12 Filmmaking Tips From Sundance Directors

By  · Published on January 16th, 2013

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the largest independent fests in the country, but it probably has the best reputation for launching filmmaking careers and being the only thing in January that will be remembered around Oscar time 13 months later.

It’s debatable just how “indie” it is ‐ especially with studio shingles routinely picking up audience favorites for distribution ‐ but it’s difficult to deny the raw directorial power that’s moved through Park City over the years. Names like Christopher Nolan, Kevin Smith, The Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh can count themselves amongst the Sundance ranks, but there are many, many more.

In that (independent) spirit, here’s a double-size list of tips (for fans and filmmakers alike) from 12 directors who made a name at Sundance.

Rob Epstein

The Film: The Times of Harvey Milk (Special Jury Prize Documentary 1985)

The Tip: Look to films you wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward for inspiration and lessons

“There were films that I was inspired by, and others where I learned that I didn’t want to go in that direction. Of the former, Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple’s film, I saw that and realized how she and those filmmakers took me into a situation that I never otherwise would have known about or even thought about, and made me feel so invested in, the Appalachian coal-miners. And that was an inspiration, to think that that’s really what I wanted to do with this provincial story in San Francisco ‐ that anyone who saw it could come to understand what was at stake.

Another film, Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity, was the first film which was about a big piece of history told through the perspective of one character who was pivotal to that history. But also, the craft of the filmmaking in that film ‐ it was the first time I saw, or was really aware of, how to use music in a documentary. Music was very important to The Times of Harvey Milk, and Jon’s film really helped me to understand that.

The Coen Brothers

The Film: Blood Simple. (Grand Jury Prize Dramatic, 1985)

The Tip: Your first cut will probably make you want to kill yourself

One of the best nuggets from my earlier 6 Filmmaking Tips From the Coen Brothers came from Joel:

“I can almost set my watch by how I’m going to feel at different stages of the process. It’s always identical, whether the movie ends up working or not. I think when you watch the dailies, the film that you shoot every day, you’re very excited by it and very optimistic about how it’s going to work. And when you see it the first time you put the film together, the roughest cut, is when you want to go home and open up your veins and get in a warm tub and just go away. And then it gradually, maybe, works its way back, somewhere toward that spot you were at before.”

Steven Soderbergh

The Film: sex, lies, and videotape (Audience Award Dramatic, 1989)

The Tip: Exhaust your interests and move on

Landon snagged this one for his full 6 Filmmaking Tips from Steven Soderbergh piece:

“Filmmaking is the best way in the world to learn about something. When I come out the other side after making a film about a particular subject, I have exhausted my interest in it. After Contagion, I’m still going to be washing my hands, but I don’t ever ‐ I’m not going to pick up another book or article about Che as long as I live.”

Kevin Smith

The Film: Clerks (Filmmakers Trophy Dramatic, 1994)

The Tip: Do your homework, know what’s launched other people, and be naive

Steve James

The Film: Hoop Dreams (Audience Award Documentary, 1994)

The Tip: Get lucky and do something unheard of

“I think at the time the film came out, America’s fascination with Michael Jordan, basketball and the sports rags-to-riches iconography were at a peak. This was pure luck on our part, because we had started the film nearly eight years earlier. Basketball provided a great hook for audiences and press, but the real theme of the film ‐ the basketball dream as metaphor for how hard it is for poor people to achieve the American dream ‐ is what gave the film its heart and moved so many people. Plus, following families intimately day-by-day for over four years was somewhat unheard of in 1994. And it didn’t hurt to have been blessed by the documentary gods with so much drama. Stuart Klawans of The Nation said we had a ‘script by God.’

I think Hoop Dreams has had staying power because the story and themes are still very relevant today. And we didn’t try to be too slick and hip in form and style. We just tried to tell the stories of these ballplayers and their families in an honest and dramatic way.”

Ed Burns

The Film: The Brothers McMullen (Grand Jury Prize, 1995)

The Tip: Stick to your roots, or Listen to Tyler Perry

Even though he found success with a certain kind of film, Burns moved away from it in order to branch out. Years later, he’d return and wonder why he ever left:

“I’d worked a couple years ago ‐ or a year and a half ago, I guess ‐ with Tyler Perry on Alex Cross. He’d just re-watched Brothers McMullen, and said to me the next day, ‘Alright, McMullen and She’s the One were both very successful and in 15 years, you’ve never gone back to exploring these Irish-American working class families. Take it from me: you’ve got to be thinking about super-serving your niche. I guarantee you that audiences that loved those first two films, that the minute you give them another film like that, they’re going to thank you for it.’ And as soon as he said that, I knew that he was right.

