By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Of the Lab, Jenkins says she learned more there in four weeks than she did in three years of graduate school. Of Satter herself, she writes, “Michelle works in mysterious ways: She is a coach. A film lover. An arts educator. An architect. A nurturer of neurotics. A producer. An enabler. A reader. A critic. A fan. A guidance counselor. A rare and generous person in a business that isn’t famous for its generosity. When the business aspects of the film business threaten the work itself, when I feel worn out and too tired and about to surrender — when I think maybe it’s not worth the fight, maybe no one cares, they’re just movies — I remember that Michelle Satter is out there, sitting in the dark watching movies, and she cares.”
Doubtless Satter’s catholic tastes were shaped in Boston, where she did public relations and marketing for the Institute of Contemporary Art and produced performing-arts events before joining the Sundance Institute and founding the Labs in 1981. In addition to the open submissions it receives, the Institute also does a colossal amount of outreach that includes gathering input from Lab staff and alumni, advisers, film schools, festival programmers and industry contacts. Staff watch a lot of short films to find first-time filmmakers. “And then we do a lot of script reading,” says Satter. “Six of us full-time plus other readers who help us prioritize.” All this searching widens the field for serendipity and the seeding of relationships that may or may not bring fruit. The writer and performance artist Miranda July was recommended by a producer, setting in motion a relationship with the Institute that resulted in her Sundance and Cannes prize-winning film Me and You and Everyone We Know. A Lab associate saw John Cameron Mitchell’s off-Broadway Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Satter pursued him.
“It was flattering that Sundance was interested,” Mitchell tells me by phone from New York. “The play was popular, and they knew that we already had offers to make a film and were negotiating with New Line. I had no script, nothing but the play when I went to the January Lab.” For Mitchell, the January Lab was a mixed bag. At first, the presence of mentors from major studios unnerved him. “I thought, all these people are from Hollywood, but where are our Todd Haynes?” he says. But he ended up getting great notes from, of all people, Larry Konner, a Hollywood heavy hitter who plows back his profits into political documentaries. “The Lab is not always a perfect match of taste between the writer and the adviser,” Mitchell says, “especially when the writer is experimental. Getting notes on Hedwig from Robert Redford was bizarre, but it was helpful in that if I could make him understand what it was. ...”
This year’s Lab, too, has its share of projects that originated outside the film world. The Henchman, a tale of the difficult relationship between a small-town meat slaughterer and his son, is written by Patrick Vala-Haynes, a former stage-combat choreographer and essayist who owns an Oregon bike shop. Imagine, if you can, the pitch meeting for that, or for the project that’s on everybody’s lips at the Lab — Shockheaded Peter, a surreal stage show from London’s West End based on Heinrich Hoffman’s 19th-century nursery rhymes, which Satter saw performed at UCLA. Another Lab associate had met Frank Budgen, a British director of wickedly inventive commercials that screened at the Lab during my visit, who as a result of Satter’s matchmaking is now attached to write and direct the film version. “Sometimes the advisers grumble, ‘Can’t you bring us better writers?’” says adviser and former artistic director Howard Rodman, who recently stepped down as head of the screenwriting program at USC. “The answer is always that this is an interesting project.”
If there’s one crucial way in which Satter has nudged the Labs into the future, it’s in her increasingly global focus, which has seen advisers sent to a similar outfit in Jordan and has helped to launch indigenous Labs in Mexico, Brazil, France, the U.K., Central Europe and Chile. Satter’s growing interest in the cinemas of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East is reflected in the presence among this year’s Fellows of Liu Hao, a writer-director whose second feature played at Cannes in 2005 and who has a short film in a Chinese omnibus mobile-phone project. Liu speaks little English and works through an interpreter on his script about a romance that develops between two rural octogenarians suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Together with co-writer Karen Sztajnberg, Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa is working on a drama about Brazil’s skin-color-based educational quotas. Meanwhile, Samba Do Mazooz has a comedy about the encounter between a Brazil-obsessed Moroccan provincial and a visiting imam preaching conservative Islam. Occasionally, the international mix creates potentially hairy situations: Israeli filmmaker Dror Shaul (Sweet Mud) and Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), together at the Lab during a particularly inflamed period of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, started out uneasy and mistrustful of each other. By the end, the two had generated an idea for a joint project, with Redford’s personal support. Now they appear together in ads for peace — and Kenneth Cole jeans.
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