospective homes, this one was the warmest and the most prestigious. Some miracles happen.
 
Filmmaker: Who were three people who were important in the creative development of the script and then film?

Greener Grass

DeBoer & Luebbe: While we developed the script on our own, our production designer, Leigh Poindexter, and costume designer, Lauren Oppelt, were integral in bringing the aesthetic of our timeless suburbia to life.And Lowell A. Meyer, our DP, captured it with incredible style and specificity. All three of these artists took the vision we wove into the script and elevated it in such unique and dynamic ways.

Clermont-Tonnerre: My co-writer Mona Fastvold and my long time close friend Brady Corbet are who I first started working with on the script. More than friends, they were invaluable creative partners who always showed support and help. I admire their work and their taste and after conversing with them, I always feel elevated. I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else; they are my creative family. Geraldine Mangenot has been my editor since my first short film and is also a crucial creative collaborator. We know each other extremely well. When Geraldine was eight months pregnant, she saw me struggling with my script and said, “Stay one week at my house and we’ll work on it.” I moved into her apartment and we worked every day on the structure. She helped me to get rid of a lot of unnecessary details and subplots and especially helped finessing the point of view. I’ll never forget that week together. She saved me from sinking! Molly Hallam is my producing partner. Molly and I went through war during this insanely tough shoot. Molly always fought hard to get the film made. We have this child in common that we raised and fiercely protected throughout the course. I met Kathleen Omeara five years ago. Kathleen works in the prison system and following a friend’s advice, I decided to call and interview her. She offered me access to a prison in order to deepen the story and characters. We did all of the precious research together. Thanks to her I could understand my subject on a very immersive level. 

Baig: I’ve had a lot of wonderful filmmaker friends who were gracious enough to read drafts of the script before I went into a production. I had a list of folks that I would solicit feedback from, but I’d stagger which drafts I sent. The process of revising the script took over two years. I had an early draft of the script in 2015 that I discarded almost entirely. Each time the draft got a little stronger and the notes became smaller and smaller. My partner, Michael Finfer, who is also a development executive, was instrumental in reading draft after draft. He witnessed the film evolve over time, and could see what narrative paths I’d already taken. I am also grateful to the filmmakers, like Anna Rose Holmer and Lulu Wang, who were present for a rough cut of Hala. They gave me some great constructive criticism, which helped us shape the film moving forward.

Filmmaker: Was was the most challenging part of a longer shoot?

DeBoer & Luebbe: Sheer stamina. Our first short film was a two-day shoot, the next was three days, and The Arrival was four. On all of those shorts, we felt like those shoot days were the most packed, exhilarating, and exhausting days of our whole year. And then on the feature, there were 19 of them! And we doubled the amount of pages we covered per day. In those 19 days we had 17 location moves, had to juggle shooting out of order, we not only directed but also starred in the movie, the two of us had roughly 60 wardrobe and hair and makeup changes combined, our movie stars a seven-month old puppy…Etcetera! It was a lot (like all features are in their own unique ways). But, we got to live in a hotel that gave us freshly baked cookies every day so that was great.  

Clermont-Tonnerre: We had a very tight schedule. Only 23 days to shoot the film with horses and stunts. It seemed impossible. After the first week, I was exhausted. My body was sore and I felt very weak. I definitely struggled physically. Sometimes I would stay 16 hours standing outside in the dust running around without a pause. We also had extreme desert temperature — freezing at night and boiling at noon. A lot of coffee and vitamin C helped but next time I will train myself physically for the long weeks ahead.

Baig: There wasn’t anything particularly challenging about a longer shoot. Like most independent, low-budget movies, we had a very difficult schedule. We were shooting inside of a school during operating hours and were very limited in our coverage for our scenes. We had to make sure that we had enough light. There were a few days where we had multiple location moves, a process trailer and many costume changes. We handled that by making sure that every department head was on the same page about the overall vision. I had a lot of trust in my crew.

Filmmaker: Sometimes making a film is like a rollercoaster. All of the terror is climbing up the track, and once you’re rolling, the fun happens. What was the surprisingly easy or most fun thing about the experience?

Tyburski: That’s actually a really good analogy. I need to start incorporating more theme-park comparisons into my own conversations about filmmaking. I’d say that I have the most anxiety during pre-production, which feels like that long and steady track climb that gets slightly more terrifying the closer you get to the top. I’m a tirelessly organized individual, and with this feature, there was just an exhaustible amount of details that I wanted to be in order before we started rolling. I had so much to do on any given day. I wasn’t eating or sleeping very much during this time either. I’ve always been fairly lean, but I somehow ended up losing about 21 pounds between pre-pro and production (which is coincidentally as many days of principal photography we had). But as soon as Day 1 of the shoot came, I realized that everything was prepped as much as it could be and that I needed to just embrace the day. The fact that there was no time left to prep, actually felt like a great relief and I finally began to enjoy the process. Production inherently has its highs and lows, but it was honestly the phase I felt most comfortable in. I started every shoot day by listening to the waltz from 2001: A Space Odyssey on my way to set because that’s what production days felt like to me: grand and slightly surreal. I tried to keep that energy up throughout the day.

