When I started shooting "One Day In April" I told myself that I was only going to be happy if I made the movie I wanted to make. That's a really easy thing to say, and a very hard thing to hold yourself too. The less you factor what other folks think into your work, the more your work is (ideally!) going to push ahead in new and fresh directions, but at the same time you're more likely to alienate folks looking for something more traditional, something they already know they'll like.
As I was making the film I was living in a bit of a bubble. I shared the film with close friends and our core team, but for the most part we kept it under wraps until we had a working first draft. That meant we made all of our shooting, editing and scoring decisions without external influence. We didn't have financiers watching dailies and pushing us to think about the marketability of the film - so we really didn't think about those things. We focused on telling the story we wanted to tell and that meant including both the men's and women's teams and avoiding cliche sports tropes. Narratively our film gives equally time to the men's and women's field, avoids interviews and puts an emphasis on emotion and character sometimes at the expense of explanation and exposition.
All of that seemed obvious to us, but once we started screening the film it became immediately clear that the decisions we made weren't universally popular outside of Bloomington. At Cinequest a blogger was frustrated that we didn't focus enough on the male cyclists. At Heartland the soundtrack really bothered someone.
I knew we were going to get criticism, but if I'm being honest I never imagined someone would complain about the fact that we split time between the men and women's field. As an artist criticism is a key part of your growth. But, it's not gospel and in some cases it's proof you did what you set out to do. In my case I didn't read the article criticizing our decision to include the women's teams at the expense of diving deeper into the men's because I explicitly wanted to present the men and women as equals. If that's a flaw to someone then I'm happy to have them think my film was flawed.
I think there were real consequences to the decisions we made. The film doesn't have easy to define characters, it's not a happy go lucky nostalgia trip, and everyone in the film swears constantly. Those things hurt you when it comes to turning your film into a commercial product. The swearing was something we adamantly fought for. Someone described the characters in the film as speaking like "truck driving sailors" and that's generally how people in Indiana talk to one another. It's not malicious or even angry. It's authentic and to try and censor the language or remove it out of commercial consideration would be anathema to what we set out to do. I don't know if making the film in a different way would've resulted in us winning an Oscar, but if it meant compromising what we set out to do then I'm glad we did what we did.
I generally think that folks care too much about what other people think. Consensus isn't a great thing for an artist to seek. Art is supposed to be divisive and risky. Site's like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatos create the illusion that a film's quality can be quantitatively measured, but it can't be. A film's success or failure is entirely based on the experience a person has when they watch it. I've seen a lot of "great" films that didn't do anything for me and I've developed some deep, strong connections with films everyone hated (hello Batman V Superman!). It's entirely subjective and in this era of the billion dollar box office and big data it's easy to forget that. So as a filmmaker, especially working on a passion project at the indie level, you have to do you. The world doesn't need more safe, pre-digested harmless films. I think especially in the world we live in now, which is both more connected than it's ever been and yet seemingly more conflicted than ever, it's important for folks to be authentic and give their audience the chance to really see a part of the world they never would otherwise.
After finishing up a run of screenings in Indiana, I'm more committed to this ideal than ever. I met folks all around the state, many of whom had no connection to the race at all, who deeply connected to the film. I met riders who saw themselves in the film. I met women and girls who were excited to see female athletes as the heroes they are. I met folks who just enjoyed seeing Indiana on the big screen.
Life can be so cold and isolating, but when you go to the theater for two hours you can see yourself in something you've never encountered before. Or revisit a place or feeling you thought you'd long forgotten. People can feel authenticity in their bones and they react to it when it's on screen.
That's the power we have as filmmakers.