“Communication Is Where a Film Lives and Dies”: Director Zoe Lister-Jones

Communication is where a film lives and dies. It is essential for efficacy, for performance, and ultimately for translating a director’s vision to the screen.

To me communication is less about the art of talking than it is about the art of listening. I hired an all-female crew on Band Aid, which was deliberate on many fronts, one of which was rooted in this very issue. At the risk of over simplifying, women, by and large, are excellent communicators. Which is to say, they excel at the art of listening.

On our first day of production, I gave a brief state of the union (which was inevitably followed by a brief dance party, a must on day one…) in which I spoke about, among other things, the impact of words.

“The Challenge Is Balancing Tone”: Director Mark Pellington

The communication challenge in executing The Last Word was thematic. With issues of aging or mortality, the challenge is balancing tone. That is achieved by communicating to everyone (cast, crew and, in turn, the audience) the specific tone.

We tried keeping the story human and offbeat, making it emotionally inclusive, and earning the emotional payoff via narrative investment in character. Thus you are letting the audience grow to love the people in these relationships.

When these moments are earned, you can then deal with weightier themes.

“A Huge Historical Project”: Editor Kim Miille on Tell Them We Are Rising

MacArthur Fellow Stanley Nelson has devoted his career to documentary explorations of the African American experience. The 65-year-old director/producer has made films on Marcus Garvey, the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. His most recent film is Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, which premiered this week at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Nelson hired editor Kim Miille to cut the film. Below, Miille shares her thoughts on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), making archival photos and letters cinematic and her origins as an editor.

Profound Communication Only Happens When There Is Persistence

I often ask myself, how does each of us weave our own responsibilities into the pattern of history? How can I tell stories about human rights and the quest for justice yet engage people who are uninterested or apathetic? And the answer has always brought me back to this idea of the persistence of vision. Just as in cinema, believing that we will create a new art, and with it the possibility of transformation comes from this concept of 24 frames per second that from static images (things the way they are) comes movement (change).

Profound communication only happens when there is persistence — staying committed to people and places where we once made films. In my case, 500 YEARS is the third film in the Guatemalan trilogy, which began in 1982 with When the Mountains Tremble and continued in 2011 with Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. 500 YEARS (2017) takes up the story where Granito left off.

“We Are Living through a Divisive Time”: Director Barbara Kopple

Obviously we are living through a very divisive time, and transgender issues are among the most controversial of what people call “the culture wars.” That was something I was aware of while making this movie, and its something we are aware of as we release it. That said, every film I make involves going as deeply as I can inside the lives.

During its development, production or eventual distribution, what specific challenge of communication did, or will your film, face?

The late, great advocate for documentary, Roger Ebert, once said that films serve as empathy machines. “We all are born with a certain package,” he said, as captured in the wonderful Steve James documentary. “We are who we are: Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person.

The so-called “red states”

There are a lot of people in the middle of the country, the rural areas, the so-called “red states” who may have never met a transgender person in real life. Even in the cities, many of us may fall into the same category. To many, their entire knowledge of the trans experience is through what they have seen in media.

Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes

However, I knew that if I was true to the spirit and person of Gigi, viewers would come to empathize and understand in a way they might never otherwise, because as Ebert said, movies do that. Communication is also really at the center of This Is Everything.

How Gigi communicates to her family, especially her father, that she was born a woman. She became famous on YouTube.

She communicated so openly and connected with millions in the process, inviting them into her journey to become a woman. She proved to be a great communicator to her own audience, and through her we had a roadmap as to how to communicate her story to our audience. Once you can understand a person’s background.

I Stopped Talking and Started Making the True Great Film

The first time I mentioned I was making a film about Winnie Mandela, it happened to be to a novelist, in a bar in Amsterdam. He screwed up his face and said: “What? That murderer!” His response was echoed on numerous occasions around the world. Nelson Mandela was still perceived as a saint and his wife as the fallen woman, or worse.

At the time, we were having trouble finding backers for the film, and faced a great deal of skepticism at documentary film festivals

The late, great advocate for documentary, Roger Ebert, once said that films serve as empathy machines. “We all are born with a certain package,” he said, as captured in the wonderful Steve James documentary. “We are who we are: Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person.

The so-called “red states”

There are a lot of people in the middle of the country, the rural areas, the so-called “red states” who may have never met a transgender person in real life. Even in the cities, many of us may fall into the same category. To many, their entire knowledge of the trans experience is through what they have seen in media.

Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes

However, I knew that if I was true to the spirit and person of Gigi, viewers would come to empathize and understand in a way they might never otherwise, because as Ebert said, movies do that. Communication is also really at the center of This Is Everything.

How Gigi communicates to her family, especially her father, that she was born a woman. She became famous on YouTube.

She communicated so openly and connected with millions in the process, inviting them into her journey to become a woman. She proved to be a great communicator to her own audience, and through her we had a roadmap as to how to communicate her story to our audience. Once you can understand a person’s background.

“We Don’t Use Words to Tell a Story”: Directors Lily Baldwin

We don’t use words to tell a story. We use bodies, gestures, dance, color, music and sound as tools. Inherently with this, there is room for interpretation about what the work IS ABOUT. This is the beauty and of course the challenge around non-traditional narratives. Meaning its fluid. VR is perfect for this. In Through You we worked hard to anchor the viewer in a couple key elements: The passage of time and by placing them inside the experience as a memory. We solved this through rigorous trial and error. – Lily Baldwin

“Communicating with Respect and Openness”: Director José María Cabral

Communication was the key for writing, shooting and making the movie, particularly this one. Woodpeckers explores communication and language in a very specific level. First of all the writing process was about making contact and understanding the prisoners, getting to create relationships, not only for the script but also because I wanted them as actors too. It was also kind of a social experiment, where I was exposed to very dangerous situations and prisoners, were the only way to stand out and be safe was communicating with respect and openness. But the core of the story was the sign language, called woodpecking, this is the medium which the prisoners use to communicate between one cell and the other. As filmmakers we wanted to use it in the movie as real and accurate as it is in real life, also learning how to use it and discovering that the essential drive between us humans is communicating, expressing, and showing ourselves no matter what, where and how.

I Want the Viewer to Feel Totally Immersed in My World

For me God’s Own Country is an investigation into authenticity of emotion and landscape. Having grown up on the same hillside where the film is set, it was critically important to me to communicate what this very specific landscape not only looks like but how it feels, sounds, tastes, smells. The wind, the cold, the rain that gets into your bones when you work outside all day. The daily struggle with the animals that leave very little time or energy to investigate emotion or relationships. I want the viewer to feel totally immersed in my world. I worked painstakingly hard on making sure this world was totally authentic – all the props had to come from the location farm, the costumes had to be bought in the local town, the actors had to work on the farm and “live” the life of the characters in extensive rehearsals.

Cate Outstripped Us All with Her Immeasurable Enthusiasm

Manifesto was originally planned as a 13-screen installation for the art context. And so it is touring museums and art festivals now. But I also got some funding from a German TV channel and I needed to consider how to bring that multi-screen-concept later into a linear version. Given the fact that we only had 11 days to shoot with Cate, the entire project, running in my mind parallel on two different tracks, turned out to be a tour de force for everybody involved. Certainly Cate outstripped us all with her immeasurable enthusiasm and commitment. How do you make dozens of highly complicated texts by furious young artists into performable material for a film?