Between the lines at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab
June 29, 2010
In the shade of a sprawling pine tree, on the banks of a gurgling creek, a young man chats animatedly with a bearded fellow more than twice his age. Between them lies a thick stack of papers and a row of gnawed No. 2 pencils.
What looks like a scene from a movie may actually be the formative stages of a feature film.
It’s a typical day for the fellows and creative advisors participating in Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab, a five-day workshop that gives independent screenwriters the opportunity to work intensively on their feature film scripts with guidance from established writers.
The lab, which took place at Sundance Resort last week, is the second in a series of summer programs geared toward emerging directors, screenwriters, producers, editors and composers.
Many people assume that Sundance Institute’s year-round activities revolve around its most widely recognized program, the Sundance Film Festival. However, the festival is a single aspect of founder Robert Redford’s vision. It was developed in 1984 as a platform for the crux of the Institute’s mission: to find and foster the next generation of exciting new voices in film.
Filmmaker labs were developed to provide an environment for filmmakers that encourages innovation and creative risk-taking. The first lab was held at Sundance Resort in 1981 and incorporated all aspects of the filmmaking process.
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Since then, the program has expanded and evolved into a series of labs designed for specific roles in the filmmaking realm.
Michelle Satter, the director of Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program, has been involved with labs since the pilot year. She has seen the program evolve in terms of logistics; however, "The intent, mission and spirit of generosity haven’t changed," she said Wednesday during an interview at Sundance Resort.
Labs are a safe space for filmmakers to explore, push boundaries, and be challenged by themselves and by the advisors, she said. The focus is on the process, not the result. Taking risks, pushing boundaries and confronting one’s fears are highly encouraged.
Each lab brings in a group of fellows, or participants selected through an open application process, and a group of creative advisors esteemed in their respective fields. The fellows meet with different advisors throughout the duration of the labs and also attend various screenings, seminars and support activities related to their creative pursuits.
The programs that take place at Sundance Resort include the Feature Film Creative Producing Lab, which includes components for directors, screenwriters and producers, and the Documentary Film Creative Producing Lab, which includes components for directors, editors and producers.
Sundance Institute also operates theatre labs, offered this year in Massachusetts, New York and Kenya; composers labs as part of its Film Music Program; and a lab for Native American filmmakers, which took place in May in New Mexico.
About half of the projects developed through filmmaker labs actually end up making their way to the screen, Satter said. Notable films that were workshopped in Sundance labs include "Reservoir Dogs," "Boys Don’t Cry" and "Requiem for a Dream."
Between 10 and 15 projects from last year’s labs are in the process of getting made into movies, she said. Depending on timing, some will premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, although projects from labs are not automatically accepted into the festival or given preferential treatment in the selection process.
For filmmakers whose projects do continue on to later stages of production, the Institute strives to provide a "continuum of support." According to Ilyse McKimmie, associate director of the Feature Film Program, assisting filmmakers throughout the lifespan of their projects is a crucial component of the program.
The continuum of support, McKimmie said, involves encouraging contact with advisors beyond the labs, connecting filmmakers with the Institute’s vast network of industry professionals, providing letters of recommendation for funds, offering financial support through project-specific grants and artist fellowships, and setting up screenings of projects at various stages of production.
Recently, the Institute has begun looking at how to expand support for finished projects entering the marketplace, Satter said. The most recent additions to the Creative Producing Initiative – the feature and documentary producing labs and the Producing Summit – take into account current economic challenges for independent filmmakers and offer advice in terms of financing, distribution and marketing strategies.
A sanctuary for scriptwriters
The June screenwriters lab is one of two that take place at Sundance Resort. Its structure is the same as the January lab; the only difference, Satter said, is the weather and the winter lab’s proximity to the Sundance Film Festival, with which it coincides.
Screenwriters labs run for five days and allow 12 to 15 emerging fellows to enter an intensive, project-focused environment. The central element of the labs is intimate, one-on-one story sessions with creative advisors.
Satter estimated that the Institute received between 1,500 and 2,000 applications for the January screenwriters lab and speculated the June numbers are similar. The selection committee looks for the most innovative, unique and deeply personal stories, she said.
Last week’s lab featured 13 projects and 15 fellows from diverse backgrounds and several different countries. Of the screenwriters, eight had completed the feature film directors lab during the previous three weeks.
Participation in multiple labs is not unusual, Satter said. A third of participants in screenwriters labs go on to a second lab, although there’s no guarantee that participation in one lab will lead to acceptance for another.
The scripts that arrive at the Screenwriters Lab are definitely works in progress, McKimmie said. "We want them to be in a place where they are clearly connected to their story but have some issues to work out."
