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					                                                                                                         S U N D A N C E         F I L M       F E S T I V A L

by Jak Genie
                                  story                  influence was Frank Daniel, head of the film             All the film-makers I met from the Labs had

     ndependent film-makers have been                    school in Czechoslovakia, who brought his             some connection to the festival or had been
     responsible for some of the most innovative         expertise as an educator.' Their mission was to       recommended by a past fellow (the Institute's
     and iconoclastic cinema in recent years.            support new, artistic voices in film. 'We sought to   term for Lab participants). Michelle Satter was
     From Reservoir Dogs, Clerks and Memento to          find emerging artists who had real talent, to         keen to point out that they also undertake an
Boys Don't Cry and Me, You & Everyone We Know,           assist them at an early stage in their work and to    aggressive search for material and at least half
these breakthrough movies have one thing in              help them further develop their stories and craft     the scripts come from open submission. 'We're
common: Robert Redford's Sundance.                       as screenwriters.'                                    much more interested in discovery, in finding
   After Cannes, Sundance is one of the most                 This differed from the normal position of         scripts, the diamonds in the rough.' Writers
important film festivals in the world and perhaps        writers working with a production company.            should apply with a covering letter, résumé and
the number one for independents. Held every              'Firstly, we bring them to the Sundance Lab's         synopsis plus the first five pages of a screenplay
January in Park City, Utah, it's a cinephile's           resort, getting them out of their environments, in    before the deadline of 1 May.
paradise with over 120 dramatic and                      a remote place with no distractions. Secondly,           Of the thousands of scripts that flood in, only
documentary features and an extensive array of           this is about process, not result. We bring in        twelve are chosen for the Lab, which is held in
shorts from more than thirty countries, not to           writers, not executives, so there is the              January one week before the festival.
mention a host of panel discussions, industry            opportunity to work directly with a working           Writer/director So Kim was the first writer ever to
workshops, music events and parties.                                                                                      have one film in competition and
   It is a little-known fact that Sundance         'Sundance is about                                                     another in the Lab simultaneously.
began not with the festival but with the                                                                                     Kim's Lab advisors included
training Labs. This year marks the 25th            storytelling. Storytellers can                                         screenwriter John August (Go, Charlie
anniversary of the Sundance Institute,             broaden our minds: engage,                                             and the Chocolate Factory). 'The best
responsible for developing some of the                                                                                    advice I had was not to take the script
most successful independent films. In              provoke, inspire and,                                                  from the beginning but to go to the
June 1981, four years before the festival          ultimately, connect us.'                                               heart of the story and start from there,
began, Redford invited ten first-time film-                                                                               to take different elements and work
makers to develop their projects alongside         Robert Redford                                                         outwards. John recommended that I
a prestigious company of advisors                                                                                         break down the notes I received from
including Frank Daniel (founder of the                   screenwriter who both has the knowledge of            various advisors and read through my script again
USC screenwriting programme), producer                   what it's like to face the page every day and the     to see where they apply. Everyone gave me advice
Michael Hausman (Brokeback Mountain),                    generosity to support the next generation.'           but did not force me to use it. They left it to me.'
cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider),                 So how does a writer apply to the programme?          It is telling that they are termed advisors
director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) and screenwriter       Taika Waititi, who had just finished this year's      rather than teachers. Michelle Satter feels there
Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy). At his ranch in            Lab, described how he was accepted. 'I made a         are as many ways to write a script as there are
Provo Canyon, Utah, set within 3000 acres of             short film that was entered into Sundance 2004        stories. 'There is not a mandate from Sundance in
sheep-rearing territory, the Sundance Institute          and the shorts programmer told me that if I had       terms of how to write a screenplay, no specific
was born.                                                a feature script, I should submit it to the Labs,     pedagogy. The starting point is a story that we
   Michelle Satter, the Lab's founding director,         which I did.' Laurie Collyer had previously           feel hasn't been told before or which is told in a
explained the initial inspiration: 'In the early years   screened a documentary at Sundance: 'I came to        specific new way. Our job is to help each writer
we followed a model that had been used very              the festival with a screenplay in my pocket as        really embrace their vision and get to the most
successfully in theatre, particularly at the Eugene      they always say you should have and it was            compelling version of the story they want to tell.'
O'Neill centre that was headed by George White,          accepted.' The finished film Sherrybaby premiered        Hilary Brougher, whose film Stephanie Daley
who was on our original board. The other big             at Sundance 2006.                                     played at this year's festival, took her script to the

