In preparation and excitement for our upcoming MAKING YOUR FEATURE FILM event, panelists Emily Hagins (MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE), Brandon Dickerson (SIRONIA), John Fiege (MISSISSIPPI CHICKEN), and Jeremiah Jones (RESTIVE) reflect on some of their experiences, joys and trials as filmmakers. Don’t forget to mark your calendars for much more insight and advice during Austin Film Festival’s next Conversation in Film!
AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL (AFF): What do you consider a strong story?
HAGINS: I think a strong story is one that you feel passionate about as a writer, because you’re able to really bring all the details of the world your characters live in to life.
DICKERSON: I gravitate toward true stories I find will translate to screen in an authentic and honest way..
FIEGE: A strong story portrays the world from a distinctive perspective.
AFF: What were some of the biggest challenges with making your film?
HAGINS: One of the biggest challenges was keeping the narrative concise with a simple, character-driven story. There were a lot of character moments we could’ve expanded on, and themes we could’ve explored– but it would’ve deviated from what the big picture really was. Understanding what the movie would ultimately feel like in the early stages was definitely a necessary but difficult step for a movie like this.
FIEGE: Finding the story tends to be the hardest part of production. With documentary, even when you think you’ve found a great story, you’re never sure how it’s going to play out. Following strong documentary stories is, by definition, a risky endeavor; and one of the hardest parts of production is pouring everything you have into such an uncertain process.
DICKERSON: For SIRONIA, we were pulling crew from Austin+Dallas+Los Angeles as well as working with locals in Waco. Every one of those cities has its own vibe. Crew from each city has their own unique approach to production. It was a challenge to be at the helm of those different personalities within an abbreviated 20 day shoot with little prep time. A film crew needs to work as a passionate family with a unified vision and we had to create that connection on a train that had left the station. It all worked out in the end.
JONES: Finding money to make a film is always a big challenge. I have only made ultra low-budget films, so scheduling and moving efficiently to get what you need with not much time is another big challenge. When people come into a project and spend a lot of time and resources working, you need to make sure that you are on the same page and have the same expectations. The indie environment can be kind of all hands on deck, so just talk everything out.
AFF: Working on a low-budget, what type of compromises did you have to make along the way? Were there any that were particularly painful to you?
HAGINS: Luckily we had an amazing cast and crew that really went above and beyond when things were tough– like one day we shot 9 pages in a location with 100 extras, and everyone really worked hard to get everything done in the best way possible… I really don’t feel like we had to make compromises, because this story was designed for a budget we would be able to work with.
JONES: I try to hopefully make the most out of the current situation that we are facing. I don’t think it’s compromising, it’s problem solving. Make the most out of what you have in that moment and don’t let one moment bring the movie down. A lot of challenges can be happening all around the set but you only see what goes into the frame.
FIEGE: Art is a compromise between a vision and the representation of that vision. I have to constantly make difficult choices about how to spend extremely limited resources of time and money. Yet, it is these choices that result in a particular artistic representation of a story. I always wish I had more time and money, but I also believe that when I figure out how to tell a story in a stronger way, more time and money will become available somehow. As Robert Bresson wrote, “One does not create by adding, but by taking away.”
AFF: What was one of the most memorable parts of shooting?
JONES: If it is possible and the schedule allows, I like picking up the cast from the airport. An actor puts a lot of faith into you – they read the work, we talk on the phone about it, the details or business get worked out – but I always find myself still hoping that they get on the plane. Meeting them at the airport is when I have the realization of” Hey, they actually came. We have a chance – let’s get this thing done.”
FIEGE: Seeing the story appear before my eyes for the first time.
DICKERSON: The first day [of SIRONIA] was insane. I had fallen on my sword that we needed to shoot at an actual rodeo with real Mutton Bustin’ so it moved up our shoot two weeks and became the first day of filming. It turned out that the time the rodeo had generously given us to film the dialogue sequences was during a pre-concert so we had to shoot between songs. On top of this, the reality that you were finally doing what you wanted to do since you were eight years old felt like an astronaut taking off for the moon.
HAGINS: The day we shot 9 pages was definitely the most memorable for me. We were working with one of our lead actors for the first time, difficult lighting, 100 teenagers, stunts, and one of the most emotional scenes of the whole movie… I felt like a different person at the end of it, and very grateful for the people involved in the production.
Hear more from Emily, Jeremiah, John and Brandon on Saturday, March 2nd at 12PM at the George Washington Carver Museum. The conversation will continue with panelists offering tangible advice for aspiring filmmakers including creative ways to raise money, find marketing and distribution, and utilize acquired tricks of the trade. Click here to get your tickets.