PRODUCTION JOURNAL: A Short Film Director's Journey to Sundance 2015

The 414sMichael T. Vollman | 2015 | USA | Format: various/unknown  | 12 min 

When I was young I wanted to be a hacker (I also wanted to skateboard). My friends and I toyed around with hacking on our Commodore 64 and our school's old Apple Macintoshes but needless to say we didn't become very good at it. (Or skateboarding). Now comes along the story of some kids who did become very good at hacking. So good that the FBI had to chase them down and Congress had to pass legislation to address hacking.

Michael T. Vollman is the director of this short story about these hackers called The 414s: The Original Teen Hackers. I would watch it based on the subject of hacking alone but, as a producer, I'm curious to know about his journey to Sundance. Fortunately for us, he wrote a diary of his trip to Sundance, highlighting his experiences there and sharing what it's like to sell your film.

Since I believe that the more we know about how things are done behind the scenes in real life, the better your career can be, I have shared Vollman's diary in full below.
Left to Right: Director Michael T. Vollmann, Sundance Short Film Programmer Mike Plante, and Producer Chris James Thompson.
(Photo: Smarthouse Creative)

Bringing a Short to Sundance: A Diary from the Director of The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers by Michael T. Vollman

My name is Michael T. Vollmann; I am the director of the Sundance short The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers and this is my first trip to Sundance — I have absolutely no idea what to expect! I hear there are mountains involved, mega enormous celebrity sightings and maybe even a grab bag. My filmmaking partner Chris James Thompson (producer on The 414s) has been to Sundance once before, working on a film called The Pool — a 2007 Sundance award winner directed by Chris Smith and edited by Barry Poltermann. Chris and Barry have been important mentors for us, so following in their footsteps with a film at Sundance is exciting. We’re flying out of Milwaukee this morning, en route to Park City for our premiere; our 12-minute doc is playing before the feature doc Chuck Norris Vs. Communism, which we’re very stoked to see.
My hometown fest, The Milwaukee Film Festival, has been exploding in recent years (2014 attendance of 60,000+), but beyond that the only other large festival that I’ve been a part of up to this point in my career is SXSW-2012, when I worked as d.p. on The Jeffery Dahmer Files, our last feature. After SXSW Chris and I were energized by the exposure, determined to get multiple projects off and running as soon as possible. We brainstormed new ideas constantly, sending news clippings back and forth, sharing ideas over too many drinks, and just dreaming in general.
Chris began researching and shooting preliminary interviews for a film about a JAG attorney at Guantanamo Bay, but I was still looking for a fresh idea. One night, up late while painting my daughters nursery (who was still kicking in her mother’s womb), I was listening to the podcast On The Media and I heard a story about computer hacking. They explained that one of the first publicized cases of computer hacking happened in 1983 and involved a group of teenager from Milwaukee who called themselves The 414s. Computer hackers? 1983? Milwaukee?! I had found my film.
We began shooting the film as a documentary, and the interviews were great, but after a year we were running out of money. We were leery about putting another entire feature entirely on credit cards, and were running into brick walls when it came to financing or grants. The 414s film came to a bit of a standstill, as we took six months to shoot a 30-for-30 short for ESPN calledMECCA: The Floor That Made Milwaukee Famous.
For months we discussed trying to expand The 414s into a lengthier topical hacking doc to increase the funding possibilities, but with new films like The Internet’s Own Boy and others premiering around us we were hesitant. Other filmmakers around us were pushing us to submit The 414s to Sundance as a short, which at the time seemed ridiculous because Sundance acceptance was a pipe-dream. A few months later we got a call out of the blue — Mike Plante from Sundance inviting us to premiere our short. A pipe-dream come true.
And here we are. Smashed on an airplane between crying babies and Mormons, high above Omaha on our way to Park City. Not sure what to expect, but I’m sure we’ll learn a lot! 
Originally published Jan. 23, 2015 by Filmmaker.
“We Sold Our Film!” The Director of The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers Blogs from Sundance by Michael T. Vollman
My filmmaking partner, Chris James Thompson and I are more than halfway through our time here at Sundance and it’s been pretty incredible. So far we’ve had two screenings of our short doc The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers, and the audience response has been extremely positive. Some of the other highlights include spotting Kristen Wiig hanging out on Main Street, getting a bunch of legit full-sized posters printed courtesy of the pros at the HP center and taking the trek out to the Sundance Mountain Resort for the Directors brunch, where Robert Redford was in attendance. But nothing can trump the single-most exciting event of our trip: we sold our film!
About a week or two before Sundance began we were still finishing our film: working on visual effects with John Roberts, collaborating with Joe Wong and Didier Leplae on the original score and finalizing color with Rob Due from Independent Edit in Milwaukee. It was during this time that we began to get a few emails and phone calls from interested parties who had seen an initial screener version of our film and wanted to talk. One of the interested parties was CNN Films; Vinnie Malhotra and Courtney Sexton reached out for a phone meeting and we were curious how the conversation would go. We were definitely excited, but didn’t allow ourselves to get over-hyped. We thought they were probably reaching out to all the short filmmakers to glean information on production strategies and budgets and maybe talk about future work. We had no idea.
