By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Between 40 and 50 percent of the projects that pass through the Lab get made into movies, a remarkable success rate until you consider that that adds up to four out of eight projects per year. “The question is, what happens when the mists come up and you can no longer see the village?” says Howard Rodman. “The Lab is a deliberately insular environment, a bunch of people engaging in these lovely Socratic dialogues about their work. And then they’re thrown back into the same world we all live in.” That goes for the advisers, too, several of whom (including Rodman) have formed a writers’ collaborative rooted in the belief that story notes from peers are more useful than those they get from people paid to develop screenplays. The collaborative is called 1:3:9, after the aspect ratio of the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey,and counts among its members John Lee Hancock, Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and Graham Yost (Speed). Movie stars or A-list directors come to 1:3:9 with material they don’t want to develop with the studios, and the company finds a compatible writer to work on the project, during which time no money changes hands. At the end of the day there’s a script developed by the whole group, somebody is attached who can get it made, and the producer’s fee is split between the group. “We do it as if it were a lab project,” says Rodman.
If Satter’s taste in Lab projects is invigoratingly radical and in Fellows idiosyncratic, her choice of advisers — a coveted job, if that’s what you call work whose only material reward is room and board with a view — is market savvy and streetwise, a judicious blend of Hollywood and indie top-drawer and second-tier. It’s true that there’s a kind of democracy when it comes to getting a foot in Hollywood’s door; everybody struggles at first. But who gets where, and how, is instructive, if unsurprising: Success is overwhelmingly if not exclusively white and male. Scott Frank, who last year directed his first feature, the well-reviewed The Lookout, graduated from the film department at UC Santa Barbara and spent two years “knocking around Los Angeles rewriting my scripts” before his success writing Little Man Tate in 1985 got him an agent and an office on the Paramount lot. Rodman grew up in the business (his father was a television writer whose credits include The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and penned the screenplays for two movies premiering at Sundance this year, Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace and Austin Chick’s August.
When he was a Houston lawyer, Hancock submitted his first, “absolutely horrid” screenplay to Sundance and was accepted to a retreat in Austin, where one of his teachers was then–Sundance Institute artistic director Frank Daniel, a former dean of the American Film Institute and USC Film School who “ripped our scripts apart and left them shredded on the ground.” Hancock then moved to Los Angeles, worked three jobs and ran a theater company, “also known as me writing for my friends and directing them.” He broke into the big time with A Perfect World, during which he took careful notes of Clint Eastwood’s directing and ended up directing The Rookie and The Alamo as well as producing the lovely children’s film My Dog Skip.
When the current Fellows graduate, they will step into a hierarchical business, some of which is reflected in the makeup of the Lab advisers. Talk to Hancock and Frank, both of whom work with the studios, and they may complain a little, but they’ll also tell you that the industryhas plenty of decent people who really want you to succeed. But adviser Rodrigo Garcia, who wrote Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her as a Lab Fellow and has achieved some modest success in independent film,says that, in Hollywood, “you are paid not to be an artist,” and that “you have to fight your feelings when you see the crap that gets overpaid.”
Kasi Lemmons, another adviser, began her career as an actress but found the prospect of a career playing the black best friend “supremely unfulfilling.” She got into the Writers Guild under Bill Cosby’s wing and, with the help of independent producer Caldecot Chubb, wrote and directed her first feature, Eve’s Bayou, in 1997. But after the fleeting 2001 Samuel L. Jackson feature The Caveman’s Valentine, it took six years before Lemmons directed another film, last year’s Talk to Me. “I’m a writer, that’s what I do,” says Lemmons, who’s received credit for only one screenplay (Eve’s Bayou), though she’s written 15. “There have been many, many scripts that I’m in love with, but which have not seen the light of day, or the dark of a theater. And I direct when they let me.”
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