Sundance Institute Labs are a boon for filmmakers |

Sundance Institute Labs are a boon for filmmakers

Freeland and Lowery shared their experiences

One of the services the Sundance Institute offers up and coming filmmakers are labs that are held internationally and across the United States.

Each year the nonprofit’s labs supports more than 200 independent artists working in film, theater, new media, TV and online.

Sundance Institute President and Founder Robert Redford talked about the origins of the labs during the Sundance Film Festival’s opening-day press conference on Thursday.

He was joined by filmmakers Sydney Freeland and David Lowery, both lab veterans, who shared some of their experiences.

Emmy Award-winning Freeland, known for her film “Drunktown’s Finest,” the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award, participated in the 2009 Native American Filmmaker lab as well as the 2010 Screenwriters and Directors lab.

She said the labs helped her become more confident in herself after shedding a few tears.

“I remember crying,” Freeland said with a laugh. “I was told beforehand to find my place to cry and I said, ‘I’m not going to cry.’ But I did, twice.

“What’s important about the labs is that they target filmmaker’s comfort zones and try to push them out of that,” she said. “That completely shifted my approach.”

Freeland, who’s new film “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” is one of the films selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival NEXT category, was able to set aside her rigid method of storyboarding to working more fluidly with her actors.

Redford remembered working with her.

“Sydney filled a slot and was able to tell a story about that part of the world that had a lot to do with Native American issues,” Redford said. “As I worked with her, I realized this is why we’re here. Whatever we can do to help her tell that story the way she wants to tell it would be a success for us.”

Freeland, who grew up on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, said filmmaking didn’t exist in her home.

“The fact Bob created a program for Native American and indigenous filmmakers is the reason why I’m here,” she said referring to Redford. “I’m very grateful for that.”

Lowery, who participated as a fellow in the 2011 Screenwriting lab for his script for the award-winning film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” talked about the relationship between new and seasoned filmmakers.

One feature of the labs is that the fellows are advised by veteran filmmakers. Once the fellows become veteran filmmakers themselves, they return to the labs as advisors.
Quentin Tarantino, Thomas Anderson and Ira Sachs were all fellows who became advisors.

“It’s a really wonderful relationship because there is a lot of give and take,” said Lowery, who is known for his remake of “Pete’s Dragon” earlier this year. “It’s a wonderful, symbiotic relationship [and] I would guess that the advisors find it as engaging and helpful to them as it is to us.”

Lowery, whose latest film, “A Ghost Story” is also in the NEXT category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, said he was a bit intimidated when he first entered the lab.

“I felt overwhelmed because I was sitting down with all of these professional screenwriters, whom I admired and who influenced me as a burgeoning filmmaker,” he said. “What happens is you go in and spend two hours with them as they talk about your script.

“Their perspectives seeps into those conversations,” Lowery said. “So over a course of a week, you have all of these different perspectives.”

During the lab, Lowery had an epiphany.

“One of the moments of clarity I had was realizing that these perspectives come together cumulatively to help me figure out what I want to do,” he said. “Everyone is shining lights on different aspects of the script and the important thing is for me to find my own point of view and learn how to maintain it.”

The Sundance Institute Labs started nearly five years before the film festival was established in 1985, Redford said.

“Back then, there was only mainstream film and it seemed to me that there were a lot of stories that weren’t being told and there were filmmakers who were not being seen,” he said. “They were out there. I could sense that, and I thought maybe we could broaden the industry by adding independent film and creating a space for new artists so they could come and develop their stories and at least get their films made.”

Redford wanted to build the labs from the ground up, but needed help.

“I needed to get some kind of imprimatur, so I went to the National Endowment for the Arts,” he said.

Redford started the labs with a $25,000 grant.

“The reason why we put the lab at Sundance, which is about 40 miles from here, is because I couldn’t afford to put it in an urban environment — New York or L.A.,” he said. “I decided to put it in a property I had in the mountains and thought maybe something interesting would happen when you put art and nature together.”

The goal was to approach the labs as filmmaking boot camps.

“As filmmakers would come through it, we would push them to tell their stories,” Redford said. “We knew many would crash and burn and some would leave. I just hoped not all would leave.”

The model worked.

“We succeeded in creating a space for people to tell these stories, but they had no where to go because the mainstream controlled the exhibition space,” Redford said. “So, I thought we could have a filmmaker gathering where they could all come and share their stories.”
Redford couldn’t host the gathering at Sundance because it didn’t have a theater at the time.

“The closest theater in 1985 was the Egyptian Theatre in Park City,” he said.

And that’s how the Sundance Film Festival was born.

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival will run through Sunday, Jan. 29 at various venues in Park City, Salt Lake City and the Sundance Resort. The festival will also feature workshops, panel discussions and music performances. For information and tickets, visit

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