                                                                                                                                   May 2006                       59
S U N D A N C E            F I L M       F E S T I V A L

Lab back in 2001. 'Unlike the studios, the               reminds you of why you went into the business in                                               part of that. If I ever bump into any of the
independents don't have the development                  the first place.'                                                                              advisors or film-makers, we always catch up.'
process. Sundance fills that gap.'                          When the film-makers first arrive at the Lab,                                               Hilary Brougher said, 'It made me realise that I am
    Taika Waititi revealed: 'It is really five days of   Michelle Satter advises, 'This is a place where you                                            not on my own but am now part of a community
intense criticism of your script which is good for       will make a lot of mistakes and it is OK. The worst                                            of film-makers.'
you because you need to feel that pain. Some of          day that you have here will be your best day                                                       The Sundance Institute has had remarkable
it you agree with, some of it you don't. The             because that is the day that you will learn the                                                success not just in developing scripts but actually
advisors bombard you with feedback and it is up          most.' Advisor Aaron Matzkin (Invisible                                                        getting the films made. After the Director's Lab,
to you to decide how you want to use it. They            Mountains) adds: 'The first week is getting used                                               the film-makers face the business with an
recommend that you don't start rewriting                 to everyone, getting used to your crew and how                                                 International Producers Conference, featuring
straight away but give yourself a few weeks to           things work. As you get more comfortable and                                                   approximately thirty movers and shakers from
gather your thoughts.' On the final evening there        build up to more difficult scenes and you work                                                 the independent marketplace.
is even a script burning ritual to give the writers      with your actors and DPs, things get more                                                          For three days in August, film-makers meet
a sense of a fresh, new start.                           intense.'                                                                                      producers with a proven record of working with
    Once the script has been through the                    Laurie Collyer described the experience: 'Each                                              emerging artists. 'Sundance introduced me to my
Screenwriter's Labs, the film-makers can re-             week you rehearse for one day, shoot for two                                                   producer and set up meetings for me,' Hilary
apply for the Director's Labs. For three weeks           then cut for two. Your advisors are constantly                                                 Brougher explained. They also recommended
every June, film-makers rehearse, shoot                                                                                                                          Laurie Collyer to a producer: 'That makes
and edit 4-6 scenes from their                       Sundance is about process,                                                                                  a huge difference. As a Sundance fellow,
screenplays under a mentor's guidance,                                                                                                                           I can call people up and they will take my
with a cast of professional actors                   not result.                                                                                                 call, but to be recommended by someone
assembled by a casting director and                                                                                                                              from Sundance adds priority to your call.
small crews made up of experienced DPs and               with you and give you feedback at the end of the                                               There is a sense that once you have got into the
editors.                                                 week. You learn a lot about yourself and they can                                              Sundance Institute you have arrived.'
    What could be better for a young film-maker          be very harsh at times. I was criticised for being a                                               Croatian film-maker Goran Duckic understood
than having famous actors and directors stand by,        lazy film-maker because I was relying on                                                       the vital importance of these contacts. 'It has
helping set up the shots? Past advisors include          beautiful backdrops to hide my poor shot                                                       given me great credibility; people are always
Alan Pakula (All The President's Men), Terry             selections and I knew deep inside that they were                                               interested in your script if you have been to the
Gilliam (Brazil), John Schlesinger (Marathon             right. It was very intense, like a shot of tequila to                                          Sundance Lab.' His darkly comic Wristcutters - A
Man), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank                      the head.'                                                                                     Love Story was an audience favourite at the
Redemption), David Cronenberg (Videodrome),                 All the film-makers appreciated the supportive                                              festival. Sundance approval can help attach A-list
Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter) and Alexander              nature of the Institute. 'It makes you feel part of                                            talent: Montiel's film A Guide To Recognising Your
Payne (Sideways). 'All artists need a place to fall      a community as opposed to competing for the                                                    Saints (Best Director 2006) starred Robert
on their faces, really go out on a limb and not          same thing,' says Laurie Collyer. The feeling didn't                                           Downey Junior, Dianne Wiest and Chazz
worry about results,' says advisor Sigourney             go away at the end of the Lab. 'We're pretty much                                              Palminteri; Hilary Brougher's cast included Tilda
Weaver. 'For everyone it's incredibly inspiring and      the same family and you always feel like you are                                               Swinton, and Wristcutters featured Tom Waits as
                                                                                                                                                        an angel!
                                                                                                                                                            It doesn't stop there. The Institute's support
     Don’t worry about the number of takes!
                                                                                                                                                        continues beyond the Labs throughout the entire
                                                                                                                                                        film-making process. Hilary Brougher, who won
                                                                                                                                                        Best Screenplay, admitted, 'I don't know if I would
                                                                                                                                                        have been able to sustain work on the script
                                                                                                                                                        without Sundance. They didn't give up on me.
                                                                                                                                                        Just one five-minute-call from Michelle Satter
                                                                                                                                                        can keep you going: she is a great enabler.' The
                                                                                                                                                        advisors gave Goran Duckic feedback all the way
                                                                                                                                                        through the rough cuts of his film right up until
                                                                                                                                                        the night before its premiere at this year's festival.
                                                                                                                                                            Not content with revolutionising the
                                                                                                                                                        American independents, Sundance aims to
                                                                                                                                                        support new voices worldwide. In 1986, the
                                                                                                                 Me, You & Everyone We Know: FilmFour

