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Redford, one adviser tells me, “willed the festival and the Labs into existence, and when you think of all the things he could have done with his wealth, you have to give him his props.” But the edgy, esoteric taste that has shaped the Labs throughout their 25-year existence belongs to Satter, who oversees both the January and June labs. Together with a small band of associates, Satter has taken an excitingly free interpretation of the Institute’s commitment to that badly abused word “diversity,” and radicalized it even as the broader field of independent film sags beneath its dependence on studio specialty arms. On her watch, even the American regional and/or socially relevant dramas for which Sundance is known have been bracing specimens like Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Half Nelson, Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road.
Among aspiring filmmakers, the Labs are probably most famous for the young Turks whom Satter and her colleagues helped launch into more or less glittering careers — most notably Quentin Tarantino, who left his June Directing Lab early to begin preproduction on Reservoir Dogs; Paul Thomas Anderson, who was recruited after his short film was spotted at the festival and developed Hard Eight at the Lab; and Darren Aronofsky, who went on to make Pi and Requiem for a Dream. At least two of this year’s Fellows — Moon Molson and Daniel Casey, who’s developing an urban drama about his hometown of Detroit — cite Tarantino as an influence, though both are adamant that their movies will take a more humanistic approach to character.
Taranteenies notwithstanding, if you run down the list of past and present Fellows, it looks diligently but idiosyncratically varied. African-American writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Love and Basketball was nurtured at the Lab. Native American writer Sherman Alexie honed Smoke Signals there, and this year there’s a black comedy by Canadian-Indian Darrell Dennis, based on his one-man show. Cockeyed is Vancouver writer Ryan Knighton’s “irreverent memoir” of going blind as a boy. John Magary has a script about the post-Katrina tribulations of a New Orleans woman. Women writers and directors are disproportionately represented among both Fellows and advisers compared to their presence in the industry at large. Hadar Friedlich, a shy, introspective Israeli whose sensitive short films — one about an Orthodox Jewish girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the other about a cabbie stunned by grief for his dead son — screened during my stay and who’s still not sure whether she wants to end up a filmmaker or a writer of fiction, is working on a drama about a woman forced into retirement by the privatization of her kibbutz. Alicia Erian, a 40-year-old Arab-American writer whose novel Towelhead has been turned into a film directed by Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball, says she got “stellar” notes from adviser and Coal Miner’s Daughter writer Tom Rickman on her script about the relationship between an American and a Salvadoran immigrant. And Liza Johnson, a 37-year-old video artist who got an invitation from Satter for her script about a woman soldier returning from Iraq to her decaying steel town, says the Lab has helped her develop a tighter structure and a fuller back story for her lead character.
“We try for the broadest definition of diversity,” Satter says. “We wouldn’t select something just because it was written by a woman. But yes, we’re going to work harder to identify some really interesting women filmmakers.” Indeed, there’s not a traditional chick flick to be found among the female-written and directed movies that began life at the Lab. Allison Anders, Kimberly Peirce, Miranda July, Andrea Arnold and Nicole Holofcener — not an earth mother among them — all began or jump-started their careers there. Satter could probably wallpaper her home with the “special thanks” she’s received on the credits of movies by Lab alumni, but it’s the women who are particularly effusive about the way she follows through on their behalf. Anders, who gave her a “Guardian Angel” credit on Mi Vida Loca, tells me that Satter introduced her to Colin Callender, who financed the film for HBO and awarded the filmmakers a camera package. When Anders was having trouble in postproduction, Satter brought back some Sundance advisers to see the cut and found her a postproduction mentor. Holofcener, who after several rejected submissions was admitted to the same session as Anders with the script for her debut feature, Walking and Talking, describes the Lab as “a blast and a great place to make stupid mistakes, because the advisers were all so focused on the process and less on the result.”
Tamara Jenkins, writer-director of the Oscar-nominated 2007 movie The Savages, workshopped her autobiographical first feature, Slums of Beverly Hills, at the Lab. In reply to my query, she sends excerpts from a speech she gave when Women in Film honored Satter with a Leadership award last year: “Michelle shows up at a critical time in a fledgling filmmaker’s life — a stage in their careers when they are often described as ‘emerging’ or more simply put — unemployed. Twelve years ago, I was living in a fifth-floor walk-up on Avenue B, and I was going through a particularly bleak period. I had just suffered the indignities of a very unpleasant breakup. I was broke. I had no health insurance. I had a few short films under my belt and a half-written screenplay sitting in my computer that I was unable to finish. I was officially ‘emerging.’ Then I got the call on my answering machine, a gentle voice wafting through my otherwise stagnant apartment. The idea that someone out there was interested in what I was working on was astonishing and terrifying and kind of thrilling, because as all fledgling filmmakers know, getting the call from Michelle means that you might get invited to the Writers Lab or the Directors Lab or you might hit the jackpot and get invited toboth! You will be flown to far off Utah, where you will workshop your screenplay in a freakishly supportive environment — the likes of which you will never see again. Think of it as a sort of fresh-air fund for filmmakers.”
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