5 Lessons I Learned from SXSW Film 2013


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Improv doesn’t work for everyone: I’ve heard many indie directors speak in a Q&As about their scripts being more like skeletons that would be filled in through improv sessions on set. I could see that working in a short film environment, but for a whole feature? Thanks but no thanks. Perhaps that is why it was so refreshing for me to hear filmmakers Jeff Nichols (MUD) and Chris Eska (THE RETRIEVAL) say essentially “Everything you saw on screen was in the script.”

If you look at these two films, they are intimate dramas about men and boys on the margins of society, risking their lives for women they love. Both are set against raw backdrop of rural farmland, forests and riverbanks. They don’t exactly scream mumblecore.

Of course my second thought was wondering well what did the lead actors think? This guy’s such a hardass, won’t even let me switch “a” for “an”.

Quite the opposite, actually. Tishuan Scott who won a Special Grand Jury Prize for Acting in THE RETRIEVAL seemed very comfortable with this style of directing in addition to his own research on Black history during the Civil War. When a person in the audience asked how he approached the role of a former slave conned by bounty hunters: “He [Eska] wrote as is and we stuck to the script as is.”

Even Hollywood A-lister Matthew McConaughey who played the title role in MUD sang the praises of Nichols’ tight script (“A different voice than I’ve ever read”) and seemed mighty fine within a fixed structure (“Good writing can give you real identity on the page”).

So it seems great, organic performances can also come from well laid plans.

 

It’s okay to work things out through your art: I have to say the annual Women in Cinema panel at UT-Austin was the highlight of my entire trip. One moment in particular kept my friend Ayshea and I talking after long after the event had ended.

The question was simple enough: What is your process? Filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall replied that her work is “me just trying to figure it out”. Ain’t that the truth?

It’s always fascinating to see an established filmmaker’s canon of work and really see their artistry develop. Serious, that’s your homework for the weekend. Go watch the directorial debut of your favorite director. Bonus points if you can find one of their shorts or student films.

I think we all sometimes need to be reminded that it’s okay to learn by doing.

All of the filmmakers were still at that stage where it’s still messy. This is what I liked most about the panel. Or it could have been the varied age range/experience of the directors or the special aura of SXSW OR the great moderating by director/professor Kat Candler (who did not fall prey to the typical “plight of having a vagina talk a lot of women panels talks center around). I’ll just say all of the above.

If you’re an overthinking yet tactile learner like me, embracing the “jangly” reality of doing is the only way anything will every get done. You’ll never build that strong body of work without consistent practice. Go capture something, anything on some celluloid. Write that shitty first draft. Lincoln once said the only way out is through, right?

 
God bless the archived protagonist: ELENA is a tragic yet hypnotic weaving of home movies starring an aspiring actress’ suicide by her sister. THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX introduces audiences to the fascinating Silibil and Brains (a Scottish rap duo pretending to be American) primarily through concert footage and pre-Jackass prankster videos. Both of these documentaries were so intriguing because they required the filmmakers to revive characters who don’t exist anymore.

The easiest way to make me care about your main characters? Let me in on their secrets. The archival footage doesn’t feel like clunky or cheesy, but like excerpts from a stranger’s diary. This vouyeristic narrative technique works especially well when a dynamic character fully embraces (maybe even abuses) the constant access to the camera on their own. Prior to the production of the actual film, of course. This isn’t TMZ.

I can’t help but think about what memoir docs will look like 20 or 30 years from now. Will the crisp HD of iPhones ever look as grainy as VHS? Will future directors have to slap Instagram filters on the Youtube archives of our lives? I don’t think I can ever begin to wrap my head around that.

I can’t say there is a specific human being (alive or dead) that I like to build a documentary around, but man I hope they can bring some amazing B-roll to the table.
 

Find the best way to show an overdone story: During the Women in Film Panel, Celia also said a filmmaker’s role “is to be as honest as you can in exploring that topic” and elaborated that’s why for example, her pieces are “vastly different in style and tone.”

A BAND CALLED DEATH is the story of musicians from Detroit who really only rose to fame after being discovered by fans long after their prime. Sound familiar? It’s too easy to say “Well isn’t that just another SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN?” Sure the two docs are similar on paper but each radiated with a specificity I would yearn for in my own films.

Imagine making a film about a story that’s been told many times before is like breaking into a house (just go with me here). Director Bigshot has already gone through the front door, so why not go try the doggie door, garage or even shimmy down the chimney. The point is to get in the house and find a truth that’s been overlooked.
 

Be opinionated with an angle: I’ve been chewing on this since sitting down with triple threat (film blogger/programmer/consultant) Christine Davila of Chicana from Chicago.

SXSW offers one-on-one mentor sessions with industry professionals and this year I finally had room in my schedule to sign up. One thing: the meetings are only 10 minutes!

Christine’s words got me thinking: What makes me different from the rest of the film kids out there? What’s my angle? Film is vague. Yes, I want to talk about it, but what matters more is my point of view. Where exactly do I fit in this expanding vortex known as film?

Right now I’m leaning more of an emerging artist services perspective because when I really think of FILM, I picture my friends from college who work multiple jobs to pay rent while saving for that nice camera or squeezing in time to pen their passion script. That intersect between film school and the professional world by someone currently in that stage because those are folks are dog dead tired from being out there doing the work. As someone who’s more interested in becoming a gatekeeper, I will now work to highlight the career advancing opportunities geared the community I see most hungry.

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My final lineup included:

WILLIAM AND THE WINDMILL (dir. Ben Nabors)

MUSCLE SHOALS (dir. Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier)

ELENA (dir. Petra Costa)

FINDING THE FUNK (dir. Nelson George)

MUD (dir. Jeff Nichols)

THE RETRIEVAL (dir. Chris Eska)

BAYOU MAHARAJAH: THE TRAGIC GENIUS OF JAMES BOOKER (dir. Lily Keber)

LOS WILD ONES (dir. Elise Salomon)

GETTING BACK TO ABNORMAL (dirs. Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian & Paul Stekler)

A BAND CALLED DEATH (dirs. Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett) – sounds like a little oscar-winning film called “searching for sugarman)

GO FOR SISTERS (dir. John Sayles)

THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX (dir. Jeanie Finlay)

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