By Ron Merk
There’s a wonderful line in Francois Truffaut’s film, “Day for Night,” spoken by the director character, in which he talks about his great hopes for his new film as he begins the first day of filming, but after just a short time of reality invading his dream he tells himself that he’ll be happy if he simply finishes the film. Hopes and expectations can sometimes get in the way, and often kill the dream. Remaining open to all possibilities is really the touchstone of all great directors, while at the same time, retaining a personal vision for a particular film. It’s all about balance and perspective in the final analysis.
As a lifelong filmmaker whose films have been shown at many, many festivals in the United States and around the world, I think I can offer a perspective to filmmakers about what to expect from festivals, and what not to expect. If you’re hoping that someone will see your film at a festival and then set into action some life and career-changing actions, that you’ll get a first-look deal at a major studio, or that someone will offer you a big advance to distribute your film, you are most likely to be sorely disappointed.
What, you may ask, can you expect? What can you hope for when your film is shown in a festival? Assuming you’ve got the financial ability to attend the festival in which your film is being presented, there are many things to be gained, but they may not be what you hope for or expect. Sounds like I’m preparing you to be disappointed. Not at all. In fact, I hope that I’m preparing you to be surprised, to learn from the experience, and to improve your filmmaking and interpersonal skills.
In a recent post on Hope For Film, Ted Hope posited that the new world of filmmaking includes many chances for new versions and editions of a film based upon audience response and participation. Keeping this in mind, and that all films are forever works-in-progress, what a festival offers you is a chance to see what you could not see before in your own film. I recall very well changing the music in a film I made and re-mixing it 15 years after the film was made. Things had changed, music tastes were different, and the original music dated the film. I can’t remember who said this, but someone talking about art said (and I’m paraphrasing) “No art work is ever completed, it is just abandoned at some point in its development by the artist who has moved on to something new.” I think this is the new paradigm that Ted was talking about, except the part about abandoning a work. As media and delivery changes, films may need to change, too. Films will have many “versions” and iterations over time. It would appear, at least for the present, that the zeitgeist of making films has changed.
When you attend a festival, it’s easy to get up on stage during a Q&A and tell about your motivation for making the film, and trying to explain it. However, your main job at a festival is not to talk about your film, but to listen to others talk about it. Talk to people in the lobby, the bar next door, at receptions. Try to corral some of the festival staff and get them to talk about your film. As a filmmaker, listening is your best tool. It’s very much like a doctor listening to a patient’s complaints and then diagnosing the problem. As a director, I’ve done much better work listening to cast and crew than talking to them.
Take notes, record conversations, and take all that feedback home with you, and review it in the quiet of your home. Take the time to reflect. Listen and learn. You may finally locate the solution to a problem in your film (there’s always one!) that you couldn’t find yourself. You may see a new angle for a character that wasn’t explored in your “final cut.” You may even change the ending or the beginning. Having said that, you still need to retain your vision, and not be overwhelmed or prodded by public opinion to compromise that vision. It’s a delicate balance, but watching the film with an audience in a theater, and then talking to them is a much better way to gauge the success of your film than at a screening for the cast, crew and family. Film festivals can give you one thing they can’t give you, and that’s perspective.