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Behind the Scenes at the Sundance Labs 

Building a better screenwriter

Wednesday, May 7 2008

Two days before the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, all is calm and hushed here in Utah. No, really. While Park City prepares to morph from sleepy ski town into hyper Hollywood annex for the world’s most overcrowded film festival, I’m headed up to the peaceful resort that houses Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and plays host every January to eight Fellows, handpicked from a pool of more than 2,000 applicants, for the coveted five-day Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Heavy snow has fallen overnight, and the mountains are breathtaking as my driver — one of those serene originals (she owns an Army and Navy store and collects television remote controls) who materialize out of the hills every year to drive festival poobahs around for the fun of it — pulls up at the resort, pointing out a large yurt for which, she assures me brightly, advance booking is fiercely competitive. Sleepovers with total strangers are not my idea of a good time, so it comes as a relief when we drop my overnight bag in one of the tastefully pine-paneled, diligently eco-friendly cabins and head for a modest wooden building hung with gigantic icicles, just down a slippery slope from Redford’s office.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

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Inside the writers studio: Sundance Lab Fellow Alician Erian works with adviser Susan Shilliday.

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Moon Molson takes notes from adviser Malia Scotch Marmo.

There the quiet ends, and I am hit with the animated chatter of parka-clad Fellows, advisers and staff mingling freely on line for one of the massive buffet lunches that sate appetites spiked by the altitude (6,500 feet) and hours of intense exchange about character, technique and genre. It’s only day two of the January Lab, but anyone who’s been to summer camp could recognize the instant intimacy that springs up in a group of hermetically sealed people rubbing shoulders round the clock in pursuit of the same mission — in this instance, the perfecting of screenplays the Fellows have brought with them. While they are here, each of these writers will have lengthy daily conferences with multiple advisers, most of them Hollywood or independent film heavies. They will be fed and watered by Institute staff — Feature Film Program director Michelle Satter and her associates, and Institute executive director Ken Brecher, who swans around in outsized lime-green glasses, dispensing wit and encouragement. They will screen each other’s short films and watch selected advisers’ movies. (On the bill tonight is Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’sThe Celebration, followed by a Q&A with Vinterberg, who’s advising for the first time.) They will, if they choose to, walk the beautiful trails, ski downhill or cross-country, and wind down very late at the resort bar.

The one thing they will not do in this cocooned Shangri-La is write. Though one or two Fellows tell me they’re itching to get back to work after a conference with an adviser or a conversation with a peer, most appear pleased to get a break from the solitude of writing — including the advisers, who are especially happy to be kept busy during the ongoing WGA strike. Over lunch, Satter and her young lieutenant, Illyse McKimmie, lay out the rationale for the informal no-writing rule. “We want them to stay fluid,” says Satter, a tall, bespectacled blond in her 50s with a low, musical voice and an unflappable manner that she puts down to hiking the mountain trails every morning for an hour before the Lab gears up. The Fellows will all have six meetings with the advisers, who will have read their scripts but not worked on them before they get here. The advisers will talk to them about character, intent, what they think the story really is. “It’s not Screenwriting 101 here,” Satter tells me. “It’s very collegial and all about responding to a particular script. There’s always a Fellow who will say on the first day, ‘Okay, I’ve figured it out.’ By the third day, they [realize they] probably haven’t figured it out, and by the fourth day they’re coming up with other ideas. It’s a very immersive, intensive experience that’s less about the answers than about finding the right questions.”

First thing every morning, the advisers, led by artistic director Scott Frank, who wrote the graceful screenplays for Get Shorty and Out of Sight and has been coming here for 16 years, convene to discuss the ongoing scripts. This is one gathering I’m not invited to, and as a former teacher I think I know why. In part, faculty meetings are for letting off steam; as one adviser tells me, professional writers can get very competitive about capping each other with their gag lines. “The advisers don’t always agree,” says John Lee Hancock, a tall, genial Texan who wrote Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World and directed an ill-fated 2004 remake of The Alamo. “We have a roundtable so that we don’t disagree so vehemently that we tear the screenwriter in half. It’s absolutely organic. It’s not about drawing consensus in the room and then all following that boilerplate idea, as much as it is filling each other in on the progress, talking about the scripts so that once the wounds are open,” he laughs, “the next person can come in and take advantage.”

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