Session One of the 2023 Film Independent Directors Close-Up kicked off a jam-packed month of events–seven online and three in-person, see the full schedule here–last Wednesday, February 1 with the five brilliant directors of films nominated for Best First Feature at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
The panelists shared a wealth of knowledge and critical pieces of advice that will be valuable for any first-time filmmaker looking to turn their idea into a completed project. After the conversation it was clear that there is no single path to success, but there are plenty of tools and strategies that can be utilized in the process. Drawing on personal experience can also be the most effective way to introduce yourself to the world.
The “Maiden Voyage: Best First Feature” discussion included directors Elegance Bratton (The Inspection), Jamie Dack (Palm Trees and Power Lines), John Patton Ford (Emily the Criminal), Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic (Murina) and Charlotte Wells (Aftersun). Moderating the discussion was award-winning producer Shelby Stone (The Chi). See below how they answered some of Stone’s most pressing questions…
The story a filmmaker chooses to tell with their first feature is something that will set the stage for the rest of their career. So it’s clearly a decision that can’t be taken lightly. While all five of the writer-directors would draw from their own life experiences in penning the script for their debut feature, one didn’t decide to do so until several drafts into the process.
“What better way to spark a conversation than to use my own experience,” Elegance Bratton said as he described his impetus to start writing The Inspection. The film directly reflects the hardships Bratton endured as a young man who was homeless for 10 years after being kicked out of his mother’s house when she found out he was gay. It wasn’t until he joined the Marines that he found purpose and meaning in life.
Jamie Dack drew on a relationship she had as a young woman with a man that was older than her for Palm Trees and Power Lines. Her perception of these situations had changed over time and this re-examination motivated her to start writing. “At the time of the relationships I really felt like I was an active participant. As I got older, I started to realize maybe that wasn’t exactly the case and there were ways in which I had been manipulated,” Dack explained.
Murina is a film heavily informed by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s time spent living a wild-child lifestyle on a sparsely developed, stark island as a teen with her family. She was free to roam wherever she desired, danger was always a present element. “I wanted to really write it from my 16-year-old self and remember the resilience that you inevitably lose over time,” the Croatian-born director stated.
The grief experienced after losing her father as a teenager drove Charlotte Wells to make Aftersun. She had many questions that had gone unanswered, and she wanted to explore this time in her life and see what she could resolve. “Memory became inextricable from the film itself and there are ways in which it became a lot more personal than I ever anticipated it being,” Wells explained. While the film was not intended to be fully autobiographical, it evolved into something truer to her life than she could’ve imagined when she started writing.
John Patton Ford was the only panelist who did not initially set out to make a personal film with his debut Emily the Criminal. It was more about simply getting something made! “It’s my life. I need to get a film made. It became personal only later after writing a couple drafts that it actually started to reflect something that I was feeling at that time,” Ford said on the evolution of the script. The fact that he was $100,000 in student debt and working any job he could get to survive were elements of his personal life that would later make their way into the script.
“How did you get your film across the finish line?” Stone asked.
“There is no single answer and it’s so frustrating. It’s frustrating to hear and it’s frustrating to say. At this point you want to be able to answer that question, but it is different for everybody,” Charlotte Wells explained, perfectly summing up the enigma that is completing a film. If one thing was clear after listening to the responses of our panelists however, it was that the key is connecting with the right people.
Elegance Bratton, Jamie Dack and moderator Shelby Stone all participated in the Film Independent’s Fast Track as a means to quite literally fast track their project by matching them up with the people needed to complete their films. Bratton said, “I applied to a lot of different labs and most of them told me ‘no’ multiple times until the Film Independent Producing Lab and Fast Track allowed the movie in. I got some great notes there, but more importantly I got 12 different offers.”
John Patton Ford’s path varied a bit as his pivot to focusing on writing only had allowed him to meet a well-established director who ended up sending his script directly to none other than Aubrey Plaza. She would serve as the star and producer for the film. Financing and pandemic delays still caused the project to take several years to complete, however.
Stone asked the filmmakers for their thoughts about pitching their projects. Most would agree that being able to “sell” your project in a pitch meeting is a vital skill for filmmakers. One of our esteemed directors, however, said they have yet to master it and found a different strategy.
John Patton Ford said he believes “the ability to pitch and articulate your ideas is just as important as your skills as a filmmaker.” On the other hand, Charlotte Wells feels that it’s something she still struggles with and got her project made by finding like-minded people instead. “I never acquired that skill with this film–even now… It was just a hard film to describe,” adding: “Find the people who you connect with so you can have a conversation about more than just your project.” For example, other filmmakers.
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