Programs Tue 9.9.2014

Want to Make Your Film Better? Directing Lab Encourages Experimentation

There’s a reason we call them “Labs.” Four times a year, we invite directors, screenwriters, producers and documentarians into a space where they can experiment with their projects, learning what’s working and what’s not, discovering ideas for making them better. Now, Film Independent is looking for experimentally minded directors with promising projects for our upcoming Directing Lab.

Here’s how it works: over eight weeks starting in February, the selected directors (Fellows) will get feedback on their scripts and select short scenes to workshop. The Fellows learn how to break down their scene into a shot list, collaborate with cinematographers and learn to construct it in the editing process. We provide digital camera and sound packages, as well as a small stipend to shoot their scenes, which will be critiqued by the Lab Mentors as well as the other Fellows. It’s a great way to throw some momentum into a work-in-progress.

With the Directing Lab application deadline right around the corner (applications are due October 6th), we asked Film Independent Fellow Robbie Pickering about his experience in the Lab. Pickering, a writer-director, developed his debut feature Natural Selection in the Film Independent Labs. (Screenwriting Lab 2006, Fast Track 2007 and Directing Lab 2007) The film premiered at SXSW in 2011, where it won best narrative feature, best screenplay, best editing and best score/music, and it was a nominee for Best First Feature at the 2012 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Here, Pickering shares his take on how the Directing Lab helped boost his career.

You took your film Natural Selection through the Film Independent Artist Development programs. How did the Directing Lab inform your creative process as a director?
I am preparation-heavy as a director, and I took the opportunity in the Directing Lab to work in a way that I was uncomfortable working, which is no preparation, no rehearsal. The way I look at it, the Directing Lab is a chance to really experiment with your material. It taught me a lot. Once I went into the movie for real I did prepare a great deal, but being in the Lab environment and being freed up to work experimentally and not worry that people will judge me if I screw up— it really allowed me the freedom to explore being spontaneous on the day. That, in turn, allowed me to be more present after the Lab and be more flexible with the material.

Still, the biggest thing was being in there with the people I was in the Directing Lab with, who have become good friends of mine and really encouraged me to make my movie, whatever the cost. I don’t think I could’ve done it without their help. The Labs also provided us with guest speakers every week, like Rian Johnson (Looper) or Mike Binder (Reign Over Me), and in sharing their experiences, they taught me new ways to work and new ways to make a movie. It also demystified these people I admired in the sense that [they] were just like me—they were struggling filmmakers, too. Just because I haven’t made a feature that won Sundance [doesn’t mean I’m not] still a filmmaker, and it gave me a lot of confidence. I remember being in film school and looking at people who make features like, “oh my god, they’re making a feature. I’ll never be able to do that”. You think it’s such a crazy process and it’s really not. Film Independent walks you through it.

What advice would you give to other filmmakers who are going into a Lab experience?
In the Labs, they’re really encouraging you to experiment with the way you work, and I think that leads to better outcomes in the end. The mistake that some people make going into the Lab experience, I think, is that they look at it as that kind of tournament-style, “I’ve-got-to-make-a-better-scene-than-this-guy” competition when really it’s not, and I think you do yourself a disservice when you look at it like that. The Lab is more a support network than a competition. It’s like when you’re directing a scene—the last thing you want to make the actor feel is that it’s not okay to fail. That goes with directors as well; it goes with all artists. Film Independent allows you to fail constructively. If you make a bad scene but you discover something about the way you work or discover something about the material, then that’s really the best outcome possible.

Once you completed the Directing Lab, how did you go about packaging and financing the film?
Going out of the Labs, we wanted to make Natural Selection for $1 million. This is about the time the recession hit, and we couldn’t find the money for it. It was the same story with most indie films: you’re waiting for it to be perfect, you’re waiting for the right people to be in it and the right amount of money and all that crap, and then suddenly you wake up four years later and you’re still waiting. Two years went by and we cut the budget to $500,000, and then another year went by and we failed to win a Netflix competition we submitted to after cutting the budget again. After that I had a conversation with Directing Lab Fellow Josh Leonard (The Lie), and complained to him about not being able to raise the money. Josh looked at me and said, “Robbie, I don’t want to offend you, but you’re boring the crap out of me right now. Everybody around you—me, all the people that were in the Directing Lab with us, everybody at Film Independent, your friends from film school—we all know you can do it for less money and we all know you’ll make a great movie. The only person who doesn’t believe you can do it for less money is you.” So I went straight to my producers right after that meeting and said, “we’re going to do this movie for whatever we can raise in three months. If we’ve got to do it for 50 grand, we’ll do it for 50 grand. If we’ve got to do it for 25 grand, we’ll do it for 25 grand, but we’re doing it in three months.” They adjusted their whole business plan and we started raising money with a new goal of $225,000.

Once you decide to make these movies, I think the important thing to understand is that when we said, “we’re going to make this in three months, come Hell or high water”—that’s when things start happening. It might not happen the way you planned, but generally if you’re smart, you know what you’re doing, you’re flexible, and you can recognize opportunity—even if it’s not the opportunity you want it to be—things will turn out well. Once you get the train going, people want to get on. All these reluctant investors that we had for years started chipping in and we raised $150,000, which is less than we wanted, but we adjusted and we made the movie. In the end, you can’t be so busy trying to make everything perfect that you’re not being smart about what’s in front of you.

Koby Caster / Artist Development Intern