04.09.14 | Chris Lowell & Mo Narang
Beside Still Waters, written by Chris Lowell & Mohit (Mo) Narang, and directed by Lowell, swept AFF’s Narrative Feature Awards in 2013, winning both the Jury and Audience Award. We hosted an encore screening of Beside Still Waters in March as a part of our Audience Award Series, and hosted a script reading of their second feature Isolation/Tribes as well. They will be back to speak at the 2014 Conference (to see them this fall, get your badge here) but in the meantime, we asked them to guest blog for us on the trials and tribulations of being first time filmmakers, completing a film from start to finish, and to tell us what it was like working the festival circuit for the first time. They’ve come back with a list of 7 lessons for filmmakers. Thanks to Chris and Mo for the blog and we look forward to seeing you in October!
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Chris Lowell & Mo Narang: Beside Still Waters Filmmakers
We should start with a disclaimer: the only thing we know for certain about filmmaking is how little we knew when we started writing Beside Still Waters. That said, here’s what we’ve learned:
LESSON 1: WRITING IS HARD
The two of us began working on Beside Still Waters in the summer of 2010. Back then, it was just a few bullet points jotted in a little green notebook. That fall, we began writing in earnest. Our process is unusual: After outlining the story together, we both write a completely separate full-length screenplay. We exchange scripts, mash them together into a Frankenstein draft, then cut it down. That entire process is one draft.
By all reasonable accounts, our process shouldn’t work BUT it does for us, and that’s the rub – writing is hard, so finding whatever method (no matter how absurd) to put words-to-page is itself an achievement.
Over the course of the next year and half, we went through at least twelve drafts of BSW. We took notes, made edits, cut and added major themes (the title is actually a vestige of a long-abandoned subplot). Our characters and our world began to take form.
LESSON 2: EVERYONE HITS ROADBLOCKS
At the end of 2011, we found producers interested in the film, and were off to the races. 2012 was a sprint – January was producers meetings, February and March were fundraising, April was casting, and May: pre-production. We shot the film over three exhausting yet incredible weeks in June. The fall was spent editing. We had a charmed production; we were one of the lucky ones. We locked picture in November and began applying to festivals, with every hope that our streak of good fortune would continue.
January and February were filled with very polite rejections from every festival we applied to. We told ourselves (rightly) that festivals are competitive, and we’d find our way in soon enough. In March and April the rejections piled up. All the little doubts that accompany any creative endeavor began to creep forward, and what had been an enthusiastic labor of love suddenly elicited a bitter taste.
We couldn’t have known it then, but those months were pivotal to us as young filmmakers. We learned a very valuable lesson: although rejection may feel like the end of the world, it’s anything but. In retrospect, those rejections were small stumbles in a much bigger journey.
LESSON 3: FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
We premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 2013, and played at the Austin Film Festival two weeks later. Prior to actually educating ourselves, it was easy to overlook any festival that didn’t have the splash and luster of Cannes or Sundance, but Mill Valley and Austin were amazing fits for our film.
Both festivals pride themselves on the discovery and support of new talent. The programming teams genuinely loved the film, and were enthusiastic with their support. The crowds were also incredible. At Austin, we won the Audience Award along with the Jury Prize, and received our first distribution offer.
LESSON 4: PROGRAMMERS ARE HUGE FILM GEEKS (SEE: WONDERFUL)
At Austin and Mill Valley, we had a chance to actually sit down and talk film with some of the festival programmers. We can’t stress this next point enough: These. People. Love. Film. They love filmmakers. Months prior, when all we were hearing was No, we had developed a very adversarial mindset toward programmers. However, once we began talking to them, we realized how hard it would be to find bigger fans of film. They take so much joy in elevating new talent, and struggle pretty deeply with the unenviable task of selecting the lucky few. Bottom line: programmers and filmmakers are on the same team. It may be hard to remember that when you’re getting rejection emails, but it’s true.
LESSON 5: FORTUNE FAVORS THE BOLD
SUBMIT. YOUR. FILM. None of this can happen if you don’t submit your film. Having gone to festivals and met other filmmakers, we can say this with some certainty: the race doesn’t go to the wealthiest, or the most connected, and it often doesn’t go to the most talented – it goes to the people who do the work. We’ll pilfer some Honest Abe to cement the point: “Things may come to those who wait, but only things left by those who hustled.”
LESSON 6: IT DOESN’T END THERE
So we got our first distribution offer at Austin, and we were off to the races, right? Wrong. The road is long. Both Mill Valley and Austin have been incredible to us in the months following the festivals. AFF just held an encore screening of our film, AND went out of their way to arrange a public reading of our second script! Both events were really well promoted and attended, and awesome opportunities for us to drum up some more support around our young filmmaking careers.
We hope these experiences have just been the start of a long partnership – we’ve already booked our tickets to come back to Austin for this year’s fest!
LESSON 7: THERE IS NO LESSON SEVEN
Seriously. We don’t have a seventh lesson – we’re probably learning it as you read this. Hopefully the other six weren’t a complete waste of your time. If you’ve got a film you’re thinking of submitting, do it. For us, it was the beginning of an amazing journey.
UPDATE: There was no Lesson Seven. We wrote the above a few days before launching a Kickstarter campaign, and we can safely say we’ve found our seventh. We’d set out to raise $63,000 in thirty-seven days – a very ambitious goal for us. We surpassed that goal within two days, and we’re still going! The support we’ve been shown – from family, friends, old co-workers, teachers, strangers, you name it – has been incredible, and humbling, and truly, deeply touching. We’re still struggling to wrap our heads around this, but we think the lesson is this: there is a vocal, energetic, committed group of people out there hungry to support independent cinema in a grassroots way. We’ll refer you back to Lesson Five if you’re considering reaching out into the world, but please know – these people are out there, and they’re amazing.
Good luck, and thanks for listening to us ramble!
– Chris & Mo