January 2004

In Their Own Words


DGA Magazine corraled a diverse group of Guild members to hear their thoughts on: "What do you know now about making an independent film that you wish you knew then?" Their comments were scattered throughout the special indies section of the magazine, but collected here below.

George Hickenlooper
If I knew even 10 percent then of what I know now about this business, I would have high-tailed it out of here and become a lawyer or stockbroker! Seriously though, the best way to evolve as an indie filmmaker is to learn from your mistakes and your successes. When it comes to indie filmmaking, I am not a big fan of film schools or formulas because there is no one set way to go about surviving. Hopefully you get lucky, have talent and a lot of perseverance, because the slings and arrows of the film world make it a formidable place, kind of like Kabul with BMWs. Create your own laws as you go. You have to because this world is the epitome of social Darwinism, with perhaps 10 percent creativity.

Sofia Coppola
There are challenges that come up in the middle of shooting that you think, as a director, you are never going to get through. You will never find a solution to help you get past the obstacle, and it can become very taxing. I think knowing you have been in that same position in the past — confronting something that appears overwhelming but does have a solution — can be helpful to draw from when you're starting out. Independent filmmaking is difficult, and there are times when you say: 'I will never do this again. It's too hard.' But once you've gotten through it, and everything has fallen into place, you can't wait to start another film. Personally, I've never had long shooting schedules, or even much money to work with, and I've made do with that. I regret the strain a short schedule and tight budget puts on the crew, but it forces me to make decisions quickly and not over-think things. The process becomes more intuitive and less analytical, and I like that.

Penelope Spheeris
There are two things I've learned. The first is that paper is gold. I wish I would have known, way back when, that everything needs to be carefully drawn up in a contract before proceeding in any aspect of filmmaking. Even if you're just developing a movie, or trying to get a project off the ground, you don't take a single step unless you have a written agreement in place. If a producer says he or she has the rights to a piece of music, or a book, or a person's life story, a director should insist on seeing those rights defined on paper. A typical example is of a new director going through all the work of making a project visible in the film community, i.e. attaching a star, and then the star's manager insists on attaching an established director and the new director gets cut out.

I also would advise against working with friends, but if you must, lay it all out on paper beforehand to clearly define all the job roles. The second thing involves creative rights. I joined the DGA on Wayne's World, which was my seventh feature. If I would have known about the rights the DGA lays out for directors, I could have asked for those, even before I had joined the Guild.

I'm mentoring a student right now, and the producer of her documentary is conducting interviews. The director is a student and not a member of the Guild yet, but I told her to get our Creative Rights Handbook. The producer doesn't conduct interviews, the director does that! Once she joins the Guild, the force of the Guild's legal and political clout will guarantee those rights. But at least until that time, she can understand what rights directors have and fight for them. Ten years ago, independent directors did not need attorneys. But that is no longer the case. You must get good legal representation before beginning a project at any phase. It's just the times we live in, unfortunately.

Mary Lambert
I wish I had known more clearly what I wanted to say with my films back when I first began. When you have success as a young director, like I did, you get many chances. The irony is that you don't necessarily have as strong a voice as you do many years down the road, and those chances can be wasted if you don't know where you want to go or what you want to say. I feel like some of my early opportunities were squandered on things that feel trivial to me now. I feel I missed out on telling stories to certain audiences because I was not clear in my own mind what stories I wanted to tell. If you start out in one direction as a new filmmaker and have success, making a sharp left turn with any degree of ease, particularly for women, gets more difficult. I would urge young filmmakers to look into their hearts to find out what they want to say, because once you start saying it and people start listening, that's often the path you're headed down. If I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen that path more thoughtfully and with greater wisdom. You get one chance to make a first impression in this industry; make sure it's the voice you want to speak with and that it comes from the heart.

Alejandro González Iñárritu
I've learned that there's nothing to learn. When I made my first film, Amores Perros, I was very concerned about gaining enough knowledge to successfully make a film. Now after completing 21 Grams, I have learned that I must forget about gaining knowledge, and approach each new project like a complete virgin. Whenever I have tried to draw on previous experiences, the results have not been favorable and I lost valuable time. So now, I erase the slate entirely. That's not to say I don't make plans. I believe so strongly in pre-production and technical preparations. However, once I know that everyone is on the same page as me, technically, I become like an animal — I want only to see and feel and smell the possibilities before me. It's the most wonderful time because I am totally alive. By erasing all the baggage that comes with past experiences, I can work in the moment to capture the emotions and feelings of my story. I've learned not to trust what I've learned — only then can I really feel creatively alive.

Miguel Arteta
I wish I knew then how to create a more trustworthy relationship with the financiers. I produced a movie for the first time this year, and the relationship I had with the director was very productive. I think it's important to treat producers and financiers as partners and not be threatened that they will control your vision. I've discovered that financiers will give up whatever control issues they have more easily if they are getting respect from the director and if the relationship is not an adversarial one. I remember asking Terence Malick for advice about how to deal with financiers and those who would want to change or control my vision. He told me that if there is any way to resolve an issue without getting antagonistic, take it. Once you both cross that line, the filmmaker is the one who will ultimately lose.

Brad Anderson
I wish I had more business savvy (with regards to the marketing and selling of films) back in 1996 when I made my first film and went to Sundance. I was naïve in that I was satisfied to just get the movie made. I'm still passionate about making movies, but now I'm more aware of how to deal with distributors, and that whole game of how to position your movie. You have to make a great film, of course, but you also have to make the right choice as to what company is the best fit to release it. Everyone says it's important to have a producer's rep, lawyer and agent — someone who can help you through that process, and that's true. But the most important thing is to educate yourself; to do the homework about the various personalities of all the indie distributors. You can crunch the numbers and see how many movies a Miramax or Sony Classics releases, and which ones they put out made money. If there is an offer at Sundance, you have to be ready to jump on it, because those offers might not be around too long. Choosing the wrong distributor at Sundance is like entering into a misguided marriage, with all the same repercussions. You're there to sell your movie, of course, but you have to be cautious in who ultimately takes the film out. Talking to other filmmakers, hearing about their personal experiences with the different distributors empowers you, and can help you make an informed decision.

Charles Burnett
I wish I knew how to pitch a story much better than I do now. I always believed that if you had the right story, it would take care of itself. But I've found out you have to reenact the darn thing. I feel people want to hear a pitch with a lot of BS and hype behind it. I'm a shy person and self-conscious. I never found the acting skills to just get up there and tell the story. I have a friend who is so good at pitching, the pitches are stronger than the stories. That can be a problem too. I wish I had found that balance between the pitch and the actual execution back when I first started.

Gary Winick
I've made so many low-budget films and learned that only the big stuff matters in the end. You want to be a perfectionist and get on film absolutely everything that you saw in your head. But you're going to make mistakes and you have to live with them. That's the nature of filmmaking. I've learned not to beat myself up when I think I missed something, and to understand that being dissatisfied comes with the territory. You can be dissatisfied and still come away with something you're tremendously proud of. I'm not a parent, but the analogy is similar: you want to tell a younger director going through something for the first time that frustration is a part of the process and not to go crazy over getting every little tiny detail they imagined before all the craziness began. But ultimately, a new director, like a kid finding his way in the world, will have to discover that stuff on his or her own. Of course, they're going to be more ambitious than they should be on their first movie. What I say is: stay focused on the big picture and don't let the smaller details overwhelm you.

Independent Voice

Profiles of independent directors sharing their visions and methods of making movies.