Danny Madden (a.k.a. Ornana) has one rule: Make films the hard way, or don’t make them at all. “Sometimes it’s easy to look for tricks, or to want to master your craft to the point where you know what you’re doing and it gets easier. But if you get to that point, where what you’re doing is easy, then you’ve really lost something.”
We’ve spent more than four years of talking with some of the best filmmakers in the world, and there are a few questions we haven’t asked. What had these filmmakers been totally wrong about when they first started? And what was the very best thing they did for their careers? We thought these two questions could help calibrate the navigation system — give us all a sense of what we should be moving toward, and what we should be moving away from. So we sent out a bunch of emails. The responses we got back were wonderful and surprising. Some were personal (Eliot Rausch’s sobriety; Reinaldo Green meeting his wife). Some were professional (Joel Edward’s disillusionment with the industry; MINDCASTLE’s belief in director’s cuts). But they all had one thing in common: these lessons were learned painstakingly and firsthand.
In Jim Cummings’ breakout one-take short film, Thunder Road, a heroically unselfconscious police officer (played by Cummings) takes the stage at his mother’s funeral to sing a cringeworthy, albeit gut-punchingly heartfelt, rendition of Springsteen’s classic tune. The film — which would go on to win the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize — not only paved the way for Jim’s career, but it’s something of a metaphor for what Jim’s career is all about: sincerity, vulnerability, and a whole lot of putting yourself out there. “Everybody’s so terrified to do anything,” Jim told us. “So was I. But it takes doing something to do something. Being persistent is what makes you a director.”
Deciding to not make a film is hard. We’re living in the golden age of people making films — thanks to new technology and an increasingly low barrier to entry — and so often the ball starts rolling before we ask ourselves if we should roll it in the first place. In a craft that ultimately amounts to a series of impactful decisions, the first hard decision is whether or not to commit to your film at all. There is nothing worse than getting to the middle of a project, only to realize you’ve been making the wrong film.
There’s maybe no one more qualified to be leading the charge for independent filmmakers these days than Jim Cummings. Since we talked to him a year ago, he’s gone on to make his first feature, Thunder Road, and win the Grand Jury Prize at South By Southwest. The film is currently sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s already generated $500,000 in ticket sales in France alone. Maybe most notably, though, he and his crew made it on their own — no major studio, no executives, no distributors. It’s an independent film in the truest sense of the word. Let’s just say, he’s fired up about that:
Problems, if anything, are a lesson. Whether we’re defeated by them or come up with a genius solution, afterward they serve as nicely packaged tutorials in what to do and what not to do. So, it only makes sense that the production of a film is a wealth of valuable lessons because they’re filled with obstacles. As famed producer Lain Smith said in a 2014 interview with Screen Daily, “Making a film is a series of problems to solve.”
We know, we know. It’s another “Best of 2018” list. But, we think this one is a little different because it’s filled with things that can actually make an impact on your life as a filmmaker. If you believe, as we do, that we’re never done learning, then, by all means, keep reading.