Director Michael Mohan Offers Up 6 Tips for Sundance Filmmakers

Michael Mohan

Michael Mohan is the director of three Sundance Film Festival selections, including his short film ‘Ex-Sex,’ his feature directorial debut ‘One Too Many Mornings,’ and most recently ‘Save the Date.’

Hi. Let me guess. All of you are scrambling to finish your films right now. You’re running from ADR sessions, to meetings with your composer, all the while googling nonstop to see if you can still find a cheap condo in Park City.

You’re fielding countless emails from industry people who are trying to convince you that they should see your film early, to friends you haven’t spoken to in years whose brother has an awesome band who would really love to get his song into a real movie. And when you wake up each day after maybe four hours of sleep, you don’t know how you are going to get it all done in time. You have no idea what the difference between HDCAM and HDCAM SR is, and you haven’t been this overwhelmed in your entire life.

I’ve been there. I remember the day before I was going to Sundance in 2010, I accidentally locked my keys in my car. I thought the entire world was going to end. But it didn’t.

Speaking as someone who’s made it to the other side a few times, you don’t know it right this second, but you will look back on this period in your life with the most intense fondness. So many people talk about making movies that get into Sundance, and you are some of the few people that are Actually Fucking Doing It. You will get there, you will. And so I just wanted to share with you some personal advice.

1. You are who you are.

Alright, so if you’re like me, you’re more comfortable being behind the camera than in front of it. The thought of going in front of hundreds of people to intro your movie scares the crap out of you. You look at interviews with directors you admire, and wished you talked like they did.

Shut your brain up. First off, you’re going to be fine. Second off, if you can embrace whatever emotion you are feeling at the time, people love that. If you start your intro with “Oh my god I am so nervous right now,” you’ve reminded the audience that you are indeed a real person and that the work they are about to see is coming from a genuine place.

2. One of your screenings is gonna be weird.

I’m just going to say it. The first screening of your film might feel totally weird. People might not be laughing where you want them to laugh. Some people will walk out. You might get oddball questions afterward that you were never expecting. I remember talking to one filmmaker who made this hilarious comedy—he was convinced after his first screening that he might have made a drama. Nope. He just had a weird screening. Don’t let it get to you. Every filmmaker I’ve spoken to at Sundance has talked about “the weird screening.” It is a thing.

2B. Go to your Salt Lake City screening.

If you don’t attend your Salt Lake City screening, you’re an asshole. Your best Q&As will happen in SLC. Your best reaction will happen in SLC. And you get to escape from the industryness of Park City to remind yourself of the kinds of people you actually made the film for.

2C. Maybe you’ll need to re-edit your film.

The producers out there will hate me for mentioning this. But after seeing my film six times with different crowds, I learned full well that a better version of my film existed if I could take out two minutes. There’s no shame in tinkering with your film post-Sundance. You’re a better filmmaker if you know your film can be better and subsequently make your film better.

3. The discovery happens for you too.

Yes, audiences are there to discover the new voices in cinema. Be a part of that audience—even scout actors for your next projects. If you don’t have your next script all lined up, chances are the instant you get back you’re gonna’ be hunkered down writing. As you all know, writing can be a real drag, and get super lonely. It’s way less lonely if you can imagine some new friends you just made playing the parts in your next script. The excitement of a potential future collaboration can really help motivate.

4. Reviews.

Don’t read your bad reviews. Just don’t. Don’t do it. Really guys. Trust me on this one. If you read a bad review you’ll just want to cry out “But don’t they know how hard I worked!” It is a cruel and unfair world we live in. Don’t do it.

But the positive reviews – read ’em all and imagine that everyone else in the world feels the same way as those people do. Those are the people you made the movie for. And they all love you.

5. Have fun.

Okay, I know this is totally stock advice, but it bears repeating. SUNDANCE IS SO FUN. Rarely in your life will you get to celebrate this much over your creative efforts, and you get to do so with some of the most awesome people. It’s all too easy to be buried in your phone wondering why one film has sold and yours has not, so don’t do that. Treat the festival as what it is – a festival, in every sense of the word.

6. Take a break before heading to Park City and watch my film Save the Date this weekend.

How’s that for shameless self-promotion? If you feel like supporting your fellow indie brethren, come watch my film either at the IFC Center in NY, at the Sundance Cinemas in Los Angeles, or on all major VOD platforms starting tomorrow. I’ll be at the Friday and Saturday night showings here in LA, so don’t hesitate to introduce yourself.

Everything will be okay guys. Godspeed, and congratulations!

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