Getting chummy with the fellows
Sean Durkin, a New York-based filmmaker whose short film "Mary Last Seen" premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, started working on a script for his feature directorial debut, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," two and a half years ago.
He participated in the January screenwriters lab as well as the June directors lab before honing his project with advisors last week. The script he brought to the January lab is now much richer and more refined, he said.
"I have a lot of work to do, but I’m seeing clarity for the first time," he said. "It scares me to think about where it would be if I hadn’t come here."
Parts of the lab were challenging – daunting, even – he said, but he felt that he was emerging from the experience with a sense of confirmation and revitalization. "I’m clear on how I want to make the film, and that’s a really good feeling. I have a focus and a direction now."
Durkin also said he would be leaving the screenwriters lab with profound relationships with other fellows. "I’m so impressed by the talent and I’m really inspired by their work," he noted. "I’ve made some really good friends."
Steph Green, a filmmaker who splits her time between Los Angeles and Dublin, Ireland, said she had developed an affinity for her fellow screenwriters as well as all of the creative advisors she had worked with.
She said she planned to take advantage of the connections she was making with accomplished screenwriters. "It is a great privilege to feel that these people are accessible to me," she said. "I’d be foolish not to stay in touch."
Green came to the screenwriters lab without prior Sundance experiences, but with an arsenal of accolades for her short film "New Boy," which won awards at 25 film festivals internationally and was nominated for 2009 Academy Award.
Green likened a day at the lab to boot camp. "There’s no sugarcoating," she said, adding that she was working tirelessly on the script she co-wrote for her first feature film, "Run and Jump."
"I think this lab makes you asks the hardest questions of your project," she said. She expected to leave Sundance with more questions than answers, but acknowledged that they were the right questions.
When she begins the revision process back at home, Green said she knows it will be challenging to sift through the advisors’ advice and decide what fits with her personal vision for the film.
The next draft will probably be below par because it will attempt to incorporate everyone’s opinion, she said. However, the revision after that will likely be a balanced marriage of the good advice and the bad.
Green said her goal is to premiere "Run and Jump" at the Sundance Film Festival. She also hopes to participate in next summer’s feature film directors lab. "If I could, I would take every lab," she said. "This feels like the most important thing I’ve had the opportunity to do for my career."
The voices of rhythm and reason
The important thing for creative advisors to keep in mind, Satter said, is that projects should ultimately stay true to the filmmaker’s vision. Their role as a mentor is to observe, listen and give feedback.
The advisors at filmmaker labs are not assigned to specific projects and typically meet with one or two fellows each day. They are all accomplished in their respective fields and many return to help with labs year after year of their own accord.
Robert Redford frequently participates in the directors lab as an advisor and member of the creative team. The roster of creative advisors at the June screenwriters lab included celebrated authors, writers who have worked on various Hollywood blockbusters, and a handful of prestigious film award winners,
Douglas McGrath, an accomplished screenwriter and essayist, served as the lead advisor, or artistic director, of the lab. He has attended labs as an advisor half a dozen times and has taken on the role of artistic director once before.
McGrath said he has stayed in touch with fellows from past labs and has seen several projects he helped with make their way to the silver screen. Sometimes the filmmakers embrace his suggestions, and sometimes they don’t, he said.
The point is that the fellows are receptive to advice and take everything into consideration, he explained. "There really isn’t a right or wrong, there are just our opinions. We’re just trying to give people the best of our feedback," he said.
One thing that always strikes McGrath about the labs is the level of commitment by both fellows and advisors. "What’s so touching is how much people care," he said. "I always come with the greatest hope and leave with the greatest hope."
Howard Rodman, a screenwriter, novelist and educator, has fulfilled the role of creative advisor about 15 times. He said the thing that draws him to the labs is the purity of intentions and a palpable sense of community.
It’s a place to talk about screenwriting and film as it’s supposed to be – without discussions of things like opening night, 3D options and qualms about actors’ personal lives, he said.
His primary goal as an advisor, he explained, is to take the best of who he is as a writer and a person and use it to help the fellows make the best of what they are.
The best moment and also the most challenging moment of a lab is when he sits down with a lump in his throat, not knowing what to say to a particular fellow about his or her project. However, he often finds that those meetings are the most constructive and that even after their time is up, he has plenty more to talk about.
"I’m not here to give criticism, I’m here to make them ask good, tough questions about their work," he said.
Rodman has also stayed in contact with some of the fellows he meets at labs and often receives requests for guidance, updates about ongoing projects and invitations to screenings.
"One of the loveliest things that happens is when you walk into a movie theater and you see a project from the lab," he said. "There’s something deeply gratifying about that. I feel really happy for them."
It’s a typical day for the fellows and creative advisors participating in Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab, a five-day workshop that gives independent screenwriters the