Sundance 1995: A Filmmaker's Diary
Editor's note: In November 1994, San Francisco filmmaker Lisanne Skyler achieved the dream of many independent documentarians when she was informed that her first feature-length documentary, No Loans Today, about the lives of residents in the African American community of South Central Los Angeles, had been accepted into the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Following are excerpts from Skyler's Sundance journal.
November 24, 1994: Although Sundance Film Festival Programming Director Geoff Gilmore was more than convincing on the phone ( "We love your film," he said. "We want it in"), it is still extremely difficult to believe. I had submitted a rough cut—a really rough cut—and I was now deep in the throes of working out all the little kinks. As Geoff outlined the details, I stared incredulously at the flatbed, which had half of reel 2 threaded up. The rest of reel 2 was on cores, on pegs on the film bin, everywhere . Although I love handling and cutting on film, I immediately had AVID envy. I have been editing No Loans Today for the better part of the past year, taking time off to write grant applications and come up with wild schemes to get cash and other support for the film, for my co-editor, Mark Redpath, and for myself-and now time is officially up. If I don't lock picture ASAP, I won't be ready for the sound mix date. If I push back the sound mix, there won't be enough time for the negative cutter to confirm the negatives and for the lab to do the answer print in time for the festival. And so on and so forth.
December 12: We started mixing the sound at the Music Annex in San Francisco. Like clockwork, all of the sound reels that we had so lovingly and so carefully built between 10 p.m. and 4am the night before went out of synch. Luckily, sound mixer Will Harvey was understanding. "Documentaries always need a little massaging," he said. Not to mention documentary directors and editors, I thought. Mark and I at this point both have advanced cases of editing shoulders.
January 3, 1995: I met my cinematographer, Federico Salsano, in Los Angeles to begin the answer-print process at Fotokem. When we met with the timer, we were told that it could take up to three weeks to have a satisfactory print, which means that we are cutting it pretty close with the first screening scheduled on January 21. Meanwhile, Saundra Saperstein, the director of publicity for Sundance, phoned to invite me to Salt Lake City a week before the festival to do an interview with KUTY, a local TV station and media sponsor. I said, "Of course I can," hoping that I will in fact be able to give a coherent interview in the midst of everything else that is going on.
January 10: Sandwiched between the screenings of the first and second answer prints, I flew to Salt Lake City for the interview and returned to Los Angeles the same evening. It was great to leave the post-production stress behind and focus on the film itself and the issues surrounding it. Sometimes you get so bogged down in technicalities that you lose sight of why you go through all of this in the first place. The next day Federico and I return to Fotokem to check out the second print. It still needs corrections, so we have to make a third print.
I was hoping to have the print done a few days before the festival, so I could have some time to focus on getting ready for Sundance, but it looks like that is not happening . Nevertheless, at this point we are excited about being so close to having the film done and having its first screening.
January 19: I arrived in Park City, where I met my co-producer, Fatima Cortez, at the very funky and very cheap Best Western Hotel (where every night we will pack four to nine friends and other people affiliated with the film into one double occupancy room). We were supposed to discuss distribution for No Loans, as we had not yet had an opportunity to evaluate some of our offers. But by the time we get settled, it is time for a prearranged interview with a journalist from Swedish television. And by the time we check in at the registration venue, the Kimball Art Center—where I naturally take the opportunity to put up some posters and stuff the journalists' mailboxes with propaganda for my film—we have to leave for the opening night screening of Before Sunrise in Salt Lake City.
Robert Redford introduced the screening of Before Sunrise, which I found very moving. After working in isolation for so long, it is incredibly gratifying to feel part of a larger community.
January 20: I got up early because I wanted to make a 10 a.m. screening of Deborah Hoffmann's Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter. So far the film festival schedule—with so much going on day and night—is starting to resemble the post-production schedule; I am going to bed way after midnight and getting up way before 8 a.m. In The afternoon I saw the Brian Wilson documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times. This, it will turn out, is the only time I will manage to see two films in one day.