We had little to no expectation of selling the film as a short; we thought the marketplace at Sundance pertained specifically to features. We were content knowing the exposure would be good for our careers, we’d get to party with awesome filmmakers, and maybe we could draw up some interest to expand the project into a feature narrative, or an episodic TV or web series focusing on eight similar short stories.
In the past shorts didn’t have proper distribution channels and were rarely bought, but according to Sundance Shorts Programmer Mike Plante the opportunities for shorts are growing. We happened to make the right film at the right time – CNN was planning to roll out a new online platform for short non-fiction films to compliment the amazing features they’ve been releasing over the past couple years (Black FishGod Loves Uganda).
Sales agents don’t seem eager to represent short films because the deals are not large, so we worked out a deal ourselves. It was an exhilarating and stressful experience! Soon after, on the morning that we knew the press release would come out to announce the acquisition, Chris and I were standing in the Sundance Headquarters obsessively searching “414s CNN” on Google news. All of a sudden articles started popping up; we could finally share the exciting news with our friends and family. We each quietly read the entire release on our own phones then turned and gave each other one satisfyingly dorky filmmaker high-five. Very surreal.
The festival is now moving into the middle of the week, and Mike Plante’s legendary short film awards bowling party will wrap up our fest. We hope to catch a few more features during our last couple days here in Park City before flying home to Milwaukee. I’m sad it’s coming to an end, but I’m also extremely excited to hug my family.
Originally published on Jan. 28, 2015 by Filmmaker
“That’s a Wrap!” The 414s Director with a Sundance Post-Mortem by Michael T. Vollman
Well, that’s a wrap! The Sundance Film Festival came to a close this weekend, and my filmmaking partner, Chris James Thompson and I are already back with our families in Milwaukee. We attended three of the five scheduled screenings for our film,The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers. The week was sometimes intense, sometimes boring and often enlightening.
By our second day it became clear why people love the Sundance Film Festival; the film screening portion of the fest is pure cinema. The hot and sweaty pop-up theaters are always full as volunteers pack in human bodies like Tetris pieces, and the audience members are true cinephiles who enjoy watching three to four to five films a day. Once the lights go down there is a striking absence of extraneous advertisings, trailers and hoopla before the films begin, and afterwards few members of the audience vacate, but instead sit intently asking and listening to dozens of thoughtfully proposed questions. Every screening is a truly informal and intimate affair, like eavesdropping on filmmakers talking amongst friends in their living rooms. Sometimes fights even break out!
Outside on Main Street things felt quite different – exclusiveness and wealth reign supreme. We felt it first hand; after our premiere we walked with a couple friends up and down the hill trying to find a celebratory cocktail, but were turned away from private party after private party. Our film credentials were of little use here where giant corporate sponsors and bouncers combine to form a bizarro mini-Hollywood. Amongst the glowing Christmas lights on the sloped darkened mountain it was obvious it was more about who you know, instead why you were there. I can see how a first-time filmmaker could feel defeated by the scene, but for us Sundance was less of a final destination and more like a stop on a long difficult road of making truly independent films.
If I had any ill feelings after our fiasco-ed attempt at partying, they were erased the following morning. I had been invited to spend the morning at the Sundance Mountain Resort where over 120 directors filled three coach buses and trekked almost an hour to the isolated compound for brunch. After mimosas and Bloody Mary’s, Robert Redford appeared at the podium and explained why it was necessary to have us travel the distance to this meeting spot. Here, he said, was where the true spirit of Sundance radiated from, where creativity, heart and nature take precedent over everything that was happening over on Main Street. He shared how the initial philosophy of Sundance was to create a safe place where filmmakers could express themselves, be bold, and take risks.
I took his words to heart as I stood amongst so many talented and accomplished peers. His words grounded me, and reminded me that the true beauty of cinema isn’t in the parties, or the brunches, or even the sold-out screenings. The beauty of cinema – personally – is in making it. It’s sharing talents amongst friends, building each other up, and growing together by challenging each other. It’s laughing together through late-night, exhausting color corrections and sound mixes, and overcoming our own perceived limitations while learning about the world, and how it turns. Chris and I will continue to make films because we love the process of making them, and if we ever happen to be invited back to Sundance to premiere another film, that will be icing on the already delicious cake.
We would like to thank Ilinca Calugareanu and Mara Adina for allowing our film to play before their lovely feature documentaryChuck Norris Vs. Communism; to share the screen with Irina Nistor’s story for even a moment was a real treat.
And to Matthew Broderick – if our agent Andrew Swant calls – let’s make The 414s feature!
Originally published on Feb. 5, 2015 by Filmmaker


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