                                                                                                                                                        Institute initiated the Latin American Exchange
                                                                                                                                                        Program to facilitate the creative work of Latin
                                                                                                                                                        American film-makers. In 1995, they expanded
                                                                                                                                                        the International Producers Conferences and held
                                                                                                                                                        Screenwriters’ Labs in Mexico, Brazil and Chile.
                                                                                                                                                        Here in the UK, they helped set up a sister
                                                                                                                                                        organisation, Moonstone, which developed Lynne

60                     May 2006
Ramsay's Ratcatcher and recently they founded a                                                                                          have been fortunate to work with artists who
new Lab in Jordan.                                                                                                                       embody the independent spirit and we're grateful
    Sundance actively supports women's and                                                                                               to them for sharing their original stories and
cross-cultural voices that wouldn't normally                                                                                             diverse voices.'
reach the screen but such projects may still                                                                                                 It is impossible to attend the festival and not
experience difficulty in raising finance and                                                                                             fall under the spell of the Sundance spirit and
gaining distribution. Mia Goldman found herself                                                                                          quaint little Park City, an old silver-mining town

                                                                                                               Reservoir Dogs: Miramax
in this position with her hard-hitting Open                                                                                              high in the Utah mountains, knee-deep in snow.
Window. Her mentor, Lawrence Kazdan (Body                                                                                                The cold weather has a wonderful unifying
Heat), warned her that it would be difficult to                                                                                          quality; everyone uses the free shuttle buses to
make as her first film. 'In the end he was right                                                                                         the various venues that are run by the ever-
because it took ten years to get the money.               The execs fly back to LA.                                                      smiling and helpful volunteers. Unlike Cannes,
Companies are simply not willing to take a                                                                                               there's a great lack of pretentiousness. Even A-
chance.'                                                  the creative team that you need to access the                                  list celebrities walk around without make up. It's
    What was the big sell of the festival? Off-the-       market place.'                                                                 hard to be glamorous in a Puffa jacket and
wall comedy Little Miss Sunshine, which sold to               Mia Goldman found this purity in abundance:                                bobble hat. After the first weekend, the execs fly
Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million. Although an            'I think that Sundance has a big heart; they do                                back to LA and the cineastes take over. It's
independent film, the budget was a not-                   everything that they can to help film-making. The                              Christmas for film-makers, complete with fairy
insubstantial $8 million. In his book Down and            process of choice is a difficult one but they have                             lights.
Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind chronicles how, over        such great people here who have a deep passion                                     It seems fitting to end with Sundance's most
the past two decades, the Sundance festival itself        for film. They try hard to be very thorough and                                celebrated fellow, Quentin Tarantino, whose
has become more commercial with companies                 they take their job seriously. On the whole they                               1992 Reservoir Dogs was developed at the
like Miramax using aggressive sales                                                                                                                 Institute and became a worldwide hit.
techniques previously confined to                   'The thing that blew me away                                                                    'The thing that blew me away was that
Hollywood.                                                                                                                                          all these people were here to help us.
    I asked Michelle Satter if she felt that        was that all these people                                                                       All these talented famous people were
this commercialisation in the independent           were here to help us. All                                                                       here, for us. There were all these
sector had influenced the Institute. 'It's                                                                                                          interns, for us. All this money was
great that there is an industry to                  these talented famous people                                                                    being spent, for us. There was this
potentially get involved with these                 were here, for us.' Quentin                                                                     aspect about it. I just couldn't get my
projects but that doesn't affect our                                                                                                                mind around it. It was just so
choices. We don't select a script because           Tarantino                                                                                       philanthropic.'
we believe at that moment that it's going                                                                                                               A trip to the Sundance festival is
to work in the market place. There's real purity in       have resisted the temptation to become more                                    essential for any screenwriter interested in
the workshop.'                                            commercial and I think Redford, in particular,                                 independent film and if you are lucky enough to
    Is it hard to retain that purity? 'Not at all. It's   wants to keep it that way.' Although Mia's last                                be accepted into the Institute, the chance to
something that I bring as the director. We set a          film may struggle in the marketplace, she seems                                develop your script through the Lab is the best
tone for the Lab and we choose projects and               optimistic about her next script - a romance                                   possible launch for your career.
advisors that will focus completely on the telling        involving dog walkers. 'I've actually met an
of a story, the craft of screenwriting … which            investor here and he wants to help me. That's the                                 More information about the Sundance
doesn't mean to say that we're not interested in          amazing thing about Sundance: you never know                                   Institute and film festival can be found at
films being made because so many of our film              who you will bump into.'                                             
projects that start in the Lab are made. But really          'Sundance is about storytelling, said Robert
the starting point is that if you can craft a             Redford in his festival opening speech.
                                                                                                                                          Jak Genie is a screenwriter and script
distinctive story as a script, then you actually          'Storytellers can broaden our minds, engage,                                    consultant for the London Script Consultancy.
have the real possibility of finding resources and        provoke, inspire and ultimately connect us. We

                                                                                      Moonstone International is proud
                                                                                         to be associated with the
                                                                                       Sundance Institute, and wishes
                                                                                      them every success in the future.
                                                                                       For further information visit our
                                                                                       website -

                                                                                                                                                            May 2006                     61

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