Filmmaking FAQ with ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’ Director Stacy Peralta

Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys

Stacy Peralta

Stacy Peralta is a Sundance Institute Alumni Advisory Board Member and the director of three Sundance Film Festival documentary selections (Dogtown and Z-Boys, Riding Giants, and Made in America). Below is a composite of the most frequently asked questions he’s received during his filmmaking career.

What’s it like to get your film into the Sundance Film Festival?

Peralta: As a filmmaker, it’s been the best experience I’ve ever had. And that has been true with all three of my films that have played at the Festival. It’s two weeks of pure filmmaker bliss, of being in a beautiful romantic place at the top of the world, surrounded by people who really care about films. It’s daily Q&As with eager audiences who have just seen your film, which turn out to be cathartic group therapy.

You meet so many other filmmakers, you see a load of good films, you do nothing but talk about films, you get to snowboard on pretty much empty world-class mountains during the day and watch films at night, then have dinner with friends late into the night. Then you start the next day and do it all over again, fourteen days in a row.

What do you need to do to get a documentary film financed?

Peralta: I usually start by writing a treatment explaining the film in decent detail – anywhere from three to eight pages. And just like reading a good book, it’s very important the treatment have some form of emotion attached to it, an emotion that the reader can connect with. In the end you want to move people with your treatment the way your eventual film will move them.

The other thing you can do is shoot and edit a trailer of what your film will look like or shoot and edit a segment of your film. By doing this you can show people what your film will look and sound like, what it will focus on and who it will feature.

What’s one of the keys to your success?

Peralta: Learning how to fail because I spend so much time doing it.

But you’ve had quite a lot of success?

Peralta: You’re only seeing the success, you’re not seeing what led up to my various successes or what followed. You’re not seeing the 10 screenplays that are now composting on a shelf in my garage, the 8 TV pilots that went nowhere, the film pitches that crash-landed.

I haven’t found a way to avoid failure in this business. So for me it’s all about learning how to manage failure—big failures, small failures, and the continuing disappointments and setbacks of this business. I cannot overstate how important it is to learn how to get up off the floor when you’ve been knocked down.

If you’re working in any of the creative fields, especially if you’re taking chances, you’re going to fail. But if you come to realize how connected failure is to success then it eases the blows and you begin to realize it’s normal to fail.

What projects are you currently working on?

Peralta: I recently produced a documentary along with Agi Orsi tilted No Room for Rock Stars, a film which I am very proud of. Parris Patton directed it and edited it with Josh Altman. Josh is now editing a new documentary that I began directing a year ago and will have completed by late October. I’m also producing a documentary about legendary Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau, with Sam George directing. Aside from these projects I direct commercials, primarily real people stuff.

How do you go about finding music for your films?

Peralta: One of the first things I do when starting a new film is build the soundtrack. This helps me understand what the film is, what the tone of it is, what the emotion of it is, and what it wants to be. Music is my guide to understanding the film I’m making.

What kind of toothpaste do you use?

Peralta: Arm and Hammer baking soda. Twice daily.

When was the last time you shaved your goatee?

Peralta: Some time in the early ’90s.

Do you want to make feature films?

Peralta: I would like to, but I’m not sure I’m willing to do what it takes and I’m very happy with what I’m currently doing. It’s very important to me not to waste time. When I set off to make a film, I want to be sure that I’m going to be able to watch it in a year’s time.

About five years ago, I got involved in more of the Hollywood aspect of movie-making—working for studios, writing screenplays, etc. I discovered how that part of the film business requires a lot of social skills; you have to be a really good talker. And while I’m not anti-social, I’m not skilled at that quick talking stuff and being fast on my feet with pitching ideas. I found myself not doing good work and not feeling able to do good work.

How long does it take you to make one of your films?

Peralta: Usually less than a year, which is a result of the budget and how much money we have to keep operating. It usually takes me 3 to 12 months to obtain financing for any one of my films. It takes about 8 to 12 months to shoot and edit the film, which we do simultaneously. I begin the editing process once I have enough of the film shot and I continue shooting until about halfway. Once the film is complete it then takes about 12 months to release the film, which means going to film festivals and screening the film to new audiences, critics, and film buffs.

I make documentaries and not feature films, which means I don’t have actors appearing on David Letterman to promote my films. As the filmmaker, I have to go out and promote my films alone. A few years ago, I counted that I’ve given about six hundred interviews for each one of the films I’ve made. These are interviews for individual newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations all over the world. By the end of it I simply can’t stand hearing myself speak, and I’m emotionally, intellectually, and physically drained.

At some point, the shard of an idea will land on my shoulder and it will keep winking at me, giving me small hints and reflections of what it is. Eventually I’ll take an interest in it and somehow, months or sometimes a year later a new film idea will start forming and the process will start all over again.

Did you go to film school?

Peralta: No. I never expected to become a filmmaker, and only fell into it while making skate videos for my skateboard company in the ‘80s. At that time my company could not afford to hire someone to make videos, so I did it myself. I produced, directed, shot, and edited all of the videos. I started with super 8mm, then went to 3/4 inch video, then went to 16mm, and sometimes got to play with 35mm. I cut them on a small Sony editing system I had in my apartment on my kitchen table. It was a perfect film school class because no one was standing over my shoulder telling me what not to do. I was able to discover my directing and shooting mistakes when I sat down to edit, then go back out and re-shoot.

Why do so many filmmakers strive to get their films into the Sundance Film Festival?

Peralta: If your film is chosen to be in the Festival you have the opportunity to have it seen by the most important film buyers, studios, film journalists, and filmgoers in the world, all within two weeks.

What advice do you have for young filmmakers?

Peralta: Make films you want to see. Make films about subjects that interest you, make films about subjects that inspire you, subjects that trouble you, subjects that you want to understand more thoroughly. Most importantly, follow your own interests. If you’re not following your own interests, then whose interests are you following?

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