By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
Though the Lab has had its share of top women scribes as advisers — among them Leslie Dixon (Freaky Friday, Hairspray), Betsy Johnson (Seven Years in Tibet), Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center) and Susan Shilliday(Legends of the Fall, but better known as a writer on thirtysomething) — most are writers rather than hyphenates. “I have a little Fellow envy,” says Lemmons over lunch with me and Frank, “because I have a script that would be perfect for the Lab, and I really need help with it.” She takes a sly jab at Frank for being “too busy” to look at a script she sent him years ago, which Frank takes in stride, calling himself “lucky” for having 10 out of 12 screenplays turned into movies. Still, he’s pragmatic about the power of connections.
“There are different ways you can connect with people in the business, and if you don’t know anybody, there’s a good chance that you’re going to connect with idiots,” says Frank. “You can write a funny story about how nobody paid any attention to you and your script didn’t happen. But if you write a really good script and meet one of the few gifted producers who really cares — a Scott Rudin, a Walter Parkes, a Stacey Sher or a Lindsay Doran — then it’s going to be hard to write that funny piece. If you got rejected by those people, the chances are you’re not very good.”
The Lab’s bottom line is to help Fellows get good, and having a project worth writing is something that’s drilled into them at the daily afternoon meetings that everyone attends, and which I am able to glimpse for a few minutes before I leave the Institute. Many of the advisers have also taught in film schools, where, says Frank, “teaching writing is teaching how to pitch and sell, how to write studio movies. The students are not actually learning who they are, what questions they’re going to ask. They’ve got to be able to reference other kinds of art to find their own voices. What’s good about this place is that the film can be barely in focus, but if it’s got a powerful story and characters, that means something.”
Dan Casey, a gangly fledgling writer-director with a newly hatched air and an unusually mature sense of purpose, may not have the hip cachet of the international Fellows or those who come from theater or visual arts. But in many ways, he’s the ideal Sundance Fellow, a self-starter who’s also eager to learn. He’s a movie geek who made a “stop-motion animation with turtles” with a video camera when he was 5 years old and at 12 was filming his own stories, using neighborhood kids as actors. In his teens, he made horror movies. Reservoir Dogs changed his life, but so did The Thin Red Line. After his crime drama The Death of Michael Smith (budget: $500) won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance last year, Casey, who’s now all of 25, got himself an agent and a manager; went to a Writers Guild function with the specific purpose of chasing down Satter; and applied to the Lab by general submission after soliciting recommendation letters from everyone he knew who might know someone at the Institute. “I wanted to be in the Sundance Lab more than I wanted a feature,” he tells me. “If you go here, the prestige is so substantial that you don’t run as much of a risk of having your subject matter altered. That, for me, was extremely exciting. The best filmmakers of the last 20 years have come out of the Sundance Lab.”
Casey’s project, Poletown, set in the decaying working-class community of Detroit where he grew up, boasts a dead body and a race-fueled drug war, but it’s the characters and their interpersonal dramas that he focuses on at the Lab. “What I think this Lab has been great with is forcing me to lean on personal aspects of the script,” he says. “My mentors, Michael Goldenberg and Scott Frank, told me that there are points in the script where they can tell that what’s happening is pulled from my own experience, things that I saw when I was living there. Then there are other points where everything becomes familiar and derivative. You need to walk that line and speak in an articulate voice that’s grounded within you. I had a teacher tell me once that the artistic process is finding a way of taking that mold that’s in the back of your mouth, that you’re ashamed of, that’s all hairy and ugly, and showing it to the world.”
Going through the directing program at AFI, where “they would stand students up in front of the rest of the student body and practically paddle them,” was a useful prior ordeal by fire for Casey. Frank Pierson, who teaches at AFI and also mentors at the Lab, told him that, at the latter, “the mentors will read a script and everyone will agree what the problems are, but no one will have remotely similar ideas about how to fix them.” The beauty of that, Pierson said, “is that it shows you that there is a kind of scientific process about screenwriting. But the fact that no one can agree about the solution shows that it’s an art.”
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