January 21: Naturally I slept a total of one hour the night before the first screening of my film—a very glamorous premiere at 9:30 a.m. I spent the night kicking myself for not going to see the midnight Billy Nayer film and live music show as I lay in my bed, sleepless. I woke up feeling like hell, but way too edgy to drink coffee. I Got to the Egyptian Theater at 9:29. The house was surprisingly full for the hour, which made the butterflies in my stomach turn into elephants. Program advisor Bob Hawk introduced me, I thanked everyone for coming, the lights went down, and the screening started. An hour later I was a lot happier, as the film went over really well. No Loans is a film that requires audience participation, since its structure is subtle; I was thrilled to see people get so actively involved in it. I had been warned that the question-and-answer sessions at Sundance would be superficial (sample questions: "What was your budget? " "Where did you go to film school?"), but I found the opposite to be true. In fact, I was moved by how sophisticated the questions were and how much effort people put into viewing and discussing the film. One down, three more to go.
January 23: The second screening was at 7 p.m. The theater at the Holiday Village Cinemas was packed, and there was this feeling of excitement (I am sick of the word buzz). I watched part of the film but found that it is too tortuous to sit there and try to figure out if people are liking it or not. I think it is practically impossible to tell (except if they laugh at the right places) until the end, if they clap right away, before the credits. Federico and I stood outside the theater in the freezing Park City air, smoking cigarettes and telling jokes to pass the time. We went back in before the ending. The audience applauded before the credits started, and I felt the joy and relief of two days ago even more strongly.
January 24: Today I moved from the funky Best Western, where my crew and friends were staying, to the Deer Valley Lodge, where Sundance was accommodating me and two other doc directors. I shared a totally luxurious condo with Michelle Parkerson (A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde) and Meg Partridge (Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life). We all talked about how jarring it will be to return to reality (which for me is a commercial space in one of San Francisco's less scenic neighborhoods) after Sundance and how we should have a party to make best use of our newfound luxury accommodations, which we unfortunately never do. Talking with them reminds me again that everyone with films in competition is going through the same ups and downs and anxiety about what they may have neglected to do.
January 26: I had the third screening. My sister arrived with a friend, and some of my other friends came from San Francisco, for which I was grateful. As the festival wears on, you definitely feel the need for more and more emotional support. This screening wasn't as full as the others. It was at 10p.m., there were about six parties going on, and to top it all off it was snowing. Programmer Christian Gaines tried to console me: "It's not empty," he said, "it's intimate." Of course it was by no means empty, but give an overtired filmmaker an excuse to fret, and believe me, he or she will take it. But the screening went well. The Q and A was good—and surprisingly animated, too, considering how late it was. Afterward, a board member from the Pioneer Fund, who was one of the first to support No Loans, introduced himself and congratulated me, which was very satisfying, especially as that was the only grant for which I had to face the board members and convince them to fund my film.
After the screening, we went to a couple of parties that were so packed it was impossible to stay in one place for too long. After the intensity of showing your film, this is just not the way to unwind. From now on, I'll try the local bar.
January 29: The final screening was on, appropriately enough, the last day of the festival, at 10 a.m. The film print is starting to look pretty scratched, which makes me sad since I know I can't afford another print. The Q and A was perhaps the best one, primarily because it had the highest attendance of African American people in the audience, and the response was really emotional. During the Q and A, an African-American man asked me what I hoped to accomplish with the film. I replied that I wanted to portray the community of South Central in a human way that would show outsiders what it was like to survive there. He told me that I did a good job. An actress from Nick Gomez's film New Jersey Drive hugged me after the screening. These experiences were the best part of the festival because the challenge in making No Loans was how to make it so that it was not only about a community but for it as well.
In any situation where you are presenting your work, the emotional highs and lows are intense. I think because Sundance is my first public venue, these highs and lows are amplified. You can be walking down the street in the worst mood for some stupid reason, and then out of the blue, someone stops you and tells you how much they liked your film and what it meant to them. And then nothing else matters.
Lisanne Skyler No Loans Today is being distributed domestically by First Run/Icarus and abroad by C.S. Associates. She is currently developing a documentary on gambling.