After attending the Sundance Shorts Lab at BAM this past Sunday, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people wanting to write, direct, or produce a short and submit it to the Sundance Film Fest. For 8,000 submissions, there are only 80 films that are actually accepted into the program. That’s a slim margin for success, and daunting for any filmmaker angling to elevate themselves to the next level. I was reminded throughout the day that just because you don’t get a short into the Sundance Film Fest, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good filmmaker. Maybe there was a similar film that edged your film out by a fraction, maybe it was simply the luck of the draw. For whatever reason, I stopped thinking about the day as ‘ways to get into Sundance’ and started thinking about it as ‘unique ways to tell an authentic story really well’. Here are a few observations from the day and lessons I learned from the various panels:
The programmers had a Q&A on how they select projects for Sundance (and a rough outline of how other festivals select films). Ultimately, it comes down to how they can group films together: theme, genre, etc. They look for similarities that help them assess what type of slate they have overall. From there, they choose films based on how they’re grouped. Even if someone else has made a short film similar to yours, was the story told as “interestingly” as yours? At the end of the day, the programmers themselves always ask the same question: How did the short film affect the viewer? Regardless of production value, concept, plot, theme, or acting, they will always think back to how the film affected them emotionally. I thought this was a valuable lesson for filmmakers, since they should consider their audience pragmatically throughout the writing/production process. Before spending time and money in production, it might be a good idea to think about how an audience would react to your film while it’s still in the early story development stages.
Both filmmakers Craig Zobel (Compliance) and Howard Gertler (How to Survive a Plague) had refreshing perspectives on story development that most screenwriting books don’t really offer. Craig explained how he discovered his story for Compliance and The Great World of Sound. When writing, he taped one crucial question to his keyboard and referred to it constantly to keep himself focused:“What bigger question are you asking with the film?” He said that this was his biggest guiding principle. He said that this question should supersede plot and link more directly to theme, but never be stated outright. Rather, it’s best dramatized throughout the story.
Another interesting nugget Craig shared: while researching for a story, he noticed that he would often have a very specific reaction to something he found. He would then evaluate how he reacted and analyze why he reacted that way. When Craig was researching for Compliance, he noticed he shrugged off the victims of a fast food restaurant for sexual assault as ‘naïve’ and that most people wouldn’t do something like that. After reflecting, he wondered why he responded so defensively and why his initial response was to dismiss these people. He began to think about how any person might get caught up in a situation like that and suddenly he was on his way.
Working with Actors
Craig Zobel explained that actors always need to have a purpose in their scene, otherwise things slow down or the actor loses focus in the scene. This is a bit of a textbook point but still important- always give actors a specific goal to reach in the scene to help them focus and stay in the moment. It gives them a purpose beyond stating the lines.
Also, it’s always helpful to give actors a couple different goals to vary performances. Sure, you could get 8-10 takes of the same performance, but that won’t give you much to work with in the edit room. It’s refreshing for the actors and helpful for you to have different emotional ranges from the actors to color your story.
In the ‘Working with Actors’ panel, Alex Karpovsky shared that as both an actor and director, the most alienating thing a director can do is to just leave the actor hanging after a take, or fail to provide any context for the actor in the headspace of the scene. As a director, Karpovsky always has a conversation at the top of the scene with each actor to ‘dial in’ to the context of the scene: What’s at stake? What are the beats of the scene? Where does the scene fall within the greater story? What does each character know? What do they think they know? What have been the dynamics of each of the characters with respect to one another? The more context you can give an actor, the more they can use in each take.
In a panel with Producer Mike Ryan (Old Joy, Palindromes, The Comedy), DP Jody Lee-Lipes (Wild Combination, Tiny Furniture, Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Editor Melody London (Down By Lawy, Mystery Train, New York I Love You) they all echoed the same sentiment- when working with collaborators it’s important to set up a code or manifesto for the project that gets everyone on the same page right away. It’s essential that you identify what film you’re trying to make, and then establish that all your key collaborators are on board. If your editor is trying to turn your campy horror Zombie film into an ironic statement of post-recession malaise, it might be good to discuss before collaborating with them. Talking to your collaborators about your goals and purposes for the film, even if they are emotional, is a good way to help your collaborators relate to the story.
In the panel with filmmakers Cutter Hodierne (Fishing Without Nets), Rashaad Ernesto Green (Gun Hill Road), and Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love), the topic of discussion was ‘navigating the business end of your film from short to feature’. One point that all the filmmakers made was how important it is that you not wait to get your film made. Set a date, and then tell collaborators, investors, distributors, etc that you’re making a movie on this date, and that they should either get on board or get out of the way. They all stated that if they had had discussions with potential investors and said something along the lines of ‘I have a script, but I’m just waiting on financing’, they likely wouldn’t have gotten the same enthusiasm.
If you do end up being one of the lucky ones getting accepted into Sundance, be prepared to have an upcoming project. It’s a total waste if you get to the fest, get meetings with a powerful distributor and have nothing on slate.
Of course, this is a top line digest of some of the points discussed at the Sundance Shorts Lab. Hopefully it proved a little useful information about the day. For a full day event, there’s just too much to fit into one blog post. As always, any workshop or conference is always a fantastic way to learn from filmmakers who have been lucky enough to find their film a place in the world. Sign up for IFP’s newsletter for a weekly digest on upcoming events in the film world and how you can stay connected.
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