I think the reason I hadn’t gone back there was that my life had changed so dramatically, that I probably thought, ‘I can’t write about those people with any authenticity anymore.’ Since I don’t live that life anymore. But, I was wrong. Because that day, after I had the conversation with him, I opened up my laptop ‐ I knew ‐ I had an idea for wanting to make a film about a big Irish-American family. . . I sat there wondering, ‘Why the hell did I wait so long?’ You know? And more importantly than that ‐ there was the ease ‐ but it was so much fun. Really I just enjoy being in that space, in that world. Revisiting those bars and kitchens and living rooms. I really just enjoy being there. So I absolutely will not wait another 15 years before going back.”

Darren Aronofsky

The Film: Pi (Directing Award Dramatic, 1998)

The Tip: If you can get a strong performance out of an actor, make sure the movie around them doesn’t suck

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Karyn Kusama

The Film: Girlfight (Directing Award Dramatic, 2000)

The Tip: Use personal experience as fuel

“I didn’t make films right out of school. I wasn’t so sure I could really do it at that point, and I felt like for me to understand making features, for me to try to make personal movies took more time of mine in the world, so for me it was a little more interesting to be making a living and figuring out how to just pay the rent and be engaged in the real world before trying to make a movie. . . The most interesting movies are fueled by a sense of personal experience and a sense that movies aren’t the only passion, but that in fact there’s a lot else in the life of that filmmaker or the life of that imagination.”

John Cameron Mitchell

The Film: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Directing Award Dramatic, 2001)

The Tip: Have a first-person understanding of acting and what actors need

“But actors, you know, are often suspicious of directors because directors tend to be afraid of them, you know, it’s the unknown quantity, it’s the immeasurable, you know, non-technical element, the talent that they, they tend to either just kind of not direct them at all and just hope, you know, something, and say ‘faster’ or ‘funnier’ or something.

I think the best directors of actors were actors or they’ve acted themselves, maybe taken a class or two, I think, you know, the best way for a director to find out about that process and not be afraid of it is to take an acting class for a, for a period of time, you know, for a few weeks, to see the, you know, excruciating position in an actor’s… that actors are often in and realizing that, you know, let the actor’s instincts be the first order of business, don’t over direct them too early, when they’re going in the wrong direction to know how to say very little to push them in the right direction, not over-direct them.”

Christopher Nolan

The Film: Memento (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, 2001)

The Tip: Use festivals to connect with people whose work you appreciate

From the full 6 Filmmaking Tips from Christopher Nolan:

“I was at the Slamdance Festival with Following while Ron Judkin’s Hi-Line was being shown at Sundance. I thought it was a beautifully executed film that was clearly produced with limited resources. I had to meet the guy who shot it. I decided during our first conversation that I wanted to work with Wally [Pfister]. We just clicked the way you sometimes do with people. We know each other better today, but our relationship hasn’t changed. There is a synergy that affects our ability to translate ideas into images.”

Niki Caro

The Film: Whale Rider (World Cinema Audience Award, 2003)

The Tip: Find the universal in the specific

“These men are the leaders of their community, of their families and their tribes; and everyone recognizes that. For Rawiri, one of the experiences he had at Sundance was that an Italian-American guy from New York came up to him and said, ‘I saw you in this film, and I saw my grandfather.’ It wasn’t a Maori chief he was looking at, but his own grandfather. I think it’s the universality of it; that we all know these men who feel the burden of their leadership and are so fearful of not being able to leave their world in safe hands ‐ and it’s so hard on those around them.”

Lee Daniels

The Film: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Audience Award Dramatic, 2009)

The Tip: Commit commercial suicide

“I fired my manager over this movie. I show him the movie, and he’s like ‘Huh,’ I said ‘Uh-uh! Gimme my shit, I’m out’ He was like ‘Who’s gonna… ?’ He saw the finished movie right before we went to Sundance. And you know, I’m nervous as it is. I don’t think anyone likes anything of mine. At the end of the day, I love it, but just because I love it… You know, I happen to love broccoli, not a lot of people like broccoli. I always question if somebody else is going to love my films. I think that’s what art is about ‐ it’s so individual. Once you get over that, you’re okay with it, but I did not think that many people would.

He was the first person I showed it to. He left me vulnerable and made me feel what my dad made me feel when I wanted to tell him that I wanted to do this. Like I was nothing. And I was [Snaps fingers.] out. I’m 50 years old. Fuck that. I’m so out of here. And I had to just get the gonads up.”

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