Clermont-Tonnerre: What I am passionate about is directing actors. As a former actor myself, I know how vulnerable you can be as you are emotionally naked a front of a camera. You need empathy and time which is not always the case with directors. I always try to give as much love as I can to the actors I work with. The first day of shooting The Mustang, I was very intimidated to direct very experienced actors such as Matthias Schoenaerts or Bruce Dern. But working with them was the most exciting part of the shoot.

Baig: Unlike so many other aspects of production, which you can control almost completely, performance is an aspect where I want to be surprised. It’s a profound experience to witness a character come to life; actors bring so much to the characters and really make them their own. For all of those reasons, working with actors is the most fun I’ve had on set.

Bianco: A lot of it felt like a dance — for me, that was the relationships. I like to take my time finding and building relationships with my collaborators, cast and crew, so that the commitment there is a deep one. And to me, that bond itself is something that comes alive on the day in everything you’re looking at — in the performances, the camera movements, the synergies between departments, that’s the thing you’re actually watching on screen. It’s the way we relate to each other and when that’s working well, it is really easy, and feels incredible.

Filmmaker: What’s the biggest misconception about making a first-time feature? 

Poe: That you don’t know what you’re doing. Directing is a lot of being patient, being decisive, being kind, and listening to your gut. If you’re actively choosing to get into this craft and you’re willing and eager to do those things, then you are likely better at this than you realize you are. Also, if you don’t come from an acting background, go practice acting! Directors should understand what they’re asking for from actors (mentally, physically, emotionally) and should be able to empathize with the process.

Baig: One of the biggest misconceptions of making a feature is that it’s this big, insurmountable task. In reality, so much of it is breaking down the story, hiring crew that you trust with your vision and focusing on what is in front of you at all times. The director’s job is to communicate that vision clearly to collaborators, and if you’ve hired and cast well, it’s your job to guide them to where you need them to go. It’s an incredibly collaborative medium. While the buck stops at the director, it’s imperative to work with crew who are completely behind your vision of the movie.

DeBoer & Luebbe: We think one of the biggest misconceptions about making a first time feature that premieres at Sundance is that it signifies some kind of overnight success. We got rejected by Sundance four different times before they accepted our feature. We applied with all three of our shorts and also applied to the Sundance feature lab with a different feature screenplay we wrote. When one of the programmers introduced our movie at Sundance, she mentioned that we are two filmmakers they’d been, “fans of and tracking for years.” We had previously suspected they weren’t into our work because nothing we’d made had gotten in. You never know!

Filmmaker: Is there something creative you want to finesse or continue to work on in your future films? Your script, directing actors, POV storytelling, etc?

Tyburski: I think the more you’re able to do this, the better you get. I just want to continue working as much as I can. I absolutely love workshopping scenes and dialogue with actors, but with a small-budget independent film, you unfortunately get little to no rehearsal time, so a lot usually needs to be figured out on the day. When time allows, I usually like doing a looser take or two that give the actors more room to improvise the material within the scene and not go strictly from the page. Those are the performances that I find stand out in the editing room and are the most honest. I’d love to emulate that style more on future projects, and just generally create the space to have more time for experimenting with the actors on the day.

Baig: Going forward, I want to approach all of my stories with these questions: From whose perspective should the story be told? Which perspective is the most original and insightful? Through which perspective does the story unfold in an unexpected way? With all of my projects, I want the story to feel lived-in; I need to get on the inside of each of the characters and completely understand their motivations. I also want to spend more time at the script stage ensuring that all of the dramatic movement feels organic and motivated by character conflict.

Poe: Everything! I want to constantly push myself to learn more, experiment with new language, build and change and grow. There is always space to build something new. It’s not about being better or getting something perfect, it’s about not falling stagnant, not being afraid to fail.

Filmmaker: What’s your #1 advice to filmmakers out there who are questioning making their first feature?

Bianco: Leave space for doubt. And also read this because she gives better advice than I can to anyone trying to make stuff. It’s Zadie Smith’s rules for writers.

Tyburski: You’ve got to have a lot of tenacity to see these things through to the end. You’re going to have to be the head cheerleader even when you’re feeling burnt out. And find people you really like, as you’re going to be strapped in this ride vehicle with them for at least a year, so find collaborators you both trust and admire.

DeBoer & Luebbe: Resist the temptation to feel like your first feature is your one and only shot to prove yourself as a director. Make your first feature so you can make your second one. Making a feature is like having a baby, despite your best attempts, you can never truly be prepared for it. And it’s not going to be perfect (Greener Grass happened to be very colicky). Stay true to your own voice. Make decisions based on what’s right for the specific story you’re telling without feeling the pressure to also prove to the world what kind of filmmaker you are in some general sense.

Clermont-Tonnerre: “They did not know it was impossible so they did it. — Mark Twain.” I love this quote and it’s very true. If I had been fully aware  of all the challenges and the obstacles, I would have been  paralyzed by fear. Endurance is what helped me to always move forward, and also a little bit of craziness! Never give up and fight — it’s worth it.

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