5) Kill ’em with the opening and leave ’em wanting more with the ending.
From the paralyzing first minutes of FRUITVALE that began with actual archival footage of Oscar Grant being shot on the BART subway station to the heartbreaking revelation of the true name of a migrant worker found dead on the Arizona-Mexico border in WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL?, I was reminded again the importance of where you choose to start and stop your story. Load us with too much information in title cards and character introductions and we may get bored. Manipulate a neat fairytale ending and risk losing our trust when the lights go up. But if you take real risks with your narrative and hit the right point, especially in the opening and ending, oh man, watch out.
4) Find the most interesting characters.
Backup singers (TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM), Mexican crime scene investigators (NARCO CULTURA), and Southern public defenders GIDEON’S ARMY), oh my! If Sundance 2013 had an overall theme, it was not sex (as the press claimed) but about spotlighting the people on the margins of our society. It’s hard enough finding a topic that hasn’t been done to death on film, but giving audiences a compelling subject to follow while you do it? A goal like that seems near impossible these days. I found the documentaries this year were especially captivating because of the unique faces on the screen. Not every person you find on the street is meant to be a “character” but when they are, it is magical. You forget the film has a hand pulling all the strings because you genuinely care about what happens to the protagonists and their lives. I think any narrative filmmaker could take a page from today’s documentarians and pay extra attention to crafting truly magnetic characters.
3) Music can be everything.
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS wins hands down for my favorite score. A prime example of using a simple technique (I can only describe as hands clapping in groovy rhythm) that could be used to fit multiple scenes. To any indie with a tight budget, why not think intimate? Do you need something that sounds like it was covered on “Glee”? Probably not. Give me something that feels organic in the world of your film. Bonus points if it can reoccur in future scenes without looking lazy or cheesy. AIN’T THEM BODIES was a raw tale about an outlaw and his family set against a Southern 70’s-ish backdrop. While the director could have browsed through music history and slapped some Top 40-sounding hits in the background, the “clapping score” added a playful yet complex layer to the film.
2) Care for your film.
If you’re lucky, you get to attend a screening right after the film’s been picked up by a distributor. In that 8:30am screening of AIN’T THEM BODIES, someone asked director David Lowery what they would do now that the film had been sold to IFC Films. Lowery eloquently stated “We’re going to continue to care for the film like we did making it.” I know it’s the dream that one’s film will get bought at a major festival and hit theater marquees across the globe, but please remember that no one will love your film more than you. Don’t check out when you get the check.
Also for you doc makers: I’ve never seen so many films come to the festival with social campaigns already in the works. GIDEON’S ARMY, WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? and AMERICAN PROMISE all have some sort of coalition building that relates to their film’s themes. Be ready when those lights come up to hand folks flyers directing them to your website (or even hit before they’re in their seats). It was so beautiful to see these filmmakers knew the end product was not just Sundance fame, but being included in platform which could shed light on the greater need for change in our society.
1) There are no rules (sorta).
Documentaries like WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? have screenwriters? Award-winning Cinematographer Bradford Young used a smartphone app to help him find the right time of day to shoot scenes in AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS? ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW filmmakers didn’t have a single permit to shoot their feature film at Disneyworld? You betcha. As Frank Capra said “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” In this new era of indie filmmaking, you can do pretty much whatever you want as long as it serves to make a narrative audiences can connect to. Afterall, isn’t that the real reason so many of us trek through the Utah tundra for two weeks every January?
According to the ticket stubs stuffed in my festival badge, I saw:
THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE (dir. George Tillman Jr.)
WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? (dir. Marc Silver)
ANITA (dir. Frieda Mock)
EL MARIACHI (dir. Robert Rodriguez)
ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (dir. Randy Moore)
MOTHER OF GEORGE (dir. Andrew Dosunmu)
FRUITVALE (dir. Ryan Coogler)
AMERICAN PROMISE (dirs. Joe Brewster & Michele Stephenson)
BLUE CAPRICE (dir. Alexandre Moors)
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (dir. David Lowery)
IN A WORLD… (dir. Lake Bell)
GIDEON’S ARMY (dir. Dawn Porter)
NARCO CULTURA (dir. Shaul Schwarz)
FILL THE VOID (dir. Rama Burshtein)
TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM (dir. Morgan Neville)
SHORTS PROGRAM 4 (“Boneshaker” by Frances Bodomo; “The Curse” by Fyzal Boulifa; “Black Metal” by Kat Candler; “GUN” by Spencer Gillis; “The Captain” by Nash Edgerton; “On Suffocation” by Jenifer Malmqvist; “You Are More Than Beautiful” by Tae-yong Kim)
Can’t wait to do it all over again at SXSW Film next month!