With a festival deadline perilously close, how can you and your editor make the most of your submission?
If you are at a point where you have a “pretty much finished” independent film, first things first: Have a drink, congratulate yourself, celebrate with your friends. You made an independent film and you’ve really accomplished something.
OK, enough. Now get back to your editing room immediately. You’re only “pretty much finished,” and that Sundance deadline isn’t budging. Let’s dive deeper into what “pretty much finished” means. Is it a first pass? I hope not. Is it a decent rough cut? That’s a little better. Is it locked but no sound mix? Pretty good. No color correction? No problem. Music? That’s a whole other article.
Full disclosure: At the time of this writing, I am “pretty much finished” with my directorial debut feature, In Stereo. It’s exactly 57 days until the late Sundance deadline, and I’m going through my own checklist of what needs to get done now, and what can wait. So I asked a few moviemaker friends of mine about how they schedule and budget their post-production process leading up to a festival deadline. It’s a process that lends itself to insanity (an occupational hazard). Nevertheless, I’ve put together the following insane wisdom.
Know your dates and work backwards
Film festivals are a year-round affair. So get organized and know your deadlines and entry fees. A decent amount of money can be saved by submitting to the early bird deadlines, so why not save those extra dollars? Everything adds up.
“When we wrapped, we put together a spreadsheet of all the festivals and the early submission dates, late submission dates, the different fees, etc. It’s a beautiful Excel spreadsheet that Luisa Conlon, our associate producer, put together,” explains Gillian Robespierre, director of 2014 Sundance favorite Obvious Child. “It was very helpful, a real breakdown of the top-tier festivals and the smaller ones, all in one place for us to reference.”
“We were on a pretty rigid schedule working backwards from the start of Sundance,” says Kat Candler, writer/director of Hellion. “We brought our editor out to the set in Port Arthur, Texas the second week of shooting to start assembling scenes. We had a rough assembly about a week after we wrapped in late September, and we had a big calendar with dates we had to hit with certain cuts. Then we’d spend days upon days and very late nights in an editing room in Austin.”
Most of the essential information about film festival rules and deadlines can be found on submissions websites like withoutabox.com or filmfreeway.com, and most festivals require a moviemaker to submit through the site to streamline the whole process. Follow the instructions carefully. You don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with a festival programmer who has a keen eye for detail.
Go for the heart
Now that you have a schedule, on to the work. Let’s not kid ourselves. No kind of spit-shine on a turd is going to fool a festival programmer: not wall-to-wall music, not gimmicky titles, and certainly not that not-quite-a-Steadicam shot you miraculously nailed.
It’s important to remember that many very good films start out looking ugly. Just ask any director who has sat through a first assembly of his or her film, warts and all. Every director I’ve known has wanted to head for the proverbial hills after sitting through that thing, myself included. Our insecurities surface, even though we know it’s just the assembly. Suck it up and dig in. Go scene by scene and put it together until you have that first pass. Watch your coverage and pick the takes that feel best to you now. They may change later, but those first picks are often the right ones. Don’t think too hard about it, just get through the first pass. Remember, you have a deadline.
“We always say that we just want to connect with a film,” says Jarod Neece, senior programmer of the SXSW Film Festival. “It’s hard to say what to focus on with your time because that just depends on where you’re at with the film, and how much time you have before the deadline. But definitely don’t spend time on sound design and color correction. And temp music is fine. Use whatever music you want. For submissions, go for the moon as far as I’m concerned. Basically, whatever it takes to get the cut in the best shape that you possibly can.”
…But polish it as much as possible
“I’m definitely an advocate of doing those little things to make it look like it’s finished,” says Damien Chazelle, writer/director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Whiplash. “Things like temp music we knew we’d never be able to use, a minimum amount of color correction, and a few sound edits that would be improved upon in the later mix. Even though there will still be changes to make later, try to make them forget that they’re watching a rough cut. Always have something looking and sounding as presentable as possible, even though it requires a little extra time, and may take time away from hard picture-cutting.”
“We didn’t want to submit prematurely,” says Robespierre. “When we first sat down to schedule our post, our goal was to submit a fully finished film to Sundance with sound and color because I thought, ‘Well, I’m a first-time filmmaker, they’ve never heard of me.’ But as the deadline came barreling in, I felt it was more important to stay in the editing room a little bit longer, get the pacing right. So we ended up submitting what everyone really submits, which is a good cut without sound mix or color correction.”
Identify the unique needs of your film, too. “We did do a good sound pass to make sure nothing was egregious,” Robespierre says. “We wanted the perfect fart sound.” (Obvious Child’s main character Donna is unusually open about the human body’s propensity for flatulence.)
Taking some extra time to improve the appearance of your film cosmetically could go a longer way than you think. For example, here’s a problem that comes up when editing dialogue scenes: the sound gaps created when you pace a scene out between two actors. You’ve gotten the pace to how you like it, the performances are good, but you need to create a pause for, say, a tense moment. You like the way your first actor did something in Take Three and you want to linger on his face after he nailed the line. But in that take, the second actor says his lines too quickly. You’d have to cut the sound of the second actor’s lines out in order to linger on the first actor’s performance.
You could leave that sound cut abrupt and sloppy-feeling, or you could take the extra time to fill in the sound gaps with room tone or atmosphere sound. The effort will make your cut feel cleaner, even though you still haven’t done a proper sound mix. Take full advantage of your offline editing system’s tools for basic sound and color fixes.
Show your movie to different groups of people, friends, colleagues, friends of friends. Hold informal screenings of six to eight people in your home, or in the editing room. Rent a small theater or screening room and show it to 20 to 40 people. Have questionnaires made up for more structured responses.
You need to get out of your little bubble and experience the movie from someone else’s perspective. Trust me, when you’re watching the movie with a room full of people and something doesn’t work, you will feel it in your bones.
“You and your editor get to know the footage better than anybody, but it prevents you from knowing the movie as a whole. The best way to really get to know your movie is to see it play in front of other people, even though I find it pretty painful most times,” says Chazelle.
Remember, editing is the last rewrite. Writer/director Richard LaGravanese once said that writing is like ironing: You go over a section of the shirt, then you move further down the shirt, still getting some of that previous section, and so on. Every day you go to work on a film, you will look at what you did the day before, go over that a bit, and onto the next section and so on.
The way you want your film to make people feel—whether hardened programmers or the movie-going public—is the single most important goal to remember. Nine times out of 10 it is the meat of your movie that will get them, not a superficial gimmick that makes your movie seem more put together. The work is hard, but it’s what separates the men and women from the boys and girls.
Sample Test Screening Questionnaire
What did you like best about the movie as a whole?
What did you like least about the movie as a whole?
Describe the scenes you liked most and least.
Did you find anything confusing?
Did the plot leave you with any unresolved questions?
Did you find anything unbelievable or unrealistic?
Are the characters well-drawn?
How would you rate the performances and relationships in the movie? (List each role/actor.)
How would you describe the movie to your friends? MM
Mel Rodriguez III is a writer, director and editor based in Los Angeles. He was an editor of the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, We Live in Public. Rodriguez wrote and directed his feature debut, In Stereo, which opened in theaters July 3, 2015.