Spotlight: MPI Filmmaker Toby Fell-Holden

Part 3 in our Filmmaker "Spotlight" Series

The Moving Picture Institute has supported hundreds of filmmakers via fellowships, internships, masterclasses, and productions since our founding in 2005. This year, we are beginning an interview series that checks in with our filmmakers

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Our “Spotlight” series continues with long-time Moving Picture Institute-supported filmmaker Toby Fell-Holden, a British writer-director based between New York and London. His short film Balcony won a Crystal Bear award at the 2016 Berlinale, played at over 100 film festivals, and won over 30 awards. Toby is currently developing his first feature film, Incident, with Western Edge Pictures.

Lana Link (MPI): Toby, thank you for answering our questions today! You’ve been writing and directing for years, with incredible success. Do you think of yourself as a writer or director first?

TF-H: A writer first. It’s free to write so it’s much easier to get in the hours! I love directing, but it tends to be a much smaller part of the process when you’re also writing the scripts. 

MPI: You attended Columbia’s MFA program—do you recommend that filmmakers who are starting out go to film school or get an MFA?

TF-H: I found the MFA incredibly useful to learn the craft of filmmaking, but some people are able to thrive without the structure and deadlines that school provides. For me it was important to have a community—a network of people who champion your work and give you feedback.

MPI: The Moving Picture Institute’s "Calling Card" screenwriting workshop will begin soon. You’ve written several critically acclaimed shorts. How can calling cards help further writers’ and directors’ careers? Is there an advantage to making those instead of diving right into features?

TF-H: The last short I made opened a lot of doors to the industry so it was definitely useful. But it required making many shorts and a lot of exercises during film school to get something to a level that gained attention. I wouldn’t know how to dive into making a feature without first getting to grips with the process through some shorts.

I wouldn’t know how to dive into making a feature without first getting to grips with the process through some shorts.

It’d be pretty tough to make a feature people would want to watch without having cut your teeth elsewhere. But if you can make a feature for next to nothing then great, why not!

MPI: Your short Balcony was an international success, screening at dozens of festivals and winning 25 awards, including a coveted Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Can you talk about your festival submission strategy and process? How did you decide where you submit?

TF-H: We had this long spreadsheet that I had used for prior short film submissions. A good starting place is to go through the festival qualifying lists that the Academy Awards and BAFTA provide. These cover many of the more established festivals around the world. The other thing to watch out for is the premiere status of some festivals. Very few require a world premiere, but many established festivals require a national premiere, so it’s good to apply to those first.

MPI: Along those lines, what advice would you give to other filmmakers who want to know how to write a calling card short film that stands out from the crowd?

TF-H: I think they would first want to focus on what they’re trying to say with their stories. What are they passionate and eager to communicate in a way that’s unique to them? Films are hard to make so you need to really believe in what you’re doing to see it through and your enthusiasm is infectious in attracting the cast and crew.

Films are hard to make so you need to really believe in what you’re doing to see it through and your enthusiasm is infectious in attracting the cast and crew.

That said, with shorts many of the ones that do well will tend to throw you into a specific moment with high stakes or will have a powerful punchline/twist. You have almost no time to set up a story so it’s good to keep it moving and let the audience play catch-up.

MPI: Similarly, what advice would you give to other filmmakers who are beginning their film festival submission process?

TF-H: Be realistic with your expectations. If it’s the first attempt at a short, it’s better to aim for more local and niche-interest festivals rather than spend $2,000 on festival fees for the biggest ones and expect to go to Cannes. The goal is to get the film seen and to meet other filmmakers. As you make a few shorts you start to develop a sense of where it might play and you build relationships with programmers who will give you waivers and invite you to submit. At the start, I found that going for the big short film festivals like Palm Springs and Clermont was a good starting place. 

MPI: What should filmmakers know about getting distribution for their shorts?

TF-H: It’s hard to get distribution on TV, but online platforms are creating more new opportunities. If you have a good festival run, distributors will tend to find you. Winning awards will often attract interest. There’s also a lot to be said for approaching places like Vimeo and Short of the Week, which can often get you more exposure than you’ll ever find at festivals!

MPI: Could you talk about your writing process? Do you follow popular structural recommendations or books that you’ve found helpful? Particularly as you move into features?  

TF-H: The biggest part is just to write, every day. That’s the hardest challenge. Books-wise, Aristotle’s Poetics lays out the key elements of plot and character really succinctly. On Filmmaking by Alexander Mackendrick and On Directing Film by Mamet are also great for story. Listening to Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) talk about writing is always an education. He gave a masterclass at Columbia that changed the way I thought about structure and endings—I can’t get it out off my head when I write! There’s a great intro to first acts by Arndt and Pixar on YouTube. 

MPI: Is there anything you learned on your filmmaking and writing journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project?

TF-H: I found it useful to keep a journal that I would make a note in whenever I saw a film, art, or read something that I had a strong reaction to—over time you start to see what things matter to you and it clarifies what you want to explore in your own stories.

MPI: How have your Moving Picture Institute fellowships and participation in MPI programs like screenwriting workshops helped develop your career? 

TF-H: My Moving Picture Institute fellowships were a great extension of support beyond film school to develop scripts with talented filmmakers who all have unique perspectives. The last short, Balcony, went through one of the script development labs and the discussion helped me gain a clear sense of when things were really working.

MPI: As you know, the Moving Picture Institute’s mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas, as you did in Balcony or MPI-supported Little Shadow?

TF-H: I try to focus on the characters and their problems, then link that into the wider story world. Whenever I attempt to impose an idea or perspective onto the characters first, it usually goes wrong! Really wrong! It becomes preachy, mechanical, and lacks authenticity. If you can come up with an interesting character and get them talking to you, then it’s much easier to drop them in a situation that might dovetail into current events or tensions.

If you can come up with an interesting character and get them talking to you, then it’s much easier to drop them in a situation that might dovetail into current events or tensions.

MPI: For fun, share a film (or script) that you love that everyone else seems to hate. (Or a film you hate that everyone else loves).

TF-H: Labyrinth! But nobody hates that one, right??

MPI: Any final advice for our filmmakers and screenwriters?

TF-H: WRITE EVERY DAY!

 
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More about Toby Fell-Holden:

Toby Fell-Holden is a British writer-director based between New York and London. He holds an MFA in Film from Columbia University and a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. His short film Balcony won a Crystal Bear award at the 2016 Berlinale, won the Iris Prize, and Best International Short Film at the Flickerfest, Calgary, and Urbanworld film festivals, along with a nomination for Best British Short Film at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA). It has played at over 100 film festivals and won over 30 awards. His short film Little Shadow was long-listed for an award by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and nominated by the Casting Society of America for an Artios award. Toby is a Screen International Star of Tomorrow for 2016. He is a 2016 recipient of a John Brabourne Award and has been awarded fellowships from the Moving Picture Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Toby is currently developing his first feature film, Incident, with Western Edge Pictures.