Making a feature film sometimes feels like one long unending struggle. However, making mistakes and learning from them makes you a stronger filmmaker. I know this because Jason [Tippet] (my co-director) and I made our fair share of mistakes on the way to finishing Only the Young.
At Calarts (California Institute of the Arts) we made a short documentary film called Thompson. As we made Thompson, we created what we felt to be our “style” for documentary. We spent months with our subjects, allowing them to become comfortable with us, and we settled on a formal visual style using a tripod and avoiding camera movement. We spent six months editing and working on Thompson, and then were lucky enough to get it into SXSW where we won the Jury Award. From there it went on to play at Sundance. At Sundance, we met Derek Waters (creator of Drunk History) who believed in us enough to help us on Only the Young. Having Thompson as a successful short helped us with meeting people. But if I have some advice for first-time filmmakers, don’t assume when you have a short play at Sundance that funding a feature will be simple.
As first-time feature filmmakers we began our adventure by convincing ourselves that we were only making a short. You can throw a short in the trash overnight and no one will know about it. With this conceit in mind we began with our first interview. After shooting, we rushed home and logged the footage. We found it to be important to edit right after a day of filming. There’s usually one moment that stands out and grabs you. Editing soon after the shoot helped us to catch those special bits. This also meant that we could develop questions for the next day after reviewing the footage.
Further into the film we began placing music into our edit. A friend had recently given Jason a collection of incredible soul music. We placed one song in the opening of the film and fell in love. We fell so hard that it would cost us $25,000. That’s how much it cost us to license our music tracks for the movie. The music is integral to the film and I in no way regret using it. However, as first-time filmmakers, we failed to realize that our distributor would eventually not cover music costs. We learned (the hard way) that filmmakers need someone who has dealt with music licensing before on the team to help avoid giant problems later. This is where “festival networking” proved helpful. At festivals we met people who’d encountered music licensing and other issues, and got some great advice, along with suggestions for helping end those headaches.
Showing cuts of our feature was helpful to gauge how the film was working for an audience. However, we do believe that you have to trust your gut. You may see the final film that others can’t. In creating a documentary, re-editing and structuring becomes most important. Jason had a great sense for re-arranging segments. Even though our film is a linear documentary, we found that the structure worked best when we focused on the emotional beats in the story, rather than a logistical approach that worried about getting from point A to to point B. It was invaluable to have a fully committed partner to turn to and agree to keep working.
After finishing a cut that we were thrilled with we submitted our film to festivals, but Only the Young wasn’t accepted to either of the big festivals we had hoped for. For a while we thought the film might only exist on my iMac. However Chris Boeckmann, a programmer for True/False, found our film after watching Thompson. Wondering what was next for us he searched IMDB and found Only the Young. From there, Only the Young premiered at True/False and was given so much praise. We received a review from Variety and the film was picked up by a number of festivals including Hot Docs, Silverdocs, San Francisco International Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, American Film Institute Film Festival and many others. Along the way we began collecting awards including AFI’s Audience Award, Silverdoc’s Sterling Silver Award for Best U.S. Documentary, Cinema Eye’s Best Debut Feature and others. Soon after, Oscilloscope, a film distributor, acquired our film and we had a limited theatrical release.
So we’d learned something else that proved important: there isn’t a single path to getting a film recognized and having it be successful. True/False’s enthusiasm for our film proved to be contagious. Chris Boeckmann and David Wilson became champions for our film and their belief in it helped push it forward in a huge way.
It’s quite a long difficult journey making a feature film, but when you love your subjects and you have a talented partner, it becomes something that is easy to enjoy. Start making a work that excites you, and hang in there. The film itself might be your biggest reward.
POV presents the national broadcast premiere of Only the Young on PBS stations on Monday, July 15, 2013. (Check local listings). The film will be streaming for a limited time on the POV website starting July 16, 2013.