Discovery and Development: A Case for Second Films
I’ve been thinking a lot about second films lately. Many people don’t. In film culture, the first feature is the true object of obsession. Tons of cinematic institutions are expressly geared toward first-time filmmakers—certain festivals, certain grants, certain labs and workshops. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Institutions love the idea of discovery. They want to mine the unknown for new forms and new voices. They hope to give that extra nudge to artistic fledglings. Nothing wrong with any of that. Beyond this, there is the romanticism of the fully formed neophyte genius—the filmmaker whose debut marks them out as a precocious talent, “one to watch.”
There are myriad examples of this, especially from the U. S. in the 1990s. Among several others, there are the Andersons (Wes and P. T.), Sofia Coppola, James Gray, Spike Jonze, and Darren Aronofsky. All of these directors had high profile first films and were 25–30 when those films were released. In many ways, their examples are what these discovery-focused institutions still hope to replicate.
These directors also have something else in common. To my eyes and ears, their second films (Rushmore, Boogie Nights, Lost in Translation, The Yards, Adaptation., and Requiem for a Dream) are more ambitious, complex, and interesting than their celebrated debuts. Unlike these star filmmakers, many promising directors never make it past their first feature and never get the chance to elaborate, deepen, and expand their visions.
Part of the reason for this seems to be that important support systems fall away after the first film. There is a built-in sink or swim ethos. If your first film doesn’t go anywhere, well, tough luck. Sure, some hacks are weeded out by this process—a few of the soulless, calling card-making careerists angling to be hired guns on sequels and mediocrities. However, many artistic babies are thrown out with the proverbial bathwater. I almost was.
I wrote my first film, Frames (2012), when I was 21 and directed it when I was 23. Almost six years later, it seems an obviously immature work. It barely played anywhere. Its relative failure was deeply demoralizing. Right about the time I had finished licking my wounds, I got lucky. Kentucker Audley’s NoBudge.com provided Frames a platform and gave me the encouragement I needed to carry on.
Sabbatical (2014) is the result of that renewed ambition and confidence. It’s a much better film. Almost three years out from its premiere, I still feel very proud of it. Compared to Frames, it is way closer to what I wanted and way closer to feeling like something distinctly rooted in my personality and experiences. I had to do a lot of learning and growing between my first film and my second. I doubt there will ever be as much of leap forward in my career. I’m sure it’s the same for many filmmakers.
The lessons learned from your first feature are fundamental. In my case, my first feature allowed me to exorcise some of my influences a bit, get certain ideas out of my system. Frames is an amalgamation of references and established ideas held together by threads of actual invention. On the other hand, Sabbatical comes from inside me. It is intimate in a way Frames never could be. Furthermore, my technical command improved dramatically, my scripting and planning became more precise, my facility with actors solidified, and my experimentation was emboldened.
I still like many things about Frames, but it seems more and more like a document of my creative self as a wobbly toddler. The second film—that’s where things really started, when I really began to find something personal. My third film, A Dim Valley, which I’ve nearly finished writing, feels of a piece with Sabbatical despite several substantive departures. It is very distant from Frames, but I had to go through Frames to arrive at A Dim Valley. These things take time.
To be concise, the period between a director’s first and second film is both highly precarious and developmentally crucial. For me, this interlude was transformative. I’ve heard it said that making your first film is easy—the tough part is to keep going. (A quibble: I would replace “easy” with “easier.”) There should be attitudes and infrastructures to help people keep going. Many artists cannot simply be excavated; they must be nurtured and cultivated. I wish more financiers, programmers, distributors, and critics calibrated their institutions to this reality—for the